Three Simple Ways We Can Clean The Scott Morrison Stain From Our Asylum Seeker Policies


Most Australians know the phrase ‘Stop the Boats’. It's embedded within the popular-political lexicon, thanks to various parties and media outlets determined to keep refugee policies at the forefront of Australia's political discourse.

The government believes its refugee policy to be successful, and trumpets it appropriately. Many others believe the government is uncompassionate and xenophobic, yet their constant outrage achieves little.

Both sides have dug trenches and refuse to negotiate. Between them, asylum seekers suffer.

Now, as the Prime Minister claims to turn his focus to families, refugee policies look set to fade from the political spotlight. Newcomer Peter Dutton was a quiet Health Minister and will probably carry this into Immigration and Border Protection.

Ironically, less public attention could make changes more likely. Former Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone was rumoured to grease a lot of wheels during the tail-end of the Howard era. A lack of media interest, combined with her impending retirement from politics, made this possible.

As a former policeman, Dutton surely feels an obligation to protect the innocent. Here are three suggestions for him to quietly implement, without having to publically hack a path through the political thicket.

Improve conditions and accept the cost

Firstly, if voters insist on mandatory detention, they (and the treasury) must accept its cost. Sadly, illogically, events such as the Martin Place "terror attack" and the Ebola outbreak have caused voters to demand stringent background and health checks. It's a ridiculous response, but easier than changing minds is changing the detention conditions.

In 2011, the Joint Select Committee on Australia's Immigration Detention Network reported that detention was about 15 times more expensive than allowing asylum seekers to live in the community. Plainly the government believes detention is worth the expense.

Dutton is therefore justified in demanding the funds necessary to implement long-term detention appropriately. Voters don't mind funding prisons, yet those in mandatory detention live in worse conditions than Australians criminals – despite not having broken any laws.

Make detention centres liveable. Encourage training and recreation. Ensure that asylum seekers are fit and healthy. Internationally, this would reduce the number of official investigations and condemnations. Domestically, basic education and healthcare would make refugees less likely to become the welfare recipients so feared by Australians voters.

Raise the intake, quietly

Secondly, Dutton can raise the intake of what the government considers to be "legitimate" refugees. Previous minister Scott Morrison insisted that his goal was to stop deaths at sea. For this to ring true, however, the numbers of incoming "boat people" should've been replaced with refugees from other sources.

Clearly the government took the opposite action when Morrison cut the intake a few months ago. His high-profile press conference aimed to publically reinforce his tough-guy credentials and appease his hard right supporters.

Yet raising the intake might not require another attention-seeking announcement. Morrison was an exception. Subtle variations in our refugee intake aren't typically subject to media fanfare.

In his 2008 book Battlelines, Tony Abbott addressed Australia's "need for more children." He laments that having children "tends to be regarded as a personal choice rather than a social good." This suggests that the now-Prime Minister believes in population growth.

Accepting this, Dutton has a party-line case to argue for more "legitimate" refugees, replacing the lost influx of "boat people." If the numbers of boat people were large enough to drive the 2013 election, surely they were large enough to affect our total intake?

Sadly, Battlelines also reveals why this logic might fail. Abbott follows his comments with a lament that "middle-class Australian families are now mostly much smaller than they were." He apparently believes that only the middle and upper classes are worth expanding. It's a form of values dissidence also evident in the government's welfare policies, which support middle class families but are suspicious of the unemployed.

Dutton is unlikely to rewrite this tenet of conservative liberalism. That's why raising Australia's refugee intake is more likely to occur without the flourish with which Morrison lowered it. A raise would be easier to accomplish via intra-departmental fine-tuning than via a public policy backflip.

Change our mindset

The third suggestion isn't a policy change but an attitude adjustment. As Dutton sets out his ministerial agenda, he can challenge the myth of "window shopping" asylum seekers.

One popular argument for Australia to accept fewer refugees is that it's easier for asylum seekers to reach Indonesia than Australia. Asylum seekers, it's argued, are specifically aiming to be settled in Australia because it's a prosperous developed country.

Why wouldn't they, though?

It's logical for more prosperous countries to accept more refugees. Why should countries without the resources to settle refugees be forced to accept them? Politicians passionately assert the sovereignty of Australia's borders. Do they not realise that other countries' borders are equally sovereign?

In theory, developing countries would only accept refugees once developed countries could no longer sustain the numbers. This isn't happening. According to statistics from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, developing countries host around 80 percent of the world's refugees. How is it more sustainable to redirect refugees to poorer countries that already accept far more?

Again, this reflects a dominant view of conservative liberalism. According to Abbott and others, everyone is capable of improving the lot they're given. Fleeing from a developing country to a developed country is cheating. It's a shortcut, only excusable if you're already wealthy enough to arrive by plane.

Peter Dutton should foster the view that everyone has the right to seek a better life, especially if their current life is unendurable. It's fashionable to believe that all welfare recipients are lazy and undeserving. Yet could even the most hardline Liberal argue that everyone born into violent persecution invariably deserves it?

Philosopher John Rawls argued that moral dilemmas should be decided as though the decider could be dropped into either situation. If Dutton was to be settled as a refugee in a random country, he would probably improve his own odds of a better life. He would argue that more places be available in developed countries such as Australia.

Dutton unquestionably faces a moral dilemma. Political intransience needn't restrict his ability to support asylum seekers, especially now Abbott has directed public attention to families and welfare instead.

These actions needn't be proclaimed from the rooftops or exploited for personal political capital. Dutton has the opportunity to quietly act in his own good conscience. Likewise, if he fails to act, that too will reflect upon his conscience.

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.