Left and right both wrong on refugees

Opinion by Professor Robert Manne

In Australia over the past 15 years attitudes to the asylum seeker issue have divided rigidly into two broad ideological camps—on the right, the opponents of the asylum seekers who arrive unauthorised by boat; on the left, their supporters.

These camps are not only divided over values. They are also divided over relatively straightforward facts.

The right 

The opponents of the asylum seekers have never really accepted that by the policy of offshore processing, which followed upon a policy of indefinite and often long-term mandatory detention in Australian camps, we have inflicted extraordinary and often irreparable psychological and spiritual damage on tens of thousands of people, the vast majority of whom have eventually been found, when their claims were assessed, to be genuine refugees.

The right has also never accepted that Australia’s policy of offshore processing is inconsistent with both the spirit and the letter of international law and that if it was followed by other countries it would undermine one of the most humane achievements of the post-war era – the United Nations refugee convention.

Nor has it accepted that as a consequence of its policy, under Howard and now Abbott, Australia’s image has been tarnished among enlightened opinion across the western world, with memories of the White Australia Policy revived. And that by its recent tow-back policy (along with the spy scandal), Australia’s relations with Indonesia have been more seriously damaged than at any time since Australia’s involvement in 1999 in the liberation of East Timor.

Of course, the right will not concede that its policies have reeked throughout of moral hypocrisy. The right opposed the so-called Malaysian Solution on the grounds that Malaysia was not a signatory to the United Nations refugee convention while promising it would tow asylum seekers back to Indonesia, itself no signatory to the refugee convention. In public the coalition bemoaned the departure of the boats from Indonesia because of the risk of asylum seeker deaths at sea; in private, as we learned from WikiLeaks, a spokesperson told the US that the more boats that set out for Australia the happier they were; each boat provided evidence of the conspicuous failure of the Rudd-Gillard asylum seeker policy.

The right is however not alone in denying altogether or downplaying the significance of several plain facts.

And the left 

The left has never really accepted that during the prime ministership of John Howard, a brutal policy combining offshore processing of asylum seekers’ claims with some towback to Indonesia effectively ‘stopped the boats’. Before the adoption of this policy, between 1999 and 2001, some 13,000 asylum seekers arrived in Australia by boat. After its adoption, between 2002 and 2007, virtually no asylum seeker boats reached Australia.

In 2008, the Rudd government abandoned the policy of offshore processing. The left has never really conceded that the consequence was the return of the boats in accelerating numbers under Rudd and that eventually under Gillard the government lost control of the problem. In both 2009-2010 and 2010-2011, around 5,000 asylum seekers arrived by boat; in 2011-2012, 8,000; and in 2012-2013, 25,000. In comparative population terms, this last figure is the equivalent of almost 400,000 asylum seekers from all over the world arriving by boat on US shores at, say, Miami in one year.

The left has also never accepted the political meaning of the fact that during the past 15 years, virtually every survey taken in Australia has revealed that public opinion is on balance clearly hostile to the reception or generous treatment of asylum seekers who arrive by boat.

Nor has it accepted the moral meaning of the fact that, as a consequence of the dismantling of offshore processing, between 2009 and 2013, according to the research of Marg Hutton, there were more than 1,100 confirmed or probable deaths by drowning among asylum seekers trying to reach Australia.

Stalemate in the national debate

There is, in my opinion, no moral equivalence between the camps of right and left. The opponents of the asylum seekers have displayed a frightening and escalating level of indifference to suffering; their supporters have displayed genuine empathy and concern for affliction throughout. Some people I know have, to their honour, devoted their lives to wonderful work on behalf of asylum seekers.

Unfortunately, however, in politics compassion is frequently not enough. While the opponents of the asylum seekers have closed their hearts to suffering, supporters have often closed their minds to the consequences of the policies they have advocated, and even succumbed to what the old Labor politician, James McClelland, once described as a politics of ‘the warm inner glow’.

Caught then between the extremely effectual ruthlessness of the right and the ineffectual and sometimes misguided humanitarianism of the left, the national debate over the future of asylum seekers has now reached a kind of stalemate from which it will be difficult for us to emerge.

