In the past 30 years Australia has crafted an almost uniquely cruel asylum seeker policy. Our only competitor is the proudly illiberal Hungary. When Malcolm Turnbull outlined our current policy to Donald Trump in their notorious telephone conversation, the US president was mightily impressed. “You are worse than I am.” No more evidence about the character of Australia’s asylum seeker policy is required.
I wear two hats and have done so since the mid-1980s, one as a social scientist cum political historian, the other as what is almost universally now called a public intellectual. As a social scientist, I have attempted to explain Australia’s remorselessly cruel asylum seeker policy. Here’s a concise summary.
Australia’s recent mistreatment of asylum seekers is in part explained by one historical dimension of the immigration department’s so-called “culture of control”, not the racism embedded in the White Australia policy but its absolutist ambition –the almost century-long determination that not even one migrant with coloured skin be admitted to this country. This absolutism has been transferred seamlessly to asylum seekers. In the past, Australians aspired to keeping out all non-Europeans. In the present, we have developed a set of policies to ensure that not even one asylum seeker boat reaches our shores. Hence the high nationwide drama that has surrounded the recent arrival near Daintree of one small boat of Vietnamese asylum seekers.
Domestic politics has played its part. In the months before the 2001 federal election, John Howard used the issue of boat arrivals to characterise Labor as weak on border security even though Kim Beazley had supported almost every aspect of Howard’s radical new policy of offshore processing on Nauru and Manus Island. In almost every federal election since then (2007 was the exception) the Coalition has given prominence to the claim that Labor cannot be trusted on asylum seekers. It will do so once more in 2018 or 2019. To discredit this accusation, in mid-July 2013 the restored prime minister Kevin Rudd promised that under his government no refugee transported to Nauru and Manus Island would ever be allowed to settle in Australia. Once elected, the Coalition converted Rudd’s promise into settled policy. In our domestic politics, the curse of Howard was complemented by the curse of Rudd.
Australia’s ambition to be boat asylum seeker-free was pursued by four principal deterrence measures – mandatory and indefinite detention; temporary visas only for those judged to be refugees; offshore processing; naval interception of asylum seeker boats and turnback wherever possible to the country of embarkation. The complete success of offshore processing and naval turnback rendered the earlier harsh policies of indefinite mandatory detention and precarious lifetime-long temporary visas redundant. And yet, although they were making life for tens of thousands of already traumatised refugees intensely painful, the regime of mandatory detention and temporary visas was maintained and even strengthened for no reason.
“Automaticity” – a key concept in Vaclav Havel’s great essay The Power of the Powerless – best explains the nature and trajectory of policy regarding those boat refugees who arrived before our borders were sealed tight. In this policy, the relation of one deterrent measure to another and the relation of means to ends had been forgotten. Automaticity played its part in ensuring that the policy towards those who had reached our shore before mid-2013 became one of purposeless cruelty.
For this purposeless cruelty there is an additional explanation. Ministers, public servants and defence officials were by 2013 genuinely unsettled by the pace of asylum seeker boat arrivals. Twenty-five thousand had arrived in one year; more than 4,000 in one month, July 2013. As a consequence, a curious mindset captured “Canberra”, best characterised by the concept first used to explain the failure of the United States Cuba policy – groupthink. “Canberra” had come to believe, or at least to claim, that even the smallest act of human kindness would threaten the deterrent policy, put the people smugglers back in business, and see an armada of asylum seeker boats set sail for Australia.
Those captured by this groupthink were immune to the evidence arriving from the real world. In late 2016 Malcolm Turnbull announced that the United States had accepted the idea of settling up to 1,250 refugees from Nauru and Manus Island. To intercept the anticipated armada of asylum seeker boats, the largest surveillance and response fleet in Australian history was mounted in the Indian Ocean. Not even one asylum seeker boat set sail. And yet, “Canberra” still believed or claimed to believe that removing even one brick from the formidable deterrent policy structure – like allowing those who had been brought to Australia from Nauru or Manus Island for medical reasons to stay, or accepting New Zealand’s offer of 150 settlement places – would bring the whole building down.
