What The Asylum Panel Left Out


Australian commentators have argued that asylum is a wedge issue from which neither side of politics can afford to recoil. Parties appealing to conservative voters poll better when taking "tough" action against perceived rule breakers (e.g. asylum seekers, criminals, etc). In parliament, Melissa Parke MP lamented the current "race to the base" by both sides of politics:

"I reflect with great disappointment that this area of policy has been dealt with… in a way that represents a very low ebb in the tides of Australian politics and public policy. The discussion has often been so full of distortion and misrepresentation and fear mongering and point scoring… that it cannot be called a debate."

It is in light of this political context that the question of expertise and evidence must be examined — beginning with the government’s choice of membership for its expert panel on asylum seekers: Angus Houston, retired chief of the Defence Force, Michael L’Estrange, director of the National Security College at ANU, and Paris Aristotle, a founding director of the Victorian Foundation for Survivors of Torture and Trauma. That an expert from defence was appointed to chair the panel creates a significant symbolic boundary around the discussion. Two of the three panel members bring expertise in security and defence.

By virtue of the panel’s membership, the problem of drownings, or solutions to it, are anticipated to require expertise in defence or security. This is not to negate any other skills and experience of panel members; nor to deny defence and security implications in the asylum debate. But problem representation in policy — the likes of this panel’s terms of reference — contains an implicit diagnosis of the solution. As the academic Greg Marston puts it, "The rationale for… reforms is constructed retrospectively to suit predetermined solutions, while at the same time contributing to the symbolic power of the State Government — a competent body of decision makers tackling hard… problems".

The panel’s terms of reference and its membership imply a heavily bounded solution; and indeed, a solution consistent with government’s previous penchant for deterrence.

In considering the panel’s description as "expert", it is also useful to examine who or what was absent from its membership and off its radar. If some correlation can be drawn between panel membership and outcomes, then the "solution" to drownings was certainly not envisaged in terms of human rights practice, international law, or other pivotal areas of practice in the refugee field. For example, it would surely make sense to have included a human rights legal expert, given recent success of the High Court challenge to the Malaysia solution.

The panel could also arguably have benefited from a candidate with knowledge and expertise of the push and pull factors in asylum. Or one with operational and political experience drawn from working in refugee camps. Here I am not making specific recommendations as to omissions; rather it is noteworthy to reflect on the symbolic and, ultimately, the political power of those omissions.

Presumably because it found areas of expertise or evidence unavailable to it, the panel recommended "that the incompleteness of the current evidence base on asylum issues be addressed through a well-managed and adequately funded research program engaging government and non-government expertise" (pdf, Rec 22).

Funding for more comprehensive research is of course a welcome finding, but there has been little recognition from government or the panel of an already existing body of knowledge. Experts on refugee matters from the academy and from the community sector have worked hard to share their findings in respected journals and various popular and online media. It would be fair to suggest that the settlement services sector has increasingly been influenced by, and availed itself of, research and research practitioners. The Conversation recently advertised an initiative to collate relevant refugee research in a database.

It is thus of concern that in assessing the relative influence of push and pull factors in asylum, the expert panel described its approach as "more a matter of judgment than science". All policy is premised on judgment, some moreso than others, but in a mature democracy one would hope that, among other sources of information, politicians would turn to their institutions of research and knowledge from which to garner evidence to inform their decisions. Not so where boat arrivals are at issue.

Recent governments have demonstrated an antipathy toward research from the sector where it conflicts with policy frameworks. I call this the "Galileo effect" — that is, relevant research has at times been ignored, dismissed, or maligned when it does not conform with the hegemony of government policy. 

Take, for example, the work of Louise Newman, now Professor of Developmental Psychiatry and Director of the Monash University Centre for Developmental Psychiatry and Psychology. Professor Newman has spoken publicly about the pressure placed on her, and her colleagues, following their research into the negative mental health impacts of detention on asylum seekers. Colleagues warned Newman that her field of study was the equivalent of career suicide. Her credibility and her methods of research were attacked during the term of the Howard government in a bid to undermine her findings.

As Newman explained it, she was simply following the evidence; but, in the words of Al Gore, hers was an inconvenient truth. Consecutive governments have enthusiastically propagated disparaging representations of asylum seekers before seeking the facts or evidence. Throwing children into the water was a fact until an inquiry drawing on meticulous research documented evidence to the contrary; although not until after Howard’s re-election.

Unsubstantiated accounts of aberrant asylum seeker behaviour have been reported as recently as last week, only to be corrected by the captain of the relevant vessel. It would seem that only certain types of expertise are desirable where asylum seekers are concerned and sometimes, none at all.

Most regrettably, the voices of refugees are relatively absent from this debate, despite its serious implications for their lives (and possible deaths). Why was there not a former refugee on the panel? (Gillard has repeatedly referred to Aristotle as a refugee when he is not). Or one might ask a woman, given that most refugees globally are women and children? Whose experience counted in the government’s decision making process?

How else did expertise figure in this panel’s decision making? We know that the panel received over 300 submissions from individuals and organisations, many of whom have significant experience and expertise in the refugee sector. A list of those consulted by the panel is included in the appendices. Much of this expertise arises from individuals and organisations who have direct engagement with refugee communities; people working at the coalface with individuals and families who, over the past 15 years, have been living with the consequences of the prevailing "solutions" of deterrence.

An evidence base that arises from case management provides a chilling picture of the very human effects of policy making; such specific knowledge was of course also vested with the third member of the panel, Paris Aristotle. The pivotal and vanguard services of Foundation House, which address the mental health needs of refugees, are a continuing legacy of Aristotle’s contribution to the sector. Given his experience, Aristotle was much sought after by the media following delivery of the panel’s controversial recommendations.

Despite his credentials, it would be inaccurate to suggest that Aristotle’s voice on the panel represented the sector’s view. This is not to attack his motives, nor the drivers for his decision making. 

This said, the recommendations articulated in key refugee and human rights sector submissions (see for example the Asylum Seekers Resource Centre, Refugee and Immigrant Legal Centre, Human Rights Law Centre etc) stand in stark contrast to the overwhelming number of panel recommendations; recommendations defended by Aristotle.

The absence of a submission to the panel from Foundation House, a key and long established refugee service provider, is also noteworthy. There could be no conflict of interest in such a submission, given the public nature of Aristotle’s foundation role and directorship, and his being only one of a three member panel; although any contribution by Foundation House was unlikely to have materially affected the already bounded nature of the debate. The policy of deterrence was extended.

The panel has proved a useful springboard from which to consider the issue of expertise and evidence in the asylum debate. Gillard’s application of the term "expert" to her panel was likely intended to convey a sense of competence, but the panel’s regard for the current evidence base is unclear.

It may well be that a greater body of evidence around refugee issues is required, for example, in relation to refugee flows; the evidence base around the effects of detention, for example, is already clear and compelling. One might be forgiven for thinking that the government tends to overlook expertise that does not suit its policy preferences.

In the case of the expert panel, the government has structured a process likely to deliver a solution of its anticipation; because frankly, to frame an inquiry in relation to preventing boat journeys, and then to resource it primarily with a defence and security expert, is to imply the solution to the problem.

Gillard may have appointed a panel with expertise, but its recommendations, by and large, did not reflect expert views from the sector.

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.