A Heavy Price To (Kind Of) Stop The Boats

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A recent letter to the editors of Melbourne’s Age said it best.

“Each time Australian governments, of both stripes, have lowered the bar on treating asylum seekers as less than human, I have thought, ‘They can't stoop any lower. We have reached the nadir’,” wrote Chris McGregor of Cabarita. “Time after time I have been proven wrong.”

McGregor was left at a loss when confronted with the latest gobsmacking revelations from the War on Boats: that Australian officials allegedly paid people smugglers to turn around a New Zealand-bound boatload of asylum seekers, and sail it back towards the Indonesian coast.

The UN appears to have confirmed it, as have Indonesian officials.

But the government refuses to say. The most Prime Minister Tony Abbott could bring himself to utter on the matter was that his government would stop the boats “by hook or by crook,” which sounded like a tacit admission.

There is, of course, no official confirmation. Perhaps we’ll never know.

I write “of course” as though we all realise that the government doesn’t comment on border protection or “on-water matters”. The Australian government has now cloaked the conduct of immigration policy with so much secrecy, it is essentially impossible to legally find out what happens on the high seas to our nation’s north.

Surely this is a scandal in itself. The veil of secrecy pulled over the increasingly desperate acts of our government has concealed a number of high crimes and all manner of misdemeanours: most notoriously the murder of Reza Berati, an innocent man in Australian care.

At what point will Australian voters start to take notice of the crimes committed in the name of protecting our borders?

Paying bribes to people smugglers is illegal. Under the Anti-People Smuggling and Other Measures Act (2010), the Criminal Code was amended to outlaw “supporting the offence of people smuggling.” Section 73.3A of the Code reads as follows:

73.3A  Supporting the offence of people smuggling
             (1)  A person (the first person) commits an offence if:
                     (a)  the first person provides material support or resources to another person or an organisation (the receiver); and
                     (b)  the support or resources aids the receiver, or a person or organisation other than the receiver, to engage in conduct constituting the offence of people smuggling.
Penalty:  Imprisonment for 10 years or 1,000 penalty units, or both.

I’m no lawyer, but I’d call handing cash to people smugglers the provision of “material support or resources.”

The practice is also illegal under Indonesian law, and arguably under Australian maritime law as well.

Let’s just take a step back here and ask ourselves: how can this possibly be okay?

No nation should countenance the drowning of hundreds in desperate attempts to reach our shores. But such is the utilitarian logic of the asylum seeker debate. The death of innocents at sea has become the perverted justification for the wholesale denial of human rights to thousands of other innocents, and the removal of core protections from Australian law.

Immigration is complex. But the Abbott government’s approach is alarmingly simple. It is a policy of ruthless Machiavellianism that subordinates everything to the vacuous metric of boat arrivals, with neo-fascist imagery and a savage apparatus of state sanction.

The Coalition, as ever, is winning this unseemly race to the bottom. But Labor is a willing partner in the relay. The ALP has aided and abetted the removal of rights and the incarceration of innocent people, in part for purely political reasons, but also because it believes in stopping the boats too. 

The latest legislation to be passed in this dismal statute book is the Australian Border Force Act 2015, a law that makes it illegal for whistleblowers to disclose abuses in offshore detention centres. The law is so restrictive, doctors are saying it imposes an unbearable ethical dilemma.

And yet still the Abbott government repeats its simplistic mantra of “whatever it takes.”

“We’ve stopped the boats by doing whatever is necessary within the law to stop the boats,” the Prime Minister said on Tuesday, adding that “the most moral thing you can do here is stop the boats because as long as the boats are coming, the evil people smuggling trade is in business and the deaths continue.”

You don’t need a degree in logic to spot the contradiction here. If we’ve truly stopped the boats, why are they still coming? Why is the Navy still involved in Operation Resolute? Most importantly, why are we paying people smugglers to turn the boats around?

The boat alleged to have been intercepted on the high seas and paid to turn around was heading for New Zealand – a much more dangerous destination than Australia. More boats sailing for New Zealand would not seem to be a great outcome for Operation Sovereign Borders.

In fact, the contention that “the boats” have “stopped” collapses as soon as we lift our gaze from our own borders.

The world is awash in refugees. There are more displaced people now than at any time since the end of the Second World War. In our region, thousands of seaborne asylum seekers continue to wash ashore in Indonesia and Malaysia.

According to the International Organisation for Migration, around 160,000 mainly Rohingya people have fled Myanmar for Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia since 2012, including around 88,000 in 2014 and 25,000 in 2015.

Globally, refugee flows number in the tens of millions. Is this really a situation where the Abbott government can claim victory? Even if refugees are no longer travelling to Australia, can we really say they are safe from harm?

To those who argue Australia cannot possibly take all the refugees, the answer must be: of course not. But we should take more.

Australia has signed several international treaties on refugees and people smuggling. We are the wealthiest nation in our region. Yet we have allowed our political debate to degenerate into the kind of cheap xenophobic populism that once distinguished White Australia as one of the most racially segregated places on the planet.

So tightly has the logic of border security gripped the Australian political imagination, the very rule of law itself now seems threatened. No cost is deemed to high to pay, no liberty too precious to legislate away, no method too shocking to contemplate.

Examine the outrages on human rights we now inflict on a systematic basis. Once they were shocking. Now they are simply accepted as what we do.

How about locking up everyone who comes here by boat, without trial? The Keating government made that decision years ago.

Abandoning the last remnant of the spirit of the UN Convention on Refugees? That was the so-called “Malaysian Solution.” Militarise our immigration department, and put a general in charge? One of Scott Morrrison’s first moves. Bully the Human Rights Commissioner for daring to report on human rights abuses? Why, certainly. Turn a blind eye to the rape of children in our care? All too easy. Spy on an Australian Senator? Yes, that too.

Triggs at a recent Senate inquiry

We’ve slid so far down the slippery slope, perhaps paying people smugglers will soon seem quite routine as well.

Asylum seeker policy has become a cancer in Australian public life, one which gradually eats away basic liberties and freedoms in the name of “stopping the boats.”

The spectre of “the boats” has cruelled our national polity. It has poisoned our most important bilateral relationship, with Indonesia. It is perverting the rule of law in our federal government.

But even if we accept the dubious assertion that the boats have stopped, what price have we paid to stop them?

Ben Eltham

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.

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