How Bowen Lied About Malaysia


There are many ways to lie in politics. Politicians can lie directly, by saying something that is untrue. Lies can also be indirect, through omissions, ambiguity, false implication, or by failure to set the record straight when it is necessary to do so. Some may prefer different terms: "misrepresentation", "deceitfulness", "manipulation". Whatever the label, all these acts are morally equivalent. In direct and indirect lies alike, a politician could tell the truth, but chooses not to.

In daily life, lies are commonplace and not always blameworthy. But in relations between the citizens of a democracy and its government, any kind of dishonesty should be intolerable. By misrepresenting facts, politicians rob the public of the ability to judge them accurately. Lies demonstrate what the 19th-century radical William Cobbett memorably called the "insolence of power".

In areas of intense public scrutiny like refugee policy, it is essential that debate be based on facts, presented clearly and unambiguously. But a review of media coverage of the most recent instalment of policy history, the Malaysia "solution", shows that the Immigration Minister, Chris Bowen, systematically and deliberately lied to the public, both directly and indirectly, about the terms of the agreement. Bowen’s statements about the deal’s education provisions specifically allow a detailed documentation of the Government’s manipulation of the public on this highly controversial issue.

Mostly — but not exclusively — Bowen did not lie overtly about education. Instead, he lied and misinformed subtly. Occasionally he even told the truth outright. Bowen’s cleverness does not make the fact that he deceived the public any less scandalous — Bowen’s acts were an outrageous assault on the principles of probity to which he is quick to appeal in other contexts like, most recently, over the Commonwealth Ombudsman.

The impact of refugee policy on children has always been a particularly sensitive issue, and access to schooling is central to it. In the lead-up to the signing of the Malaysia agreement, Bowen repeatedly emphasised that any deported children would be educated. "How [returnees]are cared for and catered and educated of course, they are issues that we would be working with Malaysia on," Bowen told Tony Jones in a 2 June Lateline conversation — how deportees would be educated, not whether they would be.

The Minister didn’t reveal details, but the tenor of his interviews was clear. People didn’t need to worry: Australia would make sure that innocent refugee children were properly educated once transferred.

These assurances were repeated after the deal was signed. According to a joint media release from Bowen and the Prime Minister on 25 July, deportees would have "work rights, access to education and health care": this mantra was repeated ad infinitum by both Bowen and the media.

But even before it was confirmed by the High Court, inspection of the short "Operational Guidelines" annex to the agreement revealed the hollowness of the Government’s claims. Under the arrangement, children weren’t getting "rights" or "access" to education as most people understood it — formal schooling in proper schools.

The guidelines simply stated that children would "be permitted access to private education arrangements in the community, including those supported by UNHCR" (OG, 3.3.(a)), and that "Where such arrangements are not available or affordable, school age Transferees will have access to informal education arrangements organised by IOM." (OG 3.3.(b)). There was no other mention of education in the guidelines.

Australia hadn’t, then, "negotiated", "ensured" or "guaranteed" that children would have "access" to education. As the Operational Guidelines confirmed, the government wasn’t itself doing anything to give children proper schooling. The second clause showed that it couldn’t even guarantee that "private education arrangements" would be accessible. The agreement did not secure anything different for deportee children from what already existed in Malaysia.

This was not what the public understood when Bowen insisted that children would have education "access" or "rights". Had they known that nothing would change in education arrangements in Malaysia as a result of the deal’s signature, people’s attitude to it and to the government would have been even cooler.

To present the arrangement, as Bowen consistently did, as providing new negotiated measures to educate refugees, was a scandalous attempt to deceive the public. Again and again following the deal’s publication, on 3AW, on 5AA, on PM, on Sky, on Radio Australia, on Channel 9, on JJJ, on al Jazeera, on the BBC, Bowen said the government had negotiated returnees "rights" or "access" to education and health, thereby perpetuating the impression he had carefully built up that the education available to deportees’ children was only there as a result of the government’s efforts. He also said that the education arrangements in Malaysia were ones that had to be paid for:

"The cost[s]that we are paying for are not exorbitant, they’re not; they’re appropriate — they’re quite basic access to education and health and they’re appropriate access to education and health. It’s the standards that the Australian people, I think, would expect us to pay for."

Incredibly, Bowen even included education "access" in a list of significant steps forward for the protection of refugee rights in Malaysia:

"Those commitments to treat people with dignity and respect, with human rights standards and with work rights and access to health and education; these are all big steps forward and in terms of better protection outcomes across our region."

On three occasions only (on PM, Lateline, and 6PR), soon after signing, Bowen admitted the truth: Australia wasn’t actually doing anything to guarantee schooling. Instead, in his own words, deportee children would "simply be able to access the voluntary education system that’s currently run for refugees and asylum seekers in Malaysia".