As time passed, it has become evident that the people on Nauru and Manus Island – too fearful to return to the countries from which they had fled, sheltering in huts or tents against ferocious heat – have been stripped bare of dignity and of hope, and were being therefore remorselessly and systematically destroyed. The destruction of these people in both body and spirit is no secret. The files of the company in charge of the Nauru inmates have been leaked and published by Guardian Australia. The Kurdish writer, Behrouz Boochani, has recently published No Friend but the Mountains, a dark masterpiece on the conditions on Manus Island. There have been reports that many of the children on Nauru are suffering from a rare psychological condition, withdrawal from the world, barely talking, eating and drinking with indifference, sometimes urinating and defecating in their beds. And yet, nothing changes. “Canberra”, the commercial media and majority public opinion is unmoved.
The most perceptive description and explanation of this kind of indifference to evildoing that I have encountered is in Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem – her account of how an unexceptional individual like Adolf Eichmann, while working as a middle level official in that section of the SS charged with organising the extermination of the Jewish people, and moving in a social world where his superiors thought of the extermination of the Jews as a perfectly reasonable and even praiseworthy bureaucratic task, could not see in the deepest sense what it was that he was doing. Arendt calls this kind of moral blindness the banality of evil.
Even when it is reported that a 12-year-old girl on Nauru threatened to set herself alight we barely notice
The idea of the banality of evil can help us understand matters incomparably smaller than the Holocaust. Australian ministers, public servants, defence force and intelligence officers, the country’s commercial media and also, in a majority, the Australian people, cannot see what it is that we are doing. Even when it is reported that a 12-year-old girl on Nauru doused herself in petrol and threatened to set herself alight we barely notice. Perhaps one day our eyes will open. By then, unfortunately, for the marooned on Nauru and Manus Island, it will most likely be too late.
So much for my thinking as a social scientist. What about my identity as a so-called public intellectual? Intellectuals in my mind are the scholars and scientists who, in addition to their scholarly or scientific work, aspire to affect the political or ethical trajectory of their country, or on occasion the world, by use of the written or spoken word.
In the face of the barbarity of Nauru and Manus Island, I have come to believe that my responsibility as a public intellectual extends beyond the analysis of why things have turned out the way they have or to expressions of outrage, to the search for an argument that might convince “Canberra” – the political, public service and defence elites – to bring to Australia the refugees and asylum seekers who have already been on Nauru and Manus Island for five years. In my view that involves finding and repeating again and again, in the company of others, an argument powerful, practical and watertight enough to open eyes in the Arendtian sense and to overturn “Canberra’s” current boat refugee groupthink.
The search for such an argument must begin with an accurate understanding of the principal roadblock, the “Canberra” mindset. Here is my version of what “Canberra” currently believes. Between 1999 and 2001 a significant number of asylum seeker boats from Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan reached Australia. The two deterrent policies mounted – mandatory detention and temporary protection – failed to stop the boats. As a consequence, the Howard government in September 2001 introduced two additional deterrents, offshore processing and naval interception of asylum seeker boats and turnback. The deterrent system now “worked”. Between 1999 and 2001, 12,000 asylum seekers arrived by boat; between 2002 and mid-2008, approximately 300. If there was any remaining uncertainty about cause and effect regarding asylum seeker boat arrivals, according to “Canberra”, it was settled by experience during the governments of Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. From mid-2007 to mid-2008, with the Howard policies still in place, 25 asylum seekers arrived by boat; in 2008-2009 the number had reached 1,000; in 2009-2010, 5,300; and in 2012-2013, 25,000. If the trajectory continued, and there was no reason to believe it would not, it was possible that 50,000 asylum seekers would arrive by boat in a single year.
According to the “Canberra” mindset, the principal reason that so many asylum seekers bought a passage to Australia from a people smuggler between 2009 and 2013 was straightforward: Rudd’s removal of the two successful Howard deterrent measures – offshore processing and turnback. Under Gillard and Rudd’s short second government, offshore processing was restored in stages. In one particular, as pointed out earlier, Rudd went even further than Howard in his pledge that no asylum seeker on Nauru and Manus Island would ever be settled in Australia. During Rudd’s second government, boat numbers slowed. Tony Abbott embraced Rudd’s pledge and restored naval turnback. The boat arrivals stopped. “Canberra” was by now convinced that if the policies of offshore processing and naval turnback were once again abandoned, or even if the refugees on Nauru and Manus Island were brought to Australia, a signal would reach the people smugglers and an armada of asylum seeker boats would set sail.
