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.
Frontbencher Joel Fitzgibbon has fired a salvo in one of the most electorally important battles for Bill Shorten at the coming ALP national conference – whether a Labor government should turn back boats.
Fitzgibbon, a former defence minister, predicted that turnbacks would be part of Labor’s policy for the election. “Let’s have the debate at national conference. I believe that will be the outcome,” he said.
Fitzgibbon’s view represents that of the NSW right, of which he is a member, but the issue is difficult for Shorten and the conference.
It is one about which many ALP members feel passionately; the national conference make-up between right and left is closer and more uncertain than usual; and Labor at the last election was highly critical of the Coalition’s policy.
Shorten is already in a tricky position. When immigration spokesman Richard Marles last year signalled Labor might embrace turnbacks, Shorten slapped him down, saying “the case has not been made out for change”.
But there is a growing feeling in the parliamentary party that Labor needs to alter its policy.
If the conference said an ALP government should not turn back boats, it would be handing the Liberals a big weapon for the election. Together with the tough offshore processing regime, turnbacks have been regarded as important in stopping the people smuggling trade.
The parliamentary party is, in theory, bound by what conference decides, although in practice the MPs have exercised considerable flexibility.
The draft platform for the July conference is silent on turnbacks.
The Labor for Refugees group is gearing up for a strong fight at the conference.
Its national co-convenor Robin Rothfield told The Conversation on Sunday that an amendment on turnbacks was being prepared based on ACTU policy.
Rothfield said the proposed amendment would go to a meeting of the national left in Sydney at the coming weekend.
It reads: “Labor rejects other policies of ‘deterrence’ implemented alongside offshore detention, especially intercepting and turning back boats at sea, or transferring refugees to other vessels for immediate return to their countries of origin without a proper assessment of their claims for protection.
“Such policies needlessly put both asylum seekers and seafarers in danger. Provisions in the Migration and Maritime Powers Legislation Amendment Act 2014 which facilitate boat turnbacks and give the Immigration Minister the power to secretly suspend the application of Australian Maritime Law and International Maritime Conventions to any vessel must be repealed.”
Fitzgibbon told Sky a range of tools was needed to ensure the flow of boats did not resume and “one of those tools currently is boat turnbacks”.
“Personally I can’t see that there’s an overwhelming argument that turnbacks isn’t an important part of the tool kit.” Fitzgibbon said there was a universal commitment within shadow cabinet to ensuring the asylum seeker flows did not begin again.
The ALP’s incoming national president, Mark Butler, from the left, said that Labor was “committed to making sure the boat passageway between Java and Australia remains closed”.
Pressed on whether he thought that turnbacks should be part of Labor’s policy, Butler told reporters that one of the concerns Australians had with this policy area was “the government’s obsession with secrecy, particularly their obsession with secrecy they have around the turnbacks operations they have in place.
“Particularly around questions involving safety at sea, for everyone involved including Navy personnel, but also the impact on relations with our important neighbour, Indonesia.”
The government is already preparing its counter if Labor does say it will turn back boats. Immigration Minister Peter Dutton was out on Sunday declaring that Labor in government would not follow through with action.
Postscript: Mirabella on the march
Former Liberal frontbencher Sophie Mirabella on Sunday won preselection for her old seat of Indi, making the Victorian electorate one of the most interesting contests to come. In 2013, Mirabella lost what had been a safe Liberal seat to independent Cathy McGowan, who ran a campaign based on localism.
Mirabella, who would have been a cabinet minister in the Abbott government, had ignored the signs over years of an eroding vote. Bidding for preselection, she admitted she had spent too much time away from her home patch. “Clearly, I got the balance wrong,” she wrote to preselectors. But some Liberals believe she could be a drag on the party’s vote because of her previous record.
The Nationals have indicated they will also run a candidate. Their strategy has been to position themselves, if McGowan held the seat, to mount a strong bid for it on her likely retirement after another term.