If You Read Just One Open Letter Opposing Labor’s Cruelty To Asylum Seekers, Make Sure It’s This One


In an open letter to the Labor Party caucus, Liam McLoughlin lays bare the lies, cynicism and political cowardice that underpins the party’s position on asylum seekers.

Dear members of the Australian Labor Party Caucus,

I imagine you are decent, thoughtful and compassionate people in your private lives. I imagine you joined the Labor Party because you believe in its progressive values, like ‘fairness’ and ‘being a good global citizen’. I imagine you are committed to making a contribution to public life and perhaps even hope to make the light on the hill burn a little brighter.

I imagine this, even in the face of the depressing reality: most of you have again voted to support offshore processing. Yet again you have consented to some of the most heinous human rights abuses this country has ever seen. And we’ve seen a few.

You’ve read about Fazel Chegeni’s suspicious death on Christmas Island after a serious decline in his mental health. You’ve heard about Khodayar Amini, who set himself on fire and whose body was later found in Dandenong bushland. You know about Reza, found dead at Brisbane airport and Mohammad Nasim Najafi, who took his own life at the Yongah Hill centre. You know the names of Reza Barati and Hamid Kehazaei. You may have forgotten the names of the more than 30 other innocent people who have died in detention since 2000, but you must feel the pervasive sense of tragedy. Perhaps the mounting body count even haunts you.

Yet you do not relent.

You’re aware that thousands of men, women and children suffer physical, mental and sexual abuse in offshore prison camps, pain inflicted by your design or complicity. You know that Australian of the Year Patrick McGorry has described the detention centres as ‘factories for producing mental illness’. You know the United Nations Committee Against Torture has slammed Australia’s detention policies.

Yet your support for this pernicious regime continues.

I guess it’s not that surprising. After all, it’s easy for good people to participate in acts of extraordinary cruelty.

Think of just how ready and willing Yale university students were to apply electric shocks to strangers in the Milgram experiment. Think about just how quickly brutality emerged in the Stanford Prison Experiment. Study the work of psychologist Albert Bandura, who concludes after decades of research on the subject: ‘The triumph of evil requires a lot of good people, doing a bit of it, in a morally disengaged way, with indifference to the human suffering they collectively cause’.

A scene form the video of the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment.
A scene form the video of the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment.

Given your implacability in the face of mounting community calls to end the cruelty, the question many people are asking is ‘what will it take?’ What will it take to convince you that mandatory detention in offshore camps is morally, economically, legally and politically indefensible? God knows, but it’s certainly a heck of a lot more than a few paragraphs in an open letter. Nonetheless, they are as follows.

The moral case against offshore processing is watertight, despite your justification that harsh conditions on Nauru and Manus help ‘save lives at sea’. Whether you judge Australia’s detention regime by principles or consequences, the outcome is the same: mandatory detention must end.

Waleed Aly is right to praise the doctors at Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital for reintroducing the principled approach to the asylum seeker debate, a debate more commonly dominated by consequences. Following the principles of the dignity of the individual and doing no harm, the doctors refused to discharge asylum seeker patients who would be returned to detention.

It’s unlikely you would deny the claim that deterrence policies have done significant harm to asylum seekers. It’s just you view these harms as somehow justified.

That justification is a cost-benefit analysis, but your calculation of harms to asylum seekers is tragically misguided. The moral choice is not between torturing people on island prison camps and letting them die in their thousands at sea. The choice is between inflicting intense suffering on thousands of innocent victims in those camps or legislating sensible policy alternatives which free existing detainees and offer safe haven for those in limbo in Indonesia.

There’s no shortage of alternatives which would both stop the torture and deaths at sea. Start by giving asylum seekers stuck in Indonesia realistic and timely prospects for being resettled in Australia.

Close the detention camps and give the billions of dollars used to imprison asylum seekers to the UNHCR to fast track resettlement.

Radically increase our annual humanitarian intake from 13,750 to 30, 40 or 50,000, or more.

If you’re still worried about asylum seekers drowning, fly or ship them here directly for community processing. At the very least don’t destroy their boats so they are forced onto other more unseaworthy vessels. Compensate the many thousands of men, women and children your asylum policies have damaged or destroyed.

And whatever you do, don’t lie to the Australian people and tell them the only way to save lies at sea is to torture people.

The economic case is just as clear. According to government statistics, the cost of Australia’s immigration regime increased from $118 million in 2009-2010 to $3.3 billion in 2013-2014, and the ‘projected costs over the forward estimates currently exceed $10 billion’.

Julian Burnside states the regime is currently costing between $4 billion and $5 billion a year, and does some alternative policy calculations. Instead of mandatory detention, Burnside argues asylum seekers should be processed in regional communities and entitled to full Medicare and Centrelink benefits. They could also work many of the 90,000 available jobs in regional areas. The cost?

“Even if the peak arrival rate became the new normal, and even if every boat person stayed on full Centrelink benefits for the whole time it took to decide their refugee status, it would cost the Government only about $500 million a year, all of which would go into the economy of country towns,” says Burnside.

Given ‘Labor is committed to rural and regional communities being the best they can be, to seizing the opportunities of the future’, I’m sure this is one opportunity you won’t want to deny regional Australia. I’d also imagine that with your core values of better health, education and a sustainable environment, you could do a lot with that spare $4 billion per year.

Vietnamese refugees seeking asylum in 1979. (IMAGE: manhhai, Flickr)
Vietnamese refugees seeking asylum in 1979. (IMAGE: manhhai, Flickr)

International law also has a fair bit to say about Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers. In December 2012, the Human Rights Law Centre told a parliamentary inquiry that offshore processing ‘breaches Australia’s human rights obligations in at least six ways’, including the Refugee Convention, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

In August 2013, the United Nations Human Rights Committee found Australia had committed 143 violations of international law by indefinitely detaining 46 refugees for four years.