To break through the current ideological and policy logjam, and to help save the lives of the tens of thousands of asylum seekers now caught in the interregnum between the Labor government’s humane miscalculation of 2008 and the Abbott government’s return to a deterrence politics of cruelty in 2013, concessions from both camps are required.

The first concession – the one the left will reject – is to acknowledge that it would be folly if any Australian government were now to do what the Rudd government once did: dismantle the system of offshore processing, which has once more played its part in a successful policy of stopping the boats.

The second concession – the one that will be rejected by the right – is to acknowledge that it is now not only unconscionable but also purposeless for the government to continue to inflict misery on both the nearly 30,000 post-August 2012 asylum seekers presently in Australia, and the smaller number of asylum seekers marooned on Manus Island or Nauru.

Public opinion 

The argument for acceptance of offshore processing can be put like this. The harshness of Australian opinion on the question of asylum seekers is settled. Scores of opinion polls, best analysed by professor Andrew Markus for the Scanlon Foundation, make this clear. At present more Australians think the Abbott government’s asylum seeker policy errs on the side of softness than of harshness.

Even if Kim Beazley’s instincts during the Tampa crisis were wrong – and there was a possibility, as the left believes, that he might have rallied opinion in a pro-asylum seeker direction, something I seriously doubt – that time has well and truly passed.

Nor is the evidence about the damage the asylum seeker issue has inflicted on Labor controversial. The return of the boats was one of the issues that undermined the popularity of the Rudd government. Under Gillard, as the numbers of boats accelerated, the problem for Labor became even more extreme. During the last two years of her government, more asylum seekers arrived by boat than in the entire previous history of Australia. Moreover, because of the ruthlessness of the people smugglers, under Gillard the return of the boats was accompanied by many hundreds of asylum seeker deaths at sea.

Moral responsibility 

The drownings ought to have complicated the moral thinking of the supporters of the asylum seekers. Australia is obviously morally responsible for the small number of lives that have been lost in the detention centres on home soil or as part of the unrest in the processing centres Australia established on Manus Island and Nauru. Of course, there is an important distinction between the direct actions of one’s own government and the indirect but predictable consequences of actions not taken.

We are not blameless with regard to the deaths by drowning that occurred after offshore processing was dismantled, and would not now be blameless for any deaths that occurred if policies were not followed to dissuade asylum seekers from undertaking the perilous journey from Indonesia.

Once it became clear that large numbers of deaths would almost inevitably accompany the sea journey from Indonesia, the discovery of some realistic policy alternative to offshore processing became for the supporters of the asylum seekers a moral requirement. In my opinion, none was discovered.

Despite this, in the past fortnight the supporters of the asylum seekers have appeared to be more exercised by the death of a single asylum seeker on Manus Island than they were by the previous very many hundreds of deaths at sea. The only time drownings have occasioned an outpouring of emotion almost equivalent to that which has followed the recent terrible death of Reza Berati on Manus Island was after the tragic sinking of SIEV-X in October 2001 during the period of the Howard government.

Even the deaths of around 50 asylum seekers before horrified Australian eyes, on the now almost forgotten boat that crashed against the cliffs of Christmas Island in December 2010, did not linger in the collective imagination. One possible answer to the puzzle of the failure of the supporters of the asylum seekers to respond with the same intensity to the drownings between 2009 and 2013 as they did with SIEV-X is that a conservative government could not be held morally responsible.

Nor should the supporters of the asylum seekers ignore the inevitable political fallout for Labor if it were to follow their advice and return to the policy they presently advocate. For many years there will be no realistic possibility of the Coalition abandoning or, of public opinion opposing, the policy of offshore processing. If Labor were to go to an election advocating its dismantling, it would be handing the Coalition a substantial political advantage.

Only if one believes the question of asylum seekers trumps all other issues (including the looming catastrophe of global warming) or if one believes that politics must be conducted under what Max Weber called an ethic of absolute ends, rather than an ethic of responsibility, can it be argued that Labor has no alternative but to take a self-evidently and deeply unpopular asylum seeker policy to the next election.

