Malcolm Turnbull confronts a classic “wicked problem” in how to deal with the nearly 1600 asylum seekers who are stuck in terrible conditions on Nauru and Manus Island.
A “wicked problem” is one that is “highly resistant to resolution”. In this case, Turnbull has – if he chooses to take it up – the policy challenge of finding a humane outcome for the detainees while maintaining a convincing “tough on borders” stand vis-a-vis the people smugglers.
This would also involve a political challenge. Hardline conservatives in his party, still appalled by the leadership coup, will use the asylum-seeker issue as one marker by which to judge Turnbull. From the other perspective, so will some moderate Liberals in the party and small-l liberals in voterland.
The present unacceptable state of affairs has most recently been highlighted by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, François Crépeau. He announced he was postponing his September 27-October 9 visit to Australia “due to the lack of full co-operation from the government regarding protection concerns and access to detention centres”.
Crépeau said the new Border Force Act, which threatens detention centre staff who disclose protected information with two years in jail, “would have an impact on my visit as it serves to discourage people from fully disclosing information relevant to my mandate”.
He had asked the government for a written guarantee that no-one he met would be at risk of “any intimidation or sanctions” under that act. The government was not prepared to give the guarantee required by his official terms of reference.
Crépeau said that since March he had repeatedly requested that the Australian government facilitate his access to its offshore processing centres, without success.
Immigration Minister Peter Dutton responded that the government had “accommodated to the fullest extent possible the requests of the office of the Special Rapporteur”. Access to centres in Papua New Guinea and Nauru “is the responsibility of these sovereign nations and needs to be addressed with their governments”, Dutton added.
The most recent numbers (late August) showed 936 males detained on Manus and 653 detainees in Nauru (446 men, 114 women and 93 children). Processing has been painfully slow.
Under the Abbott government it was thought acceptable to let these people languish, apparently indefinitely.
Hopefully Turnbull will take a different view. He hinted at this last week when asked by Sky’s David Speers about the people “stuck” offshore. “I have the same concerns about the situation of people on Manus and Nauru as you do, and as I would think almost all, all, Australians do,” he said.
When some saw this as a potential softening of policy, however, he quickly reiterated that these people would never come to Australia.
Turnbull should address several steps if he is going to deal with the plight of the people on Nauru and Manus.
First, the government should do whatever is required to give the Special Rapporteur proper access to people and places. Ensuring protection for those who speak with the Rapporteur and access to centres is the easiest part of dealing with the wicked problem.
Second, there should be more Australian oversight in the centres. Claims that the sovereignty of PNG and Nauru would be compromised do not hold water – Australia is paying the bills.
Third, the government should find a way of having the people in the detention centres processed more quickly. The processing is done by the Nauru and PNG authorities, so the Australian government says “ask them” in response to questions about delays – a convenient but not convincing answer.
Fourth, those determined to be refugees need to be resettled satisfactorily, bearing in mind that the government won’t allow them to come to Australia.
From the reporting we have seen – most recently at the weekend from The Age’s Michael Gordon, who visited Manus – the conditions of the small number whose refugee claims have been upheld and who are out of the detention centres are appalling.
The government promised large amounts of funding for Cambodia to take people. Only a handful of refugees went.
Other third-country destinations are needed. But what hope of finding them, when the world is awash with great human tides of asylum seekers? Are any countries interested in “people swap” deals?
Fifth, any attempt by people smugglers to take advantage of a more humane policy towards the Manus and Nauru people by trying to restart the trade would need to be stared down. Both sides of politics now endorse turnbacks and there is no reason to think this would not continue to be effective as a deterrent.
Sixth, the Border Force Act should be amended, to allow those working in detention centres proper rights to provide information publicly in appropriate circumstances. The Australian Medical Association has been campaigning against the legislation and its voice should be heeded – it has a professional not a commercial interest in the issue.
In his last days as prime minister, Tony Abbott had Australia make a generous gesture to 12,000 refugees from the Syrian conflict. That actually was easier than solving the problem of the people stranded in PNG and Nauru. But the fate of those close at hand and under our watch is equally important and increasingly urgent.
Malcolm Turnbull has seized the prime ministership from Tony Abbott by 54 votes to 44 in a late-night vote that transforms the federal political landscape, presenting Bill Shorten with potentially a much more formidable opponent.
