Friday, December 23, 2011

A new hope

Given the current state of affairs in the asylum seeker onshore/offshore processing debate (or lack thereof, it's a mad rush to a foregone terrible conclusion), I thought I would write the speech that I would love to hear Julia Gillard give on asylum seeker policy.

Sure, it's a pie in the sky thing, but when the mood is so low and the debate so craven, sometimes even the imagining of a better situation can inspire action from a tired and jaded audience.

It seems sad that we are such a level that even the concept of hope on this issue seems laughable. But follow me down that path to where hope might still live. It's not perfect, but it's a start.

Merry Christmas.


Ladies and Gentlemen, people of Australia.

There can be no doubt that in the past ten years, the dominant issue that has been debated and discussed ad nauseum by media commentators and politicians on both sides of the house is the topic of the arrival of asylum seekers on Australian shores.

Australia is in a unique situation - a continent populated by the citizens of a single country - bordered only by sea. We have no shared borders and thus we do not have the complication of policing, funding or debating secure boundaries with a less prosperous neighbour, as our friends in the United States or many countries in Europe do. We are bounded by 35, 877 km of coastline - natural protection from unwelcome visitors and given this, the vast majority (so much so that we may as well say all) of our arrivals, whether for tourism, business or migration, have been via plane since the dawn of the age of modern, cheap, human flight. 

Despite this, the emphasis on policy has been deterring those who would arrive by boat – we forget that the biggest deterrents of all are the coastline, seas and remoteness that divide us from the rest of the world; there is no path that any refugee can walk to cross the border into Australia. 

Even in this period where the government is accused of encouraging people across the sea, boat arrivals make up less than 5% of total asylum applications, and countries like Italy frequently experience influxes of boat arrivals over the course of two months that are double the the annual number of boat arrivals in Australian waters. Overall Australia hosts just 0.21% of the world's refugees, in comparison, more than 80% are housed in developing nations.

While it cannot be denied that “pull” factors have an impact in our immediate region, to some small extent – it is “push” factors that have the greatest impact on arrivals overall, and particularly those by boat. Push factors that drive those whose lives are in immediate risk in countries which have been ravaged by war, some of which we as a nation have helped to fight while not thinking of the humanitarian issue of those who are displaced or endangered as a product of conflict.

We think of the recent tragedy of the shipwreck off the coast of East Java, the loss of life, and the ravaged survivors, specifically Afghani asylum seeker Esmat Adine who has told reporters of being directed by the Australian embassy to wait for the coming years to apply for asylum, despite immediate risk to his life in an established theatre of war. Esmat worked for a US humanitarian organisation in Afghanistan – he is an educated, moral and upright person with a clear knowledge of international human rights and a contribution to make, and yet our system failed him. 

Faced with immediate danger, and the acknowledged mortal risks associated with sea travel to a potential better life, Esmat of course made the choice that gave him a chance of survival. It is a choice that those of us lucky enough to have been born into a country that has a stable democratically government, a bounty of resources, modern infrastructure, universal healthcare and a state-funded education system will likely never have to make, but one that I imagine all of us would make when confronted with the alternative. 

Rather than breaking the people smuggler's business model, the current policy of deterrence creates and reinforces it. If there was a lawful way for those in danger to make their way to Australia, people like Esmat Adine have shown that they would take it. The deterrent, and Australia's reluctance to increase its humanitarian intake as it stands, encourages people onto boats.

And with the capsizing and running aground of the boat that Esmat Adine would have arrived on, it becomes clear once more that the deterrent is not worth the cost to human life. 

The issue of boat arrivals may be one that divides our community at present; many feel that the problem is one of “protecting our borders” - language brought into the debate in the Howard years that conflates those seeking asylum with a fear of alien invasion not dissimilar to the impulse that inspired the White Australia-style policy. My government, and the Rudd government before it, too, has been guilty of borrowing this language. But the time for this language is over, and it is time that we revisited asylum seeker policy and its emphasis in migration policy overall.