Offshore processing: an effective deterrent

To admit that Labor is obliged to accept offshore processing is not however to say that the left needs to abandon to their fate the tens of thousands of asylum seekers on Australian soil whose cases are undecided or the smaller number of asylum seekers presently detained on Nauru or Manus Island. The very success of the deterrent policy of offshore processing and towback presents those who favour just treatment of asylum seekers with an opportunity.

If the policies of offshore processing and towback are retained, and if they continue to prove successful as a deterrent, there is no policy justification for the present appallingly harsh treatment of the almost 30,000 asylum seekers whose cases have not been processed and who have been told that they will never be given permanent residence, and of the smaller numbers of refugees who seem likely to be condemned to years of imprisonment on Manus Island and Nauru.

There is no evidence that indefinite mandatory detention acted as a deterrent. The fact that about 40% of those who were sent to Nauru or Manus Island under Howard were eventually settled in Australia did not lead to the return of boats. The Abbott government and its supporters must be asked to recognise the logic and the ethical consequences of the present situation.

Neither Gillard nor Rudd can be blamed for acceding in the end to a policy of offshore processing. What Rudd can however be blamed for was the final touch, the desperate eleventh hour announcement that under Labor none of the asylum seekers processed on Nauru or Manus Island would ever be allowed to settle in Australia.

This announcement was an answer to an accusation originally mounted by the left against the Howard policy – namely that because a considerable number of asylum seekers from Nauru or Manus Island had eventually been settled in Australia, the policy of offshore processing had somehow failed to achieve its object. This argument was evasive, even dishonest. The primary purpose of offshore processing was to stop the boats not to prevent the asylum seekers who arrived in the period of policy transition from ever reaching Australia. In its primary objective, the policy succeeded.

The announcement was in addition unnecessary and indeed dangerous. At the time of the Rudd pledge not even the Coalition had gone so far. Given the macho nature of the asylum seeker arm wrestle between the Coalition and Labor, it was almost certain that once uttered Rudd’s promise would be embraced by the Coalition after the election.

So it has proved. As a consequence of Abbott’s replication of Rudd’s promise, those on Nauru accepted as genuine refugees now face a choice between the threat of repatriation to their homelands or semi-permanent residence in hell. Those on Manus Island found to be refugees are likely to be offered the choice between repatriation and residence in one of the least outsider-friendly and most violent societies on earth.

An unlikely compromise?

What then should be done? The system of offshore processing and towback, stripped of its grotesque and ludicrous military bombast, ought not to be dismantled, although it is vital that on both Manus Island and Nauru conditions in the camps are improved and, no matter what the cost, that a far larger number of Australian staff should take full control. Miserliness when lives are threatened because of Australia’s actions is extraordinarily immoral.

One virtue of the policy of offshore processing and towback is that success – the end of boat arrivals – will mean that no action of any kind will need to be taken, as was indeed the case after 2002 under Howard. Within Australia, indefinite mandatory detention should be abandoned. With a successful deterrence at the border, it has become a policy of purposeless cruelty. Those tens of thousands of asylum seekers presently on Australian soil who arrived after the cut-off date of August 2012 should have their cases processed speedily. Those found to be genuine refugees should be granted full citizenship. It is in no one’s interest to create a permanent asylum seeker underclass on Australian soil.

Finally, the relatively small number of refugees who are now trapped on Manus Island and Nauru, and whose lives are as a consequence in danger of being utterly destroyed, should after a decent interval be quietly settled in Australia.

For all this to happen, however, the camps of both left and right and both the government and the opposition will need to reject, on the one side, the advocacy of policies that will never be adopted but which, if they were, would lead to various harms and, on the other, the hardening of hearts to the wilful and purposeless infliction of suffering on thousands of innocent human beings.

Both camps will need to display intellectual honesty, humility and the capacity for political compromise – precisely the qualities that almost altogether deserted discussions of the asylum seeker issue in this country some 15 years ago.

First published on The Guardian on Wednesday 12 March 2014.

Professor Robert Manne is Emeritus Professor of politics and Vice-Chancellor's Fellow at La Trobe University.

Image credit: Takver