Government and governance, Law, Arts, culture & society | Australia, Asia

23 August 2016

The wall of censorship restricting access to information about the handling and treatment of asylum seekers effectively stopped immigration policy from becoming an issue during the 2016 federal election, but it may now be crumbling, Max Walden writes.

Facing the media after a 5.6 per cent swing against him in the Brisbane seat of Dickson, Australian Immigration Minister Peter Dutton defiantly declared the Liberal-National Coalition was the “victim of our own success, the fact that we stopped boats and got children out of detention … essentially the issue [of asylum seekers] had gone off the radar.” In some ways he was correct.

Since the late 1970s, a majority of Australian federal elections have featured the issues of refugee asylum seeker immigration and border security as if they were somehow intrinsically linked. The first ‘boatpeople’ arrived into Darwin harbour from Vietnam in April 1976. During the 1977 election, Labor opposition leader Gough Whitlam fought hard to portray the Liberal party as weak on border protection. It was this election that coined the ubiquitous terms in Australian political vocabulary that still characterise debates around asylum seekers today: “queue jumpers”, “genuine refugees” and “boatpeople”.

During the 1980s, Malcolm Fraser’s temporary bipartisanship on refugee resettlement in the broader framework of nascent multiculturalism broke down. In 1988, then Liberal leader John Howard declared that Asian migration should be “slowed down a little, so the capacity of the community to absorb it was greater.” By the early 1990s, Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating had introduced mandatory detention to deter asylum seekers fleeing war in Cambodia. As Prime Minister, Howard’s response to the Tampa Crisis during the 2001 election changed the course of the campaign and swept his Liberal-National Coalition to another convincing victory.

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In 2016, however, this was not so. The Coalition won, but it was not because voters believed its refugee policy to be superior. During the campaign Malcolm Turnbull tried hard to link Operation Sovereign Borders to the strength of Howard’s policies and contrast it to what he alleged was Labor’s “soft” approach which had “failed Australia at the border.”

The Liberal Party’s asylum policy – ‘Protecting Our Borders’ – emphasised “stopping the boats”. In it, they commit to maintaining Australia’s current refugee intake, which stands at 13,750 this year, and increasing the number of places made available for resettlement to 18,750 by 2018. Labor’s policy, ‘A Humane and Compassionate Approach to Asylum Seekers’, promised to double the intake of people resettled in Australia and abolish temporary protection visas.

Accordingly, the Liberals attempted to make Labor look weak and divided on this issue. During Turnbull’s speech at the Liberal party’s election rally, he declared that “50 Labor candidates, members and Senators do not support Mr Shorten’s policy on boats.”

Perhaps the only party to put asylum seekers at the forefront of its policy platform, the Greens’ ‘A Better Way’ proposes increasing the annual humanitarian intake to 50,000 people and adopting a new Skilled Refugee visa program for 10,000 people.

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Turnbull and his ministers certainly attempted to make border policy an economic issue, claiming that the ALP’s proposed border policy would put a dangerous “strain … on the budget” at an exaggerated figure of $2.5 billion per year. A week out from the election, Turnbull and Dutton proclaimed that the government had successfully returned an asylum seeker boat to Vietnam. Critics questioned the timing of this announcement given that the boat had been intercepted earlier in June. Opposition Leader Bill Shorten scoffed at the tactic, labelling it the Liberals’ “old break glass issue.”

In any case, the election was squarely focused on the economy: healthcare, education and jobs. Labor’s so-called ‘Mediscare’ campaign got far more traction than the Coalition’s attempts to smear Labor on its border policy.

Thus Dutton’s assertion that the Coalition had been a “victim of its own success” rings true. The secrecy and disclosure clauses of the Border Force Act, which prevent whistleblowing and restrict the flow of information regarding ‘operational matters’ to the public, means that asylum seekers were kept out of sight and therefore out of voters’ minds during the 2016 campaign.

Longer-term rhetorical linking of refugees with issues such as national security, border protection, terrorism and unemployment may not have helped the Coalition, but it almost certainly contributed to the election of four of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation candidates to the Australian Senate.

Change could well be on the horizon. Australia’s immigration detention network is facing impending chaos. The Papua New Guinea supreme court’s ruling on the illegality of the Manus Island detention centre has posed a fundamental challenge to the government’s border policy. In August, Peter Dutton announced that Australia and PNG had agreed to shut the Manus Island facility, yet reasserted that the men held in detention there would not be resettled in Australia. Their fate remains highly uncertain. The government is meanwhile desperately searching for alternative arrangements with Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.

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Reports of misery and impunity for abuse on Nauru increasingly break through the censorship imposed by the 2015 Australian Border Force Act. Recent investigations by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International about the treatment of asylum seekers on Nauru have also reignited debate over abuse in detention and the lack of transparency across Australia’s offshore detention regime. According to these organisations, people detained on Nauru “suffer severe abuse, inhumane treatment, and neglect” which is carried out behind a “wall of secrecy”. Guardian Australia has released 2000 leaked files further detailing systemic rights abuses within Australia’s immigration detention centre on Nauru, including violent and sexual assaults, self-harm and child abuse.

If the Turnbull government or the Labor opposition decide to alter their respective policy platforms, asylum seekers may become an important issue at the next election. But in 2016, asylum policy was simply, and reprehensibly, a non-event.

Max Walden is co-authoring a chapter on the 2016 Australian federal election and asylum seekers, looking at why  ‘boatpeople’ weren’t on the agenda, with Sara Dehm of Melbourne Law School for the upcoming book The 2016 Australian Federal Election, to be published by ANU Press.

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Walden, Max. 2016. "Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind - Policy Forum". Policy Forum.