No Moral Compass: Desperate Malcolm Turnbull And A Spite-Filled Asylum Seeker Policy


The Coalition’s latest policy targeting asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru is not really a new low, because it’s nothing new. It’s just the most recent attempt by a desperate government to distract from it’s failing popularity, writes Max Chalmers.

So much about Malcolm Turnbull and Peter Dutton’s latest act of retribution is familiar.

A new Bill announced by the pair over the weekend appears to bear many of the worst hallmarks of their immigration policy making: punitive intent with retrospective application. And we haven’t even seen the legislation yet.

According to Turnbull, the new laws will ban those who attempt to reach Australia by boat from making a visa application in the future. That means even if they make a life in whatever country finally agrees to host them, there are no business trips or holidays to Australia from then on. Those under 18 at the time they were transferred offshore will be exempted.

It must have struck the people held on Manus and Nauru as sinister but also bizarre. Those who have survived detention in PNG now face settlement in an underdeveloped country that is clearly unsafe for them. Across the ocean on Nauru, abuses in the camps have been well documented, and children are now growing up on an island that was never supposed to house them for more than a brief stint.

Far off from these places of uncertainty and maltreatment, a Prime Minister calls a press conference to announce these people will never be allowed to holiday in Australia.

For over three years the government has failed to determine where it will place the people detained on Nauru, or convince either set of detainees that its costly deals with third countries will provide them sanctuary. But now it has a plan to stop refugees coming to see the Great Barrier Reef or taking a tour of the Harbour Bridge in the distant future. Thank God for that.

new matilda, peter dutton
Minister for Immigration, Peter Dutton appearing on ABC TV’s 7:30 Report.

Both major parties currently have a policy that says people found to be refugees will not be brought to Australia. This law won’t change anything substantive. So why the big press conference and the media rounds for Dutton?

Everything so far indicates a simple conclusion. Turnbull and Dutton are looking to give another kick to the people they have pushed to the edge, in the hope that Labor will wander into a fight over immigration.

A now deeply disliked Prime Minister who once sold himself as a disruptive innovator can come up with nothing bigger than spiting the people detained and – in the assessment of many including the UN’s Special Rapporteur and Amnesty International – tortured in order to save his own career.

Dutton and Turnbull have been spectacularly repetitive in their talking points so far, pointing to the same arguments about people smugglers, Labor’s failures, deaths at sea, etc, etc. They say this law is necessary to stop all of that happening again.

“You should not underestimate the scale of the threat,” Dutton said on the weekend. “These people smugglers are the worst criminals imaginable. They have a multibillion-dollar business. It is a battle of will. We have to be very determined to say no to their criminal plans.”

The worst imaginable – worse than child abusers or murderers. And it’s the likes of the ABC who blow this debate out of proportion, according to Dutton.

This is an absurd piece of hyperbole that feeds a broader and equally ridiculous argument. Dutton wants you to believe this law will stop refugees coming by boat and that it will therefore save lives at sea, help the Coalition empty the camps and, oh, just by the way, keep some brown people out of the country.

This involves the usual Dutton dog whistling while also boasting the merit of being entirely ludicrous.

The measures Dutton and Turnbull announced have precisely zero to do with people smugglers, let alone addressing the devastating conflicts and upheavals that actually cause people to flee by boat, foot, or plane.

Refugees protest on Nauru. (IMAGE: Refugee Action Coalition)
Refugees protest on Nauru. (IMAGE: Refugee Action Coalition)

Do they really think Rohingya fleeing Myanmar, or Hazaras desperate to escape the Taliban, are going to take the perilous journey to Australia with the hope that they will somehow escape a boat turnback and then be sent to Nauru from where they will (presumably) eventually be resettled in a country unknown and then apply for a tourist visa to Australia. It’s ridiculous.

Contrary to Dutton and Turnbull’s suggestion, the laws are clearly designed with those already detained in mind. Dutton said as much in an interview with the ABC, and even claimed that people intended to travel to Manus to marry refugees and bring them to Australia on a spousal visa. This is not about people smugglers, or deaths at sea, or deterrence.

It’s about Malcolm.

As my colleague Michael Brull has noted, Turnbull’s government is pivoting towards ‘minority bashing mode’ as its leader’s standing continues to shrink. This legislation fits that trend.

Turnbull and Dutton immediately and quite transparently used the proposed legislation to attack Labor – they mentioned the opposition by name 18 times in their brief presser on Sunday, and named Brendan O’Connor an additional four times. Dutton is hitting the press this week and Scott Morrison is having a go too. This is a bit of fun for the boys and an effort to keep the refugee issue in the headlines as much as possible.

It really is astounding that three years into governing, the Party hasn’t found a better path to popularity than the Howard-era wedge on immigration. Forget agility and innovation in the economy, Turnbull hasn’t even been able to find new ways to exploit Australia’s racial anxieties.

One of the strangest things about the latest attack is that it didn’t appear to work for the Coalition in the lead up to the election. Turnbull flicked the refugee switch and threw the dead cat on the table. His campaign was still a disaster.

Though Machiavellian, the political imperative is not the most sinister aspect of the announcement, which is obviously also intended as a message to the people held on Papua New Guinea and Nauru.

Kurdish Iranian journalist Behrouz Boochani.
Kurdish Iranian journalist Behrouz Boochani.

Despite the depiction of refugees and asylum seekers as either villains or victims, the reality is that many are resisting Australia’s treatment of them and actively doing what they can to save their own lives. They are passing reports and accounts of life in the camps and on the islands to the broader world, as seen by the regular writing and reporting of Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish man held on Manus. Boochani warned this week that accepting the new laws would mean Australia accepting it is “a fascist country”.

On Nauru, protests have been ongoing for months. The men, women and children there have also tried to tell their story, to counter the many narratives spun around them by conservative hacks and politicians of all stripes. These people have not given up. They have not returned to danger, despite the immense difficulty they face where they are.

This legislation should also be seen also as an effort to break this resistance, a final ‘fuck you’ to those who will not comply, who will not give up, who will not send themselves back.

It’s one more to add to the hodgepodge list of cruelties that are inflicted upon them, a reminder that the government has not forgotten about them and has not ended its vendetta against them. We are still here, still dreaming up specific and improbable ways to diminish your futures.

Not all of those on Nauru and in PNG still want to come to Australia, in fact. But for those who do, relocation is the most obvious way out of their limbo. It’s also the most obvious way for Australia itself to resolve the problem it foreseeably created.

With the most sensible offer off the table, we are learning just how agile Malcolm Turnbull really is.

Max Chalmers is a former New Matilda journalist and editorial staff member. His main areas of interest are asylum seekers, higher education and politics.