Turnbull’s victory culminated an extraordinary day, which saw him launch his challenge with a scathing public assault on Abbott’s failures, followed by bitter counter attacks from ministers backing Abbott as he fought a desperate rearguard action.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, who joined the Turnbull push and went to Abbott before question time to tell him he had lost his party’s support, was re-elected deputy leader, defeating Abbott backer Kevin Andrews 70 votes to 30. Bishop had indicated she would not serve as deputy if Abbott held his job.
Turnbull, with a big task to unite the party, will comprehensively reshuffle the ministry with Treasurer Joe Hockey a certain casualty and Social Services Minister Scott Morrison favourite to replace him.
Turnbull’s victory reverses the defeat that Abbott imposed on him in 2009 in opposition.
A moderate, Turnbull has consistently outpolled Abbott as preferred leader. His victory – which comes despite the suspicion of him by many Liberals in the right-leaning party – reflects the deep fears of an election loss under Abbott.
The day began with most Liberals believing that although a leadership contest was nearly inevitable, it probably would not come this week, which is the run-up to the Canning byelection.
Abbott, speaking in Adelaide on Monday morning, tried to shrug off talk of a leadership spill, saying he was not going to get caught up in “Canberra gossip”.
As the prime minister was on his way to Canberra, the Turnbull camp was plotting its strategy.
Turnbull met Abbott after Question Time to tell him he would challenge, and resign as communications minister.
He then went out to lambast Abbott’s failures when he announced his candidature at a news conference.
Turnbull said Abbott had not been capable of providing the economic leadership the nation needed and would not be able to win the election. A new style of leadership was needed, including “advocacy not slogans”. The trajectory was clear; the Coalition had lost 30 Newspolls in a row. “It is clear the people have made up their mind about Mr Abbott’s leadership.”
Announcing the party meeting, Abbott said the leadership should be earned by a vote of the Australian people and the Liberals should avoid “Labor’s revolving-door prime ministership”.
The leadership uncertainty has dogged the government all year, with an unsuccessful spill motion moved by backbenchers in February. Turnbull did not put up his hand because he did not have the numbers.
Morrison, a key figure on the right of the party, flagged before the ballot that he would vote for Abbott, but would not seek to be deputy leader.
The Abbott camp rolled out a string of ministers to try to discredit Turnbull before the party meeting, which started at 9.15pm.
Hockey denounced Turnbull’s claims about bad economic leadership, saying they were “completely unfounded. He has never said to me or to the cabinet that we are heading in the wrong direction.”
Hockey said that the “disloyalty of some has been outrageous”.
Senate leader Eric Abetz said it was a question of “core beliefs not personalities”. Like other Abbott backers, Abetz said the “flood of messages” to Liberal MPs was clear: “one, keep Tony Abbott as PM and, two, don’t behave like the Labor Party did”.
Andrews said office telephones had been in “meltdown” with messages of support for Tony Abbott. “The party base overwhelmingly supports the PM as do our Coalition partners the Nationals.”
Andrews said there was a clear choice. On the one hand, Abbott had shown he could fight and beat Labor in two elections. On the other hand, Turnbull had never fought an election as leader.
“He talks today about being behind in the Newspolls. Don’t forget that he never actually won a Newspoll when he was leader,” Andrews said.
Immigration Minister Peter Dutton strongly defended Abbott. Finance Minister Mathias Cormann and Assistant Treasurer Josh Frydenberg also publicly backed Abbott.
National Party Leader and Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss confirmed before the meeting that while the leadership was a choice for the Liberals, any change would require a new Coalition agreement.
This is expected to be a formality.
Truss praised Abbott, saying he had been a “very inclusive leader” and “the progress and the processes of government have been very constructive and well organised”.
The Turnbull camp did not hit the airwaves with a bevy of public figures before the vote. But strong Turnbull supporter Senator Arthur Sinodinos, John Howard’s former chief of staff, said there needed to be a change of both style and substance in national leadership.
“I believe Malcolm Turnbull can bring real substance to the economic debate. He will lead from the front,” Sinodinos said.
Canning Liberal candidate Andrew Hastie, a former SAS officer, said in a statement: “People have called me today worried about this byelection, that somehow events in Canberra have made my job more difficult. And believe me, in my previous career I’ve experienced much worse.
“In fact, I’m going up a gear now for the people of Canning. This byelection is not about political games, it’s about the people of Canning and they’re losing faith in the political class.”