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Issue #1519      21 September 2011

Battle over asylum seekers ignores mounting opposition

The future of asylum seekers, the people who come to Australia seeking our protection and a peaceful future, is at stake in the current cynical and opportunistic struggle over immigration policy being waged by the Gillard government and the federal opposition.

Two weeks ago the High Court of Australia found that the government’s proposal to send asylum seekers to detention in Malaysia was not consistent with the current wording of the federal Migration Act.

The government now intends to revise the Act, to allow the Minister for Immigration to nominate any country he or she chooses as suitable for the off-shore detention of asylum seekers, including unaccompanied children. The government is still intent on deporting asylum seekers to Malaysia, by force if necessary, or to the reopened detention centre in Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island.

In response, the leader of the federal opposition, Tony Abbott, is threatening to reject the government’s new legislation on the perfectly legitimate grounds that Malaysia is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention. Abbott favours reopening the detention centre in Nauru, which is about to sign the Convention, but has expressed misgivings about reopening the Manus Island centre because Papua New Guinea has failed to fully implement the Convention.

The opposition proposes to move an amendment to the government’s revised Immigration Act, so that only those nations that have signed the Convention can be approved as destinations for detention, or else to simply oppose the revision altogether, with the support of the Greens and independents.

However, Abbotts’s real concern is not the preservation of human rights. As a rising federal MP, he fully supported the “Pacific Solution” policy of the former Howard government under which asylum seekers were detained in Nauru, which had not signed the Convention. Last week human rights advocate Julian Burnside described him as “a hypocrite of Olympian proportions”.

Abbott’s real commitment is to serve the interests of big capital in Australia. That includes protecting them from any inroads (no matter how meagre) into their profit levels because of government legislation such as the mining and carbon taxes. However, to do that the conservative coalition must take government at the federal level.

The Liberals could back down and pass the government’s revised immigration bill. But the government’s rigid commitment to the Malaysian plan has given the Liberals a God-sent opportunity to reject the revised immigration bill on humanitarian grounds. This would force the government to reintroduce the Pacific solution, call a double dissolution of federal parliament, or revert to on-shore processing.

An early election would suit the Liberals, who believe they would romp into government because of the disastrous unpopularity of the Gillard government.

Rebellion in the ranks

While the leaderships of the Liberal and Labor Parties both continue their single-minded commitment to offshore processing there is the growing opposition to the policy, including from within their own ranks.

Labor left-wing MPs have stiffened their resistance to off-shore processing. Right-wing Labor MP John Murphy has openly declared that the government should process asylum seeker applications on shore, and has bluntly reminded the Cabinet that this policy is actually endorsed as part of the Labor Party platform.

Former Liberal MP Petro Georgiou recently wrote: “Who could have imagined that the Prime Minister would end up defending the Malaysia solution on the grounds that it was tougher than the Nauru solution, which she condemned as being wrong?”

Last week Former Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser declared: “If the government has the wit to see it, this High Court case would give it the opportunity to re-establish Australia’s humanitarian program on a sound basis with on-shore processing … and to end the demeaning debate that has created a toxic atmosphere between our political parties, a debate which has been watched overseas and which has affected our reputation in serious ways. While these issues would not have been part of the High Court’s consideration, they do provide an opportunity for Australia to recapture the high ground.”

A moment of truth

The leaderships of the Labor and Liberal parties are facing other problems regarding immigration policy. In the wake of the High Court decision refugee advocates have been investigating the possibility of suing the Commonwealth for damages on behalf of asylum seekers previously detained on Nauru under the Howard regime, including the families of those who were deported back to Afghanistan and died there.

Regarding the severe psychological problems experienced by many of the Nauru detainees, Petro Georgiou commented: “Eventually, despite all the threats that no one sent to Nauru would reach our shores, 60 percent of those who were resettled were brought to Australia. Overwhelmingly, they were brought here by the Howard government – as people tragically damaged by their detention”.

Moreover, opinion polling has indicated that about 54 percent of Australians now consider that off-shore processing should be dropped. In another poll, 78 percent of respondents described the government’s handling of asylum seeker issues as bad. A declaration from 200 charities, welfare groups and other organisations has been published nationally, stating their opposition to the policy.

Nevertheless, driven by their obsessive competition over the “best” off-shore destination for processing asylum seeker applications, both the government and the opposition are moving further and further away from a principled policy position, and from the support of the public and their own members.

The Greens and Independents are also taking a strong stand against off-shore processing of asylum seekers.

Petro Georgiou has warned the government: “Implementing off-shore processing will stretch caucus unity to the utmost and drive more Labor votes to the Greens.”

As The Guardian goes to press, no one knows how the government and opposition’s cat and mouse game will play out. But what is certain is that Georgiou’s warning applies to both parties. If they stick rigidly to their positions, the movement of voters towards parties that have more humane principles will gather pace and become a flood.  

Next article – Union revival at Rio’s Pilbara mines

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