Asylum Policy Brings More Cruelty, More Boats


Slowly, painfully, Labor continues to turn the screws on asylum seekers.

The policy of exemplary cruelty that Labor signed up to thanks to the recommendations of the so-called "Expert Panel" — a panel, by the way, whose expertise many were dubious about — is now pushing the government into some very uncomfortable positions.

As usual, when it comes to asylum seeker policy, Labor’s problems are all of its own making. If we remember all the way back to 2008 when Labor first tried to address this issue, the government itself was arguing that "push" factors, not "pull" factors, were the dominant driver of asylum seeker flows. In other words, international crises and foreign wars were the real cause of the dreaded boat arrivals, not the superficial laxity of the immigration policies of Australia.

Four years later, we have ample proof that Chris Evans and Kevin Rudd were right all along. Despite a methodical and ruthless toughening of the punitive treatment of those who come to our shores seeking a better life, the boats haven’t stopped. Almost 7700 asylum seekers have arrived by boat since the government decided to re-open Manus Island and Nauru, and embrace the very Pacific Solution it had ridiculed in opposition.

Clear-eyed observers of the asylum seeker debacle predicted as much. I take no pleasure in this, but I argued back in June that policies of deterrence were unlikely to work. "If asylum seekers are willing to risk their lives in the dangerous waters of the Indian Ocean to seek a better life on our shores," I wrote, "it’s unlikely that the threat of detention or repatriation will have much deterrent effect."

And so it has proved. Despite a manifestly unjust new system of "no advantage" for asylum seekers travelling to Australia by boat, as opposed to being processed through supposedly more legitimate channels, the boats keep coming. It was always likely they would. Again, as I’ve already argued, the true pull factor is Australia itself: a safe and wealthy democracy in a poor and dangerous world.

The current policy paradigm is driven by a crude utilitarian calculus about what drives desperate people to travel to our shores, one that is beginning to resemble other experiments in Australia’s penal history in uncanny and depressing ways.

Britain’s various colonies in the antipodes were littered with little experiments in penal "reform": Norfolk Island, Port Arthur, Macquarie Harbour. Most of them shared the same dubious logic of Chris Bowen, Angus Houston and Paris Aristotle: that we must be cruel to be kind; that the human will can be shaped by incarceration. Rehabilitation was to be achieved by exemplary punishment. Now Australia seems to be re-running these failed experiments in a new century.

Thus, in the face of overcrowded detention facilities and the manifest failure of Nauru and Manus Island to deter further arrivals, the government has doubled-down on "no advantage". It will start letting asylum seekers onto the mainland in Australia, because it has no more offshore jails to send them to. But it will issue them with visas almost indistinguishable from the Howard government’s old "Temporary Protection Visas". These visas will prevent asylum seekers from working, and will also mandate a five year wait on the resolution of their claim. But asylum seekers will receive a basic income support payment and get some access to "basic healthcare" and some initial accommodation.

I asked Minister Bowen’s office this morning what the new Bridging Visas will stipulate. A spokeswoman replied with the following information:

"Consistent with ‘no advantage’, people who arrived by boat post-13 August and all future arrivals going onto bridging visas will have no work rights and will receive only basic accommodation assistance, and limited financial support.

They will have access to up to six weeks’ transitional support under the department-funded Community Assistance Support program.

While protection claims are unfinalised, they will be eligible for support through the Asylum Seeker Assistance Scheme.

Both these schemes limit support to a maximum of 89 per cent of equivalent special benefit payments from Centrelink.

People in this cohort will receive access to basic healthcare.

Some people will also be eligible for rent assistance."

The denial of the ability to work is a graphic example of the twisted logic of no advantage, and where it leads. Clearly, the best thing for the nation of Australia would be to take advantage of the skills and talents of those seeking shelter on our shores, by putting them to work for the productive use of the economy. But, because the government wants to deter other asylum seekers, we are instead punishing people who will almost certainly be found to be genuine refugees, forcing them into a kind of limbo.

But, in some sections of the community, the fact that Australia shelters refugees at all is a source of considerable animus and hatred. The yawning gap in public perception of asylum seekers’ rights and Australia’s duties is perhaps best summed up by the latest mean-spirited article by Gemma Jones in the Daily Telegraph, which continues her ignoble tradition of stoking downward envy towards asylum seekers receiving government benefits.

"Thousands of asylum seekers will effectively be given welfare payments of about $440 a fortnight to live in the community while their claims are processed because detention centres are full," her article thunders.

What we’re seeing is the rapid criminalisation of the flight for a better life. It’s electorally attractive — as we can see from the calculated way in which Tony Abbott is making sure he uses the word "illegal" in every possible circumstance, regardless of the fact that it is not illegal to seek asylum in Australia. The Coalition will of course make sure that it never loses the race to the bottom on asylum seeker punishment, a structural fact of the political landscape that Labor seems unable to understand. Locked into the "solution" recommended by the "experts", Labor will continue to tighten the thumbscrews.

"Are you aware of the reputation for cruelty, frankly, that Australia is now developing overseas?" an Al Jazeera journalist asked Bowen this morning.

"I completely reject that assertion," Bowen answered, before going on to criticise Amnesty International’s assessment of the conditions in the Nauru camp. "I believe the overriding moral and humanitarian obligation on the Australian Government is to stop people drowning at sea."

And so the cruelty will continue, along with the boats.

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.