This admission was never explicitly repeated. On the rare occasions he was challenged, Bowen acknowledged — ambiguously — that the levels of health and education provision were "basic", but he never again admitted that the only "education" in question was the kind of makeshift volunteer-run classroom seen on SBS’s Go back To Where You Came From or mentioned in this 2010 UNHCR media release.

The fact that the government wasn’t doing anything real to give deportees schooling didn’t stop Bowen criticising the Opposition for its plan to turn boats back to Indonesia. The grounds of Bowen’s criticism were that Indonesia gives "no guarantees about schooling or access to health or education", clearly implying that the Malaysia plan was superior on exactly those criteria. This was, quite simply, untrue. There was no difference between Malaysia and Indonesia. In neither country was Australia doing anything new to help refugees with education.

In a Sky interview on 25 September, Bowen reiterated the claim that the Government had taken steps to ensure that refugees would be properly educated:

"But we said to Malaysia very clearly from the start, we’ll need to negotiate in protections in this arrangement to ensure appropriate treatment: non-refoulement, that people won’t be returned to danger, that they’ll have access to school and education and health rights, that they’d have work rights, for example. Now it was a big call for Malaysia but they sat down in good faith with us and negotiated those protections in and made commitments to Australia."

This was not the first time Bowen had explicitly allowed people to think that education meant real schools. In the original press conference announcing the deal, the Malaysian Home Minister, Hishammuddin Hussein, had answered "yes" to a question about whether returnees would have a legal right to work, "to school and to healthcare". At no stage then did Bowen choose to correct the inevitable impression that what this meant was that children would be going to "school" in the ordinary sense.

Tacit corroboration of an erroneous statement has been a characteristic Bowen technique. It reflects his subtlety that public attitudes to the Malaysia deal were shaped in no small part through his consistent failure to correct favourable misinterpretations by a credulous media. On Radio National, for instance, Alison Carabine repeated Bowen’s claim that returnees would be given access to education and health, and, incorrectly, but understandably, added that they would be "treated better than other refugees" in Malaysia. Far from correcting this, Bowen accepted Carabine’s mistaken presupposition, and congratulated himself on the level of protection the agreement offered:

"If people want to criticise us for having built-in too many protections into this agreement, for having negotiated that too well, okay, I’ll cop that criticism because all the criticism has gone the other way."

At a time where public attitudes were crucially dependent on the details of the Malaysia agreement, even a single major misrepresentation is a serious matter. The facts documented here reveal a far more systematic campaign of public deception.

In his lies about the education of deportee children, Bowen has spectacularly failed basic standards of honesty and integrity — the same standards that he, as Immigration Minister, is supposed to apply through the "character test" to asylum seekers themselves, and the same standards that are regularly used to attack refugees as duplicitous economic migrants without genuine protection claims.

Everything suggests that Bowen’s tactics over the Malaysia agreement are typical. Last night’s Four Corners showed shocking visual confirmation of what observers, Bowen included, have known for a long time: Australia’s mandatory detention policy brutally destroys innocent lives.

During the interviews excerpted on the program and published on the Four Corners website, Bowen made the following declarations about children in detention: "We’ve achieved [the moving of]the majority of children and families into the community" (5:22); "Do I agree that children are better off in the community? Yes I do, and that’s what we’ve done" (36:15).

But there were, according to the program itself (35:39), still 369 children locked up in "alternative places of detention" at the start of October — a number that Bowen apparently felt insignificant enough not to mention.

According to the most recent statistics released by DIAC, at the end of September there were 440 children in detention, with only 446 in the community. In other words, there were almost as many children locked up as not. The figures mentioned last night on Four Corners do not suggest a greatly changed situation. Malaysia, it would seem, is far from the only topic on which Bowen has openly lied.

That Bowen is responsible for a "character test" makes a mockery of the very notion: he has consistently lied — and is still doing so — both subtly and directly, to the Australian public, the only legitimate source of his power.

As Four Corners made abundantly clear, the urgent issue confronting Australian society today is not the probity of an individual government minister, but the systemic torture and brutalisation of innocent people who have committed no crime, but are asking Australia for protection.

Nevertheless, any hopes of progress in policy debate are predicated on the truth being told. Bowen, as the person in the best position to tell the truth, has betrayed that duty in the most singular and scandalous fashion.

The truth matters. In a world where political integrity had any meaning, the only honourable course would be for Bowen to resign his portfolio. The fact that there is no realistic prospect of his doing so will surprise no one, but speaks volumes about the alienation of our political culture from the elementary standards of honesty on which a functioning democracy depends.

Bowen’s concerted exercise in public deception fits into the chronic pattern of distortion and lies on which Australian refugee policy has been sustained for more than a decade. It matters that Australia is senselessly inflicting untold suffering on thousands of people. It matters that the public is being consistently lied to by the highest levels of government in order to maintain support for this policy. People should not tolerate Bowen’s contempt for the truth, for human suffering or for them any longer.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.