Podcast transcript

Podcast transcript

Australia's asylum seeker policy

 Professor Mary Crock

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Ishaq Bhatti

Hello, I'm Ishaq Bhatti. I'm a lecturer of Islamic banking and finance and you are listening to a La Trobe University podcast.

Matt Smith

Hello everyone. It’s a La Trobe University podcast and I am Matt Smith, and today we’ll be hearing about Australian law and its attitude towards asylum seekers. My guest today:

Mary Crock

Professor Mary Crock and I'm Professor of Public Law at the University of Sydney.

Matt Smith

Mary’s also an accredited expert in Immigration Law. For the past two decades or so Australia has had an increasingly harsh view of asylum seekers. Anyone who comes to Australia by boat and it needs to be stressed, there aren’t a great deal who make such a long journey down here, aren’t given the greatest reception. Now just before the election, a couple of months ago, then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and his government struck a deal with Papua New Guinea, which said that we’ll give you our boat people and a lot of money. It was a surprisingly right wing kind of response and it left the conservative party, the Coalition, kind of scratching their heads as to how they could go further right than the Labor Party just did. So my first question to Mary was, what did she make of all of this?

Mary Crock

My reaction to that was to say well, it’s a device for the election and it’s not going to happen. Everybody knows that the capacity of PNG to take these people is inherently very limited and I just don’t think it will happen.

Matt Smith

But is it something that legally we can do?

Mary Crock

Well, of course we can, but I mean, in practical terms I'd put my house on that never really happening in practice.

Matt Smith

But isn’t it the sort of idea that, to the current government, the Abbott government, would be quite an attractive solution as well, and something that he would want to push.

Mary Crock

Oh look, if you recall back in 2001, when John Howard stated then that everybody who was sent to Papua New Guinea and to Nauru would never set foot in Australia, that they would not be allowed to come here, that they would be resettled elsewhere, everybody knows that that’s not what happened. Yes, there were some people who were returned to their country of origin. Yes, a small number of people were resettled in the Scandinavian countries, but the vast majority of asylum seekers who were sent to those countries ended up in Australia.

Matt Smith

Okay, so why do you think that the objectives weren’t met there then?

Mary Crock

Nauru is a tiny little speck in the middle of the ocean. It doesn’t have the capacity to keep people. It’s clear that asylum seekers will have to be shifted from there. The whole world sees this as Australia's problem. Why are they going to take these people? Papua New Guinea at the moment is a failed state. I agree with you. I think that the amounts imply (???02:49.3) a putatively progressive government that they were going to send our refugees permanently to a failed state just beggared belief. It does beggar belief. I don’t believe also however, that they would be able to do that in the longer term and I do believe that the PNG people have started to back off that already.

Matt Smith

So let’s go back to the announcement then. What do you think’s happened when our Labor Party is making an announcement like that, that they think that they need to make that in order to appeal to Australian voters?

Mary Crock

Look, what has happened is that from about 2001 onwards, you’ve had the conservative parties using irregular maritime migration as a political wedge, and it’s really toxic poison that works a treat within our society unfortunately. That reflects very poorly I think on the Australian community, that we can be so affected by it, but that’s the political reality. Labor knows that. They learnt at their cost at the 2001 election. The conservatives, on the other hand, they won an election on this in 2001 and they’ve seen it as political gold ever since.

Matt Smith

Can you tell me about maybe Australia's boat people “problem” in quotation figures, compared to maybe other countries. I mean, I know some of the numbers from Europe for example, that kind of show that it’s a much bigger problem over there compared to the reaction.

Mary Crock

Yeah, of course. Look, the truth is that we are an island people here. We are used to immigration control and it’s always been very difficult to get to Australia. So historically and in our deep culture, we don’t respond very well to irregular migration, but we respond very badly to people who have come by boat. That of course is hugely ironic, because we ... if you go back far enough, came by boat. Of course the indigenous people learnt at their cost how dangerous people coming by boat are.

Matt Smith

We’re actually very proud of the fact that we came by boat.

Mary Crock

We are, yes. But I think ultimately as island people, we are afraid of people coming by boat, equally. Our politicians have been able to play to that fear very effectively. Now in some respects we’re no different to any other society. Any society is inherently bounded and if you characterise strangers coming in as threats of some kind, it’s very easy to get fear happening in the society, so to that extent, Australians are no different to any other people. I think historically however, we’ve been able to control immigration in a way that just hasn’t been possible in most other countries around the world, and for that reason we think about borders very differently.

I mean, you go into any European country, and you just wander in really. I've just come from Uganda, and if somebody is coming from an African country, you can’t get back into Australia unless you’ve got your vaccination booklet to show that you’ve got yellow fever and goodness what else. You’re put through the third degree if you tick that you’ve been in an African country. I went from Uganda into Switzerland and then through into London. Nobody cared. Nobody stopped me to take all my clothes out and to spray my shoes and irradiate the wooden artefacts that I'd collected on the way. That only happened when I got back to Australia. So, we just think about immigration differently here. I think again, because we’re an island people.

