Let’s be intellectually honest: Federal Labor is now effectively coalescing with the indefinite detention of asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island.
This is occurring despite the lead given by Victoria’s Labor Premier Daniel Andrews (followed by most other Australian premiers) that 267 asylum seekers brought to Australia from Nauru, ought to be permitted to stay here.
In 2013 Kevin Rudd announced that asylum seekers arriving here by boat would not be permitted to resettle in Australia. This policy was subsequently adopted by the Abbott and Turnbull governments.
In ‘The Age’ on 19 January, Robert Manne pointed out that the policy of refusing resettlement in Australia to boat arrivals cannot possibly be an essential element of preventing deaths at sea, or destroying the people smuggler’s business model. This is because the Howard Government had succeeded in preventing boat arrivals without recourse to any policy prohibiting eventual resettlement of boat arrivals here. Manne wrote:
“Under the Howard government between 2001 and 2007 two policies – offshore processing and tow-back where feasible to Indonesia – effectively stopped the boats. Eventually, however, most of those sent to Nauru or Manus Island were gradually and quietly settled, some in New Zealand, most in Australia. No one argued that with re-settlement the boats would return… As the experience of the Howard government should have shown, the element Rudd added to Australia’s asylum seeker deterrent policy was entirely unnecessary. People smugglers need a product to sell. Under Howard the threat of turn back and, if that failed, transfer to an offshore processing camp, killed the market stone dead.”
It looked like Federal Labor’s policy might be revised when, on 3 February, shadow Attorney General Mark Dreyfus told Radio National’s Michael Brissenden that at the time when Kevin Rudd announced his policy, “No-one envisaged …that two and a half years later people- men, women and children- would be languishing in these centres facing indefinite detention, because that is the current situation….”. If no-one envisaged this, but this has been the result of the policy then surely the policy should change?
Of course the assertion by Mark Dreyfus that nobody envisaged that Rudd’s policy might lead to indefinite detention is not true. On the contrary, there was no reason to believe that Rudd’s policy would result in anything other than indefinite detention of asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus. Why? Because it was never the case that the UNHCR or third countries were going to rush to relieve Australia of its international obligations to deal with those seeking asylum in Australia by speedily facilitating regional processing and the resettlement of those seeking asylum here to third countries.
Kevin Rudd’s announcement was in fact slammed by the UNHCR and by Indonesia. And at a demonstration, held at an event at which Mark Dreyfus was speaking near the time of Rudd’s announcement, Refugee Action Coalition spokeswoman Sue Bolton told the media:
”We’re here because Mark Dreyfus has vigorously defended the Labor Party policy of locking up refugees indefinitely in detention.”
Ms. Bolton clearly understood what the results of Kevin Rudd’s policy were likely to be.
Mark Dreyfus’s assertion that the current situation of “indefinite detention” was never intended by Labor has clearly not led to any change in its policy.
After Dreyfus made his comment, on the ABC’s ‘Q and A’ program on 8 February, Catherine King stated:
“The policy settings are that that re settlement will not happen in Australia and Labor has agreed to that…I agree with the policy settings that we currently have, as difficult as that it is…”
Asked by Tony Jones if she believed that asylum seekers currently in Australia should be sent back to Nauru in the meantime, Catherine King stated “That’s correct”.
Both Mark Dreyfus and Catherine King criticised the Coalition for the de facto situation of indefinite detention on Nauru and Manus.
Mark Dreyfus said:
“We’ve heard nothing from Mr Turnbull, nothing from Mr Dutton that in any way offers any prospect of to any of those people that this indefinite detention is going to be brought to an end.”
Catherine King urged that Australia should increase its efforts to engage with the UNHCR and find “a credible third party country re settlement for those who are on Manus and Nauru”.
But how credible is Labor’s own position?
Putting the very best possible spin on it, Labor’s policy puts the cart before the horse. Regional processing, resettlement to “credible third party countries” and UNHCR involvement in the running of offshore detention centres should be in place before consideration is given to any policy that involves sending asylum seekers to offshore detention with a view to their expeditious resettlement in places other than Australia.
Even if Labor was in power today the notion that regional processing and expeditious resettlement of asylum seekers to credible third countries could be established within any definite period, if at all, is pure speculation.
The evidence is in. People who have committed no crime, and who are exercising a right to seek asylum consistent with international law are, on Mark Dreyfus’s own admission, now being subjected to indefinite detention in Nauru and Manus.
Labor’s current policy is not credible. It is full of contradictions. Continuing to support people being sent to indefinite detention on Nauru and Manus on the basis that the conditions would be different there if only Labor was in power is absurd.
Labor’s policy therefore needs to change. Asylum seekers who are found to be refugees need to be permitted to resettle in Australia at least until regional processing and resettlement to credible third countries is established. Punishing asylum seekers mode of arrival by sending them to indefinite detention in Nauru and Manus is inhumane, inconsistent with our obligations under international law and has nothing whatsoever to do with stopping deaths at sea.