We have an ethical, and above all else, legal responsibility to those who seek asylum. This means not punishing them for their arrival, or for the means in which they arrive. It also means creating viable means of entry so that those who have grounds to seek asylum are not encouraged onto “leaky boats” by our policy of deterrence.

We also have an economic responsibility to the people of Australia – this means not paying the exorbitant costs of offshore processing to make a point that is ill-informed, unfounded and above all else, not demonstrably beneficial to anyone concerned. The cost of processing a single refugee in the Pacific Solution was more than half a million dollars. During this time some refugees were detained for up to 3 years, at what has been shown to be hugely detrimental psychologically. And of those who were detained at Nauru or on Manus Island, the vast majority were subsequently found to be refugees – now bearing the scars of not just the countries where they have come from but also those of detention they did not deserve.

While the Howard government claimed that the Pacific Solution reduced the number of arrivals drastically, these figures fail to take into account the fact that asylum seeker numbers worldwide were at an all time high in 2001, and had more than halved by the end of 2006. The numbers of refugees internationally was clearly the factor here, not the policy - at a massive cost to the Australian people, and to the people in detention.

The Opposition Leader speaks of wanting to protect those who would board a boat to get to Australia from the threat of death in transit, failing to see that there is often graver risk in not hopping on that boat if there are no other legitimate channels to seek asylum.

As Prime Minister, I have the job, like Labor leaders before me such as Paul Keating and Bob Hawke, or even Liberal leaders such as John Howard and Sir Malcolm Fraser, of putting policy into place which may be unpopular but serves the greater needs and wishes of this country and its people.

Having the conviction to make these decisions, and to do what is best for the country even if it may mean personal attack or insult, a momentary dip in polling or the loss of government is not just the mark of leadership - it is the duty of the Prime Minister.

Real policy decisions look beyond the populism of those issues that will affect voters on the way to the ballot box at the next election, and to those issues that will affect our lives in ten years time - to those issues that will affect our children, and even their children.

Australians are an intelligent, rational, overwhelmingly well-educated and aspirational people. 
For too long, we have played to those among us who would have opposed the emancipation of slaves in the United States in the 19th century, to those who would have opposed the tearing up of the White Australia policy in the 20th century, to those who fear international trade, essential to Australia's current prosperity, on racial grounds – minority views that have been encouraged into the public's consciousness as being indicative of all Australians' position.

I believe the Australian people are better, more moral and more intelligent, than that.

Given this, my government will not be taking up the offer made by Tony Abbott to change the Migration Act, to again move processing offshore whether it is to Nauru, Manus Island or even Malaysia. The High Court ruled against this decision in the past, and were right to do – offshore processing is wrong in law (both nationally and internationally), as well as ethics and logic, and should remain that way.

A regional solution is the answer, and my government remains committed to that, but wholesale swapping of asylum seekers with other countries in the region, where welfare cannot be assured or duty of care overseen, is not that solution.

We will be moving to ensure that the channels by which asylum seekers can arrive are safer, more open and more transparent - this means increasing the proportion of refugees in our migration intake to accomodate those seeking asylum at their country of origin. And for those who do arrive by boat or plane, processing will be conducted onshore, within the community. This process will be conducted with transparency, and open to public scrutiny – bound by the conventions of the Australian public service, and not hidden behind security classification.

For those who fear for our infrastructure – though the numbers do not merit this fear – we will provide it, and where necessary reinforce it. The Gillard and Rudd governments, and the Labor party as a whole, have shown that we are the party of infrastructure investment – something sorely lacking in the Howard government that preceded us. 

It is time that Australia took a stand, not in protecting or closing our borders, but in meeting our international obligations to create a fair and just environment for those who arrive on our doorstep in need, no matter the means of arrival. 

Let's show the international community what it means to be Australian.


  1. So after a packed lunch I made it to the end. I don't think my time was wasted and I enjoyed reading, even if it is just a fantasy story.

  2. Thanks for reading, it's a long haul. Yes, it's a fairytale of wish fulfilment, but it's nice to imagine.

    If we got even halfway there I'd be happy.

  3. This is my wish for the New Year - that we hear a speech like the above. Happy Christmas to you too Rev.