Matt Smith

Yeah. And to some extent it is a lot easier to control the comings and goings within Australia as well.

Mary Crock

True. I think the problem here is that we are one of the most multi-cultural societies in the world, and if you start this fear game, if you start fomenting fear about the person who looks different who comes into the country, because of what they wear or because of the colour of their skin, you ultimately are really damaging the fabric of society, because once you get past immigration control, who knows whether you’ve got a visa or you haven’t got a visa? We don’t have barcodes on our foreheads. And if you start fomenting this type of fear, then everybody who looks different, who wears different clothes, has got to cop it sweet. We learnt that to our cost in the mid noughty years, in 2004, 2005, following the Pacific Solution and all the horrible build-up that came around boat people at that time. We ended up with the Cronulla riots. We ended up with 240 people who were permanent residents and citizens, wrongfully arrested and even deported, from Australia.

Now, what I find damaging is that people don’t see the connection between the rhetoric about asylum seekers and what happens inside the society, as a result of that rhetoric.

Matt Smith

So, could you take me through then, just a bit what the government’s plan, what to do with asylum seekers is, and the way that I kind of think of it is that their intentions with Indonesia can’t be entirely following international law.

Mary Crock

International law I think got thrown out like the baby with the bathwater, some time ago. In 2001, the Coalition government got away with international blue murder, really, running interdiction, mandatory detention, we ended up with jurisprudence that is worse than any developed country in terms of laws that say that people can be detained for the term of their natural life, if they happened to be non-citizens. We had push-back policies and everything, so yeah, international law has been an absolute victim of these policies all the way along. What the new government is doing, the present Coalition government, is they’re trying to reintroduce all of the policies that John Howard put in place in 2001. The problem that they face is that the key elements of those policies, namely push-backs to Indonesia, probably won’t be capable of being carried through with, for the simple reason that Indonesia in 2001, because of the shock of 9/11, we were able to get agreement with the Indonesian government, both in terms of what they would let us do, but also in terms of what they were prepared to do to work with us to stop the boats. That we are some way off being able to achieve today.

Now, it’s my hope that with the change of government and with the dropping of the just incessant rhetoric about Australia having open borders and so on and so forth, that we will turn around now and get some more sensible engaged policy that respects Indonesia and works with Indonesia to try and stop on migration.

Matt Smith

Are you hopeful that there’s going to be a good approach to asylum seekers just based on the campaign that the Coalition government ran during the election?

Mary Crock

Look, I think one of the most obscene aspects of the policies at the moment is just how wasteful and abusive the policies are. It’s good that we will stop the rhetoric, but my fear is that nobody is actually going to sit down and look sensibly at this problem as a world phenomenon. Rather we are stuck in our own Australian introspective focus and while we do that we will just waste just so much money and hurt so many people that ??? 10:58.4 that I've seen suggest that the government, both sides are committing to spending upwards of nine billion dollars. I'm not quite sure over how many years that is, but if you look at the fact that UNHCR, the UN agency responsible for all of the world’s refugees, they have a global annual budget of about three billion dollars. And so that just puts in perspective how obscene our expenditure is, relative to the size of our problem.

Even if we do get 20,000 boat people, even if we had 30,000, the Syrian crisis alone they think, could ultimately generate up to ten million refugees. There are two million refugees currently living in Jordan and Turkey is also housing just hundreds and hundreds of thousands of these people. You’re getting 30,000 people a day sometimes, crossing borders. So our experience here is miniscule in world terms. It’s not miniscule in terms of the number of people who have died by getting on boats, so I'm not suggesting for a moment that we should not be trying to stop irregular maritime migration. I think we should be. My complaint is that deterrent measures never have worked, never will work. They cost a fortune. They harm a lot of people. And they damage us financially, they tear at the social structure of our multi-cultural society, and they are totally ineffective.

Matt Smith

One of the facts of how a government runs is, whoever is in opposition will have the default, opposite viewpoint of the existing government. Do you think we could maybe end up with a softer view of asylum seekers from the Labor government in the future?

Mary Crock

I think the only way to solve this problem is going to be to take the politics out of it and to make it a bi-partisan policy. We have to be close to a bi-partisan policy now. My complaint is that it’s a bi-party stupid policy. If you’re able to actually get the parties to sit down and look rationally at what they’re doing, and to say, hey, we can’t afford now Manus Island. It’s a waste of money and a waste of time. We would really be making great strides forward. I can’t see that happening in the short term because the present government made so much of the closure by the Labor government of those two places.

Matt Smith

That’s Mary Crock, Professor of Law at Sydney University. She was at La Trobe University to speak at a public lecture held by the Ideas and Society program which was called “What Will the Abbott Government Do?” in which three experts looked at different aspects of what to expect from the newly elected Abbott government. That talk is also available. Look for the Ideas and Society Program on La Trobe University’s iTunes U and it’s also at our blog. That’s at podcast.blogs.latrobe.edu.au. I'm Matt Smith. You’ve been fantastic as always and thanks for listening.

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