By now “Canberra” had even somehow managed to claim the moral high ground. The passage from Indonesia to Christmas Island or Ashmore Reef was perilous. On that passage more than 1,000 asylum seekers had drowned. Stopping the boats had therefore saved countless lives. If the refugees and asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island are to be saved, it is this “Canberra” mindset that asylum seeker advocates must overcome.
“Canberra” has faced powerful, prolonged and heartfelt opposition on the question of Nauru and Manus Island – from the Greens, from organisations like GetUp, from refugee support groups, from leading lawyers, doctors, journalists, members of the academic and artistic worlds, ministers of religion and from a solid minority of public opinion. For the purposes of this article I will call this group “the opposition”. The argument of “the opposition” has been both moral and legal.
From the moral point of view, it claims that the destruction of innocent people by prolonged and indefinite detention in a situation without dignity or hope is wicked and unconscionable. From the legal point of view, it claims that naval interception and turnback to Indonesia, the country of embarkation, and summary processing at sea followed by turnback to country of claimed persecution, predominantly Sri Lanka or Vietnam, are in clear contravention of international law, most importantly the refugee convention.
The ambition of “the opposition” is captured in two slogans – “Let Them Stay” and “Bring Them Here”. The first demands that the by-now approximately 400 people brought here for medical reasons and their family members be allowed to stay permanently. The second demands that all proven refugees, and usually in addition, all asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island, even those found not to be genuine refugees, be brought to Australia without delay. In general, “the opposition” ignores the arguments of “Canberra”. Insofar as it does respond, “the opposition” claims, untruthfully, that there is no evidence that the deterrent policies of offshore processing and naval turnback did in fact stop the boats. It attributes the pauses in the arrival of boats – 2002 to 2008 and then 2014 to 2018 – to the global situation, the supposed ebb and flow of refugee movement. And it claims that “Canberra’s” attempt to take the moral high ground, by pointing to the deaths by drowning, is entirely opportunistic and hypocritical.
For many years the argument between “Canberra” and “the opposition” has been gridlocked. The reason is that the principal claims of both “Canberra” and “the opposition” are true. It is true, as “Canberra” claims, that the harsh deterrent policies, pioneered by the Howard government and then reintroduced in stages by the governments of Gillard, Rudd and Abbott, did succeed in stopping the boats. And it is true, as “the opposition” claims, that the slow destruction of 2000 innocent human beings who had the misfortune of arriving on Australian shores not before but after 19 July 2013 is evil.
We come now to the question of responsibility. Having written regularly on refugee matters since the 1970s and on the particular question of the boat arrivals from Central Asia and the Middle East since 1999, I was once a member of “the opposition”. I broke ranks, however, for two reasons. The first is easily explained. After 2002, “the opposition” was in general unwilling to face up to the unpleasant fact that the harsh Howard government policies had indeed virtually stopped the boats. For this dishonesty, which helps explain the Rudd government’s miscalculation in dismantling the effective Howard government’s deterrents, there would be a heavy price to pay.
The second reason is more important and will take a little longer to explain. In general, the claims made by the “the opposition” are moral and legal. They overlook a third dimension – the political. From the political point of view certain things are stubbornly self-evident. It is clear that decisions about the fate of the people on Nauru and Manus Island will be taken by the Australian government. It is clear that this government will be formed by either the Coalition or by Labor. And it is clear that neither a Coalition nor Labor government will return to the policy position the Rudd government took in mid-2008 – the abandonment of offshore processing and naval interception and turnback – for the simple reason, as “Canberra” understands, and “Canberra” here includes Labor, that these policies were responsible for the arrival by boat of 50,000 asylum seekers in the space of four years and for approximately one thousand deaths by drowning at sea.
By ignoring the political dimension, the stale truism that politics is the art of the possible, “the opposition” has failed even to search for a politically feasible solution to the tragedy of the people who have been marooned on Nauru and Manus Island for the past five years or more. On the question of greatest importance and urgency – how might an Australian government be convinced to bring the refugees and asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island to Australia? – “the opposition”, as I have discovered in public argument, has nothing to say. Even if the US honours Barack Obama’s offer of 1,250 settlement places, at the present pace it will take until 2023 before the promise is fulfilled. And there will still be hundreds of refugees and asylum seekers who will by then have spent 10 years in hell.
