Yesterday saw both the government and Opposition make policy announcements regarding asylum seekers. Most of the attention has focused on Prime Minster Gillard’s speech on the issue, although (conveniently for the government) there is so much detail yet to be finalised that it is hard to make definitive judgements on how it will all work.
By contrast, the Opposition’s policy release got less attention, beyond general comments about how it is ‘tougher’, which is obviously the Opposition’s main goal. (As an aside, I’ve never quite understood how people can say they are being ‘tough’ by deliberately brutalising and punishing vulnerable people, but maybe there is some other meaning to ‘toughness’ I’m not aware of).
In any case, I saw a copy of the media release by Mr Abbott and his immigration spokesperson Scott Morrison and I thought it might be worth contrasting its statements with reality (yes, I know assertions by politicians don’t need to have any connection with reality, but occasionally I like to see how much commonality there is between the two).
My responses are interspersed between each paragraph
THE COALITION’S REAL ACTION PLAN FOR RESTORING INTEGRITY AND FAIRNESS TO REFUGEE DECISION MAKING
(It’s hard to see how an ‘action plan’ which removes independent review and increases the politicisation of refugee decision making could ‘restore’ integrity or fairness, but let’s explore the details further)
Only the Coalition can be trusted to protect the integrity of our borders.
(The terms ‘border security’ or ‘integrity of our borders’ is widely used by both larger parties, but it’s never explained how asylum seekers could be seen as threatening our border security, seeing every single one of them is detected, and wants to be detected, upon their arrival. Still, it sounds scary, so I suppose it’s a good phrase to use)
The Coalition will take direct and real action to further improve the integrity of our refugee assessment process to give Australians greater confidence in our immigration system.
(Reducing independent review reduces the integrity of any government decision making process. I’d love to see how far any party would get if they tried to suggest that removing the Veterans Review Tribunal was ‘improving the integrity’ of bureaucrat’s decision making on veteran entitlements. Technically, refugees are also not part of our immigration system, and trying to conflate them with our general migration program only adds to public misunderstanding.)
Each year Australia accepts 13,750 people under our refugee and humanitarian programme. This is the most generous resettlement programme per capita in the world today.
(This is a very deliberate misleading use of statistics which governments have used for many years to try to deceive the Australian people. There are many countries which accept far greater numbers of refugees per capita than Australia does. In most countries, this consists solely or mostly of asylum seekers who arrive at their borders, whereas Australia – to our credit – takes a number from offshore for resettlement each year, but have comparatively few arriving at our borders. But our 13 750 intake includes both offshore and onshore – if we are to count onshore applicants as part of ‘resettlement’, then we have to let the many other countries who take many more refugees than we do to count their onshore applicants as ‘resettlement’ too. If we count both onshore and offshore refugee visa grants – which is the logical thing to do, seeing they are all refugees – we are slightly below mid-range when it comes to the number of refugees accepted per capita.)
It is only right that the Australian Government should do everything it can to preserve the integrity and fairness of this programme to ensure that we provide our assistance to the most deserving cases.
(When the Australian government decides which refugees to accept from offshore, there is no assessment process which seeks to rank who is the ‘most deserving’ or who has waited the longest. There is also no need for Australia to remove places from the offshore refugee and humanitarian program whenever an asylum seeker onshore is granted a protection visa. Linking these two separate groups was a deliberate decision made by the previous government in an effort to try to pit one group of refugees against another.)
This means giving preference to those people who apply off shore from the various camps and other settlements around the world, rather than those who seek to take their place by arriving illegally, whether by boat or other means.
(The Coalition clearly made a conscious decision some time ago to deliberately use the false and dishonest term of “illegal” to describe asylum seekers who arrive hear seeking protection. It is well established that there is nothing illegal about entering our country on order to seek protection, regardless of whether the person has a vise or not. This is a deliberate pre-meditated use of inflammatory language. As stated above, it is only due to a government decision that those people who are granted protection visas onshore (and contrary to what the Coalition says, many of them arrive with a visa) are deemed to ‘take’ the place of people offshore.)
In particular this means attacking the criminal business of people smugglers and denying them a product to sell, namely almost guaranteed permanent residence, as currently occurs under Labor’s policies.
(Permanent residence is only ‘guaranteed’ if the person is assessed to be a genuine refugee. In such cases, removing them from Australia means deporting them to danger or even death (as happened occasionally during the Howard era). Providing only temporary residence, which was tried under the Howard government, not only failed to reduce the number of boat arrivals, but increased the number of women and children on the boats and led to far greater impediments to effective settlement of the refugees, almost all of whom ended up being granted permanent visas eventually).
That is why the Coalition has announced it will restore the strong regime of border protection policies that were so effective under the last Coalition Government, in particular off shore processing in another country, temporary protection visas and being prepared to turn back the boats where the circumstances allow.
(As stated above, temporary protection visas led to an increase in boat arrivals and in the numbers of women and children on the boats. The vast majority of those who were sent to ‘offshore processing’ (i.e. Nauru & Manus Island) were found to be refugees and were eventually resettled in Australia – at the extra cost to the taxpayer of many hundreds of millions of dollars and far greater trauma and harm to many innocent refugees, including children. It is true that they did turn back a small number of boats, (with uncertainty about what happened to some of the occupants on at least one occasion))
These are the policies that must be implemented on our side of the fence to deter people smugglers, in addition to the continued commitment to regional and international cooperation.