In March 2015 the UN Special Rapportuer on Torture found ‘Australia’s indefinite detention of asylum seekers on Manus Island, the harsh conditions, the frequent violence inside the centre and the failure to protect certain individuals’ all violated the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

In the same month, President of the Human Rights Commission, Professor Gillian Triggs said Australia was in breach of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child by keeping children in detention.

It sounds like Andrew Wilkie’s case against the Australian government in the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity might go pretty well. The quicker you distance yourselves from mandatory detention, the better.

Let’s set aside morality, economics and international law for a moment. Let’s talk politics.

Ever since Tampa, you’ve believed there are votes in punishing asylum seekers. In ‘opposition’ you’ve been nothing more than the bully’s apprentice cheerleading from the sidelines, yelling ‘I would have beaten the shit out of you in much the same way’.

In the early Rudd era you gave your victims a break by abolishing the Pacific Solution and TPVs. With the PNG solution you even beat Howard’s cruelty personal best.

Ignoring just how terrible the defence ‘yeah but we got more votes’ is for years of human rights abuses, what if you’re wrong? What if harming refugees isn’t a vote winner? Would you change your mind then?

According to a wide range of research synthesised by psychiatrist Tad Tietze, you’re dead wrong. The founding myth of this view is that Howard’s handling of the Tampa was largely responsible for the 2001 election victory. It wasn’t.

Editor of Inside Story Peter Browne describes the idea that boat arrivals influence votes as ‘one of the great myths of Australian politics’. His analysis of the 2001 polls found the electoral boost from Tampa was marginal for Howard and hard to separate from the pre-existing improvement in the Coalition vote, 9/11 and the War on Terror.

An Australian Electoral Study of the 2001 election found ‘refugees, asylum seekers’ lagged well behind ‘taxation’, ‘education’, and ‘health, Medicare’ in importance for voters.

A screencap from ABC Television reporting of the Tampa Affairs in 2001.
A screencap from ABC Television reporting of the Tampa Affairs in 2001.

The story since 2001 is similar. Tietze found success for Labor with more humane asylum seeker policies in 2007-2009 while shifting to the right in 2010 under Gillard did nothing to improve the Labor vote.

If anything the shift delivered more primary votes to the refugee-friendly Greens. He also found although Labor strategists may point to the popular support for Rudd’s PNG solution, this policy did very little for Rudd’s overall polling.

More recently, Abbott’s dissatisfaction rating as Prime Minister floated around 60 per cent, no matter how many times he said ‘stop the boats’. The Abbott government, the harshest on asylum seekers in our history, in fact had a net negative rating in its treatment of asylum seekers.

The cruellest irony in Australian politics is that for 15 years you have believed being tough on asylum seekers would win you votes. For 15 years voters have told pollsters that it won’t.

For decades Australians have been asked which issues affect their daily lives most, and the asylum seeker issue has never reached the top 20. In fact, despite a saturation of propaganda dehumanising and demonising those who come by boat, a recent poll found 71 per cent of Australians support asylum seeker immigration.

On moral, economic, legal and political grounds then, the case for mandatory detention in general and offshore processing in particular is forlorn. Your justifications for supporting human rights abuses are threadbare. The nightmare reality you continue to defend is well articulated by one of your own, Melissa Parke:

“The truth is that we – Australians, through our representatives and our taxes – have established and are funding two island prisons on which people convicted of no crime are being held indefinitely in circumstances that are not just prone to, but actually productive of terrible human suffering… more than $1 billion per year of Australian taxpayers’ money is being spent to torture asylum seekers in a grotesque faux caring deterrence exercise.”

Architect of the Stanford Prison Experiment, Philip Zimbardo, describes the ‘relative ease with which ‘ordinary’, good men and women are induced into behaving in ‘evil ways’’. He calls this the Lucifer Effect. He links this to the concept of the ‘banality of evil’, the idea that ‘under certain conditions and social pressures, ordinary people can commit acts that would otherwise be unthinkable’.

You have a clear choice.

You can do as many good people before you have done and use your power to inflict suffering on others. You can continue ignoring the overwhelming moral, economic, legal and political arguments against detention. You can maintain your logical and ethical contortions to reassure yourselves you are saving lives at sea.

That’s easy. You’ve been doing it for years.

You can keep up your ‘clone wars’ with Malcolm Turnbull and confine yourselves to another three, six, or nine years of ‘opposition’.

Or you can take the road less travelled. You can refuse to succumb to the Lucifer Effect. You can escape from the malicious herd mentality and stand up for asylum seekers, like Melissa Parke has done.

You can convince your party that this is a precious opportunity to differentiate yourselves from the Turnbull Coalition.

You can demand an end to mandatory detention and start advocating humane and rational policy alternatives not premised on torture.

You can remind your party of its core values of ‘fairness’ and ‘being a good global citizen’ and make a contribution to public life that few people will forget.

Stop the cruelty. Close the camps. Demand justice for asylum seekers. It’s time.


Liam McLoughlin teaches English, politics, and media, and writes a bit. You can find his stuff at Situation Theatre or on Facebook and Twitter. He still can’t decide which quote is more profound: Karl Marx’s “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness” or Stewart Lee’s “David Cameron and Ed Milliband are about as different as two rats fighting over a courgette that has fallen into a urinal. The main difference being that the David Cameron rat is wearing chinos, in an attempt to win over the youth voter”.