The political dimension of the problem, in one aspect, is unusual. In most cases the long-term ambitions of those calling for change are consistent with short-term demands. Take the case of climate change policy, another contemporary issue dividing “Canberra” from an “opposition”. The long-term maximal ambition of the opposition here is the end of coalmining in Australia. The short-term minimal goal is to prevent the Adani coalmining project on Cape York from proceeding. Here the argument for the maximal position is consistent with the minimal demand. With the refugees on Nauru and Manus Island this is not the case. Here the maximal demand – the end of an asylum seeker regime held together by offshore processing and naval turnback – weakens the chance that the pressing short-term demands (“bring them here” and “let them stay”) will succeed. So long as “Canberra” sincerely believes or can plausibly claim that bringing the refugees and asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island to Australia and allowing those already here to stay involves a return to the situation Rudd introduced in 2008, the status quo – the slow destruction in body and spirit of 2000 innocent human beings – will be maintained.
Tim Costello, Frank Brennan, John Menadue and I have been arguing for the past two years that a politically feasible solution does exist. The solution has several elements. Allowing the people from Nauru and Manus Island in Australia for medical reasons to stay here and providing them with suitable visas. Accepting without delay the New Zealand offer of 150 settlement places. Gradually bringing all the refugees and asylum seekers from Nauru and Manus Island to Australia. And maintaining the policy of naval turnback and interception. Until assured that no armada of asylum seeker boats will set sail, which is the prevailing “Canberra” nightmare, as an insurance policy the Indian Ocean surveillance fleet can not only be retained but can even be strengthened as was done at the time of the announcement of the Turnbull-Obama deal. And, in addition, the offshore processing facilities on Nauru need not be closed but only mothballed.
Both the evidence from recent history and the application of reason suggests that with a policy of this kind there is no chance of a return to the open border situation between 2008 and 2013. Between 2005 and 2007 the Howard government brought hundreds of refugees and asylum seekers from Nauru and Manus Island to Australia. This did not see the return of the asylum seeker boats. In late 2016, as already observed, the Turnbull government announced a deal for 1,250 refugees presently on Nauru and Manus Island to be settled in the US. This too did not see the return of the asylum seeker boats. Nor is it even remotely likely that there will be an upsurge of asylum seeker boats if the solution Costello, Brennan, Menadue and I have suggested is implemented.
Under our proposed solution, what the people smugglers have to offer their potential clients can be summarised like this. Clients will be required to pay several thousand dollars for a passage on an unseaworthy fishing vessel on which there is a high statistical possibility that the asylum seeker and, if they are not alone, members of their family will drown. If the boat proves seaworthy, there is an almost 100% chance that the boat will be intercepted by the Australian navy. In this case they will most likely be returned to the point of embarkation or, if that proves impossible, to indefinite detention inside an offshore processing facility on Nauru. To put it mildly, this is not an attractive business proposition.
If I can be permitted in conclusion to speak personally, I have found it painful to advocate a solution which so conspicuously involves vacating the moral high ground. I have vacated it however as I can think of no other solution that might bring to an end what I regard as the most terrible act to have been perpetrated by the Australian state during the course of my lifetime. It is interesting to me that our proposal, publicised in several articles in Fairfax Media and Guardian Australia, has so far at least gathered little support, except for the occasional admission, almost whispered in secret: “Actually, I agree with you.”
Why? NGOs with international connections understandably fear losing face with their colleagues from other countries who would find it extremely difficult to understand the toxic local political situation. The Greens have nothing to gain and much to lose if they supported a solution of this kind; angry friends of asylum seekers form one of their most important constituencies. Even if leading members of the federal parliamentary Labor party found such a solution attractive, if they breathed even a word of support for something like this the Coalition would pounce. Nor would it tempt the leaders of the current threadbare Coalition.
The Howard curse of 2001 – we are the tough guys on border security; Labor is weak –has served them handsomely. Having stopped the boats is almost the only policy success that the Coalition can brag about in the next federal election campaign. And as for the members of my peer group, the wordsmiths, the public intellectuals, we prefer something more inspiring and high-minded than messy compromises of the kind I have championed in this piece.
Robert Manne is Emeritus Professor of Politics and Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow at La Trobe University.
This article was prepared for a meeting of The Council for the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences as part of Australia’s inaugural Social Sciences Week