(I didn’t know we had a ‘fence’ around Australia, but presumably the Coalition likes to think we do (or should).)
Today, we announce further measures to increase the integrity of our assessment process to give Australians greater confidence that those who benefit from our protection are genuine refugees.
(This contains an implicit smear that those who arrive in boats are not ‘genuine’ – a disgraceful and very harmful statement to make which reflects on many thousands of Australian citizens who first arrived here in this way. As for ‘increasing the integrity of the assessment process’. as mentioned below, any party which believes that giving politicians greater power and reduces independent oversight of government decisions ‘increases integrity’ of administrative decisions is one to be very wary of.).
We will do this by putting an end to Labor’s tick and flick approach where decisions are made on a ‘balance of probabilities’ rather than hard evidence of a person’s identity. A Coalition Government will make a presumption against granting refugee status to any applicant who is believed to have deliberately discarded their identity documentation prior to presenting themselves to Australian authorities.
(This is a flagrant breach of the Refugee Convention which not even Howard and Ruddock tried to do (at least overtly). It’s also hard to see how reversing the onus of proof on identity could equate to ‘increasing integrity’, especially on life and death matters such as this.)
The Coalition will also put greater accountability and transparency into refugee status determination, shifting the final decision away from those who make the original assessments and increasing Ministerial scrutiny, including the ability to challenge approval recommendations.
(This ignores the fact that the Immigration Minister already has direct power to prevent the granting of a visa for anyone who arrived outside the migration zone (i.e. Christmas Island). It also sets up the ludicrous situation where the Immigration Minister becomes personally responsible for the granting of thousands of individual visas – and people complained about Kevin Rudd being a micro-manager! In addition, the current use of Ministerial discretion powers are about as opaque as you could get – even people who get positive results are given no idea why. Widening this even further – especially if it relies on the nebulous ‘national interest’ grounds which the Immigration Minister can already use to deny or cancel a visa – is hardly going to ‘increase transparency’.)
A Coalition Government will also increase the opportunities for legitimate refugees applying off shore through the appropriate channels by increasing the proportion of places we make available out of the 13,750 quota for those recommended by the UNHCR programme and the Coalition will also trial a refugee sponsorship programme similar to that employed in Canada, to enable groups within Australia to directly extend their generosity and sponsor a refugee, over and above the official programme.
(This again contains the implied smear that those refugees who apply onshore are not ‘legitimate’. If they are still going to force onshore and offshore into the same category and maintain a cap of 13 750, then increasing the proportion of places for those recommended by the UNHCR will just mean a reduction in numbers who enter through the humanitarian part of our refugee & humanitarian program – which includes crucial family reunion opportunities for many refugees already here. Depending on the conditions attached, enabling those already here to sponsor extra people in is good – although it should be noted that already many of those who come here through the humanitarian part of our program can only do so because they are sponsored by someone in Australia (another obvious example where places are not decided of the basis of who is ‘most in need’.)
Under Labor we have seen the number of illegal boat arrivals increasing from three per year under the Coalition to more than three per week. The number of people in detention under Labor has also increased from just four people who arrived illegally by boat in November 2007 to more than 3,500 today.
(Two more gratuitous and false uses of the term ‘illegal’.)
The costs of our detention programme to taxpayers have blown out by at least $1 billion, while people smugglers continue to reap their profits.
(As with the Howard government, the only reason detention costs are so high is because of the insistence on mandatory detention, and the insistence on detaining people in very remote, expensive locations.)
All of these pressures run the risk of compromising the integrity of our decision making process. A Coalition Government will introduce the checks and balances needed, with the Minister taking ultimate responsibility, to ensure Australians can have confidence that those we accept as refugees are legitimate and are therefore deserving of our protection and support.
(Again suggests that some of those being recognised as refugees now are not ‘legitimate’ or ‘deserving’. And if there was one thing that was demonstrated by having people detained and assessed on Nauru, with the entire assessment and ‘appeal’ process being conducted by government officials, it is that the decisions became very politicised and lacking in integrity. Of course, it is hardly rocket science to realise that having bureaucrats make decisions on highly politicised matters when they know there will be no independent review of their decisions is a surefire way to get a corrupted process.)
All those who fail this test must be returned home. This is currently not occurring under the policies of the Labor Government. The combination of Labor’s asylum freeze, lengthy appeals processes and now access to mainland courts, means even when people are not legitimate refugees they remain in Australia.
(People whose asylum claims are rejected are returned home, but they should have the right to have those claims fairly tested first. All of these delays happened to an even longer extent under the Coalition, and in many cases attempts to stifle appeal rights just led to an even longer legal process – weak as it is in when it comes to recognising rights, our Constitution does still aim to preserve the basic rule of law and independence of the judiciary. It always struck me as strange that so-called ‘conservatives’ would be the ones most keen on weakening the rule of law and basic principles of natural justice.)
Labor’s policies are giving people smugglers a product to sell. One hundred and forty three illegal boat arrivals do not lie. Labor cannot be trusted to implement policies that secure Australia’s borders and protect the integrity of immigration programme.
(Refugees – whether onshore arrivals or through our offshore program – are not part of our immigration program, which is administered separately. Nor do they threaten the ‘security of our borders’; one might be able to claim this if they got in without being detected and disappeared into the community, but seeing they all want to be and are found, and they are then all given more stringent health and security checks than anyone else trying to enter the country, it is hard to see how this claim stacks up.)