Back To The Future For Asylum Seekers


After days of violent protests at Sydney’s Villawood Detention Centre, the Gillard Government has announced a tough new character test that will — you guessed it — "send a message" to asylum seekers. Also back are temporary protection visas, one of the symbols of John Howard’s immigration regime that Labor railed against in opposition — although of course they’ll have different names. Immigration Minister Chris Bowen has foreshadowed a range of different options available to him in existing legislation, including the Removal Pending Bridging Visa and the Safe Haven Visa.

As Paul Kelly writes in The Australian today, Labor’s asylum seeker policy is now "completely hostage to events".

Immigration policy has been a slow-moving train wreck for Labor since it took office on pledges to make Australia’s immigration system more humane. The politics of the issue are awful for a progressive party — particularly one that finds itself fundamentally unable to hold firm on issues of principle. Confronted by a rise in seaborne asylum seekers, the government’s response was for a long time simply to pray that the boats wouldn’t come. When that didn’t work, the Government tried racing the Opposition to the bottom, announcing a series of punitive and pointless policy changes such as attempting to set up a regional processing centre in East Timor, and halting asylum seeker processing altogether for Sri Lankans and Afghanis.

Those changes had a disastrous effect on processing times, blowing out the time it took to make a decision on seaborne asylum seekers and therefore contributing to the overcrowding in the troubled immigration detention system. Meanwhile, asylum seekers continued to arrive, guaranteeing the Opposition favourable media coverage and exacerbating the overcrowding.

Predictably, the powderkegs inside our immigration detention centres exploded, and detainees rioted first at Christmas Island and now at Villawood.

Chris Bowen claims that the new visa and the changes to the character test "will remove any doubt around the character test and send a strong and clear message that the kind of unacceptable behaviour we saw recently at the Christmas Island and Villawood detention centres will not be tolerated." 

It’s hard to credit this, though, given that asylum seekers now locked up inside the detention centres are scarcely making rational decisions. The theory of deterrence has precious little evidence going for it in terms of criminal sanctions anyway. Nor do tough jail terms deter riots in prisons. And these new measures will make no difference to overcrowding.

Some refugee activists and commentators, such as Greg Barns, argue that the action of rioters are understandable. They are being incarcerated in inhumane, overcrowded conditions, despite a legal right to claim asylum in this country. "We can better understand too the Villawood violence in the context of it being a response to state sanctioned violence," Barns writes.

Then there’s the issue of natural justice. So far, no one at Villawood has been charged with any crime in relation to the riots. This hasn’t stopped some detainees being moved into the maximum security division of New South Wales’ Silverwater prison. Australia is now jailing people without charge — and not only that, the new changes will be backdated to ensure that if anyone is eventually charged over the Villawood riots, they will be able to be deported. Once again, Labor’s desperate need to appear tough on border protection has led to the erosion of the moral integrity of our justice system.

These new punishments will not make any difference to Labor’s political standing. The Opposition is predictably arguing that this is simply more evidence of the failure of Labor’s policies. Politically, the Government can’t win a race to the bottom on immigration policy. Sadly, it remains determined to try.

With each passing week, it’s getting more and more difficult to find anything to like about this Labor government. Voters are certainly struggling. The polls are dismal.

It’s not just the ongoing battles with seemingly every powerful lobby group in the country, or the murky machinations of its factional power-brokers. The problems run deeper. Labor’s moral and political capital is eroding rapidly, and in ways that can only hurt the Government. The treatment of asylum seekers is one example and the ongoing saga of climate policy is another. Labor spent most of its first term fashioning the fiendishly complicated Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, only for Kevin Rudd to abandon it with scarcely more than a whimper. Julia Gillard went to the election promising she wouldn’t introduce a carbon tax, then promptly reversed herself after scraping back into power. Now Greg Combet is in charge of a new carbon scheme that looks more and more like the old one every day.

Meanwhile, the crisis in our immigration detention system continues. There is a hunger strike still going on at the Curtin detention centre and, at publication, there were protesters still on the roof at Villawood.


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Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.