Australia’s asylum seeker policy history: a story of blunders and shame


Carolyn Holbrook, Deakin University

This article was developed from a series of interviews with politicians, officials and other key players, including former Immigration minister Chris Evans and former Victorian premier Steve Bracks. Others preferred to remain anonymous.


We know very little about the kind of government Scott Morrison runs. After beating Peter Dutton and Julie Bishop to the prime ministership in August last year, most commentators assumed Morrison was keeping the chair warm until Labor’s Bill Shorten won the 2019 election.

Following the Coalition’s unexpected victory, it’s time to ask more searching questions, not only about Scott Morrison’s political values and policy aspirations, but about his prime ministerial style.

Recent history suggests processes of policy decision-making can make or break governments.




Read more:
Cruel, and no deterrent: why Australia’s policy on asylum seekers must change


Labor’s shambolic attempts to create asylum seeker policy during the Rudd-Gillard years are emblematic of the dire consequences when tried-and-tested processes of policy advice fail.

In the face of internal dissent, thousands of asylum seekers arriving by boat and a marauding opposition leader, the government rejected its most vital source of advice, the public service.

It began in 2009

In mid-October 2009, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was informed that a vessel carrying 78 Sri Lankan asylum seekers was in danger of sinking in Indonesian waters. Rudd negotiated directly with the Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and decided to dispatch a Customs vessel, the Oceanic Viking, to rescue the asylum seekers and return them to Indonesia.

The then immigration minister Chris Evans first heard of the plan when he received a phone call from Rudd’s chief of staff, Alister Jordan.

Jordan was not consulting the immigration minister, but rather informing him of a plan that had been enacted. Evans rang his departmental secretary, Andrew Metcalfe, who told him the plan would not work because the asylum seekers would refuse to disembark.

As Metcalfe had foreseen, the asylum seekers refused to leave the Australian boat at Bintan. Australian voice surveillance revealed there was talk of mass suicide.




Read more:
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The standoff lasted four weeks, until a deal was struck that saw the Sri Lankans resettled in countries including New Zealand.

Officials in the Immigration Department were dumbfounded. One told me:

The Oceanic Viking was a thought bubble from Rudd … It was an absolute debacle. It was crazy. It had nothing to do with immigration but we were asked to go in and fix it up. And that scuttled any possibility of us doing anything with Indonesia for a long time.

The boats kept coming. There were 6,555 boat arrivals in 2010. On the night he lost the prime ministership to Julia Gillard, Rudd told the Labor caucus that if he won the leadership vote, he would “not be lurching to the right on question of asylum seekers”.

What Rudd didn’t mention was that the government had been actively exploring offshore options for some time.

The Immigration Department had prepared a list of possible sites for offshore detention that included Malaysia, Pakistan, Thailand, Indonesia, and East Timor.

Sounding out the East Timorese government

Evans was focused on pursuing a multilateral solution. His officials consulted with members of the refugee lobby, including the prominent lawyer David Manne, about being part of a broader regional arrangement that had the approval of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Evans and his department worked on an offshore deal that would meet with the approval of Australian stakeholders, neighbouring countries, and the UNHCR. But meanwhile, a small group of ministers focused on East Timor.




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The former Victorian premier, Steve Bracks, was approached at an airport and asked to sound out the East Timorese government about a processing centre. Bracks reported back that Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao was interested, but he would need some time to win support within his government.

Gusmao wanted negotiations to be done through the president, Jose Ramos Horta. This process was in train when Kevin Rudd was overthrown as prime minister on June 24, 2010.

In a speech to the Lowy Institute on July 5, the new prime minister, Gillard, announced she had discussed with Horta the possibility of establishing a regional processing centre in East Timor. But in going public, she had pre-empted the internal East Timorese process. Gusmao distanced himself from the plan and it quickly fizzled.

Meanwhile, the public servants who had been working on the multilateral solution were left scratching their heads. One official told me:

I have no idea where [East Timor] sprang from.

We were working on arrangements … and one of the really difficult things was thought bubbles kept coming from funny quarters and then you’d have the media onto it, laughing at it or making a joke of it.

Failed Malaysia initiative

After the 2010 election, the new immigration minister Chris Bowen secured an offshore processing arrangement with Malaysia. Immigration Department officials had encouraged Bowen to bring refugee stakeholders and the UNCHR on board.




Read more:
Refugees are integrating just fine in regional Australia


But Bowen, who was facing immense political pressure from opposition leader Tony Abbott, preferred to deal unilaterally with his Malaysian counterpart, Hishamuddin Hussein, with whom he had developed a strong rapport.

Hours before the first 16 asylum seekers were due to be transported to Malaysia, Manne obtained an injunction against their removal from Australia, pending a challenge to the legality of the government’s agreement with Malaysia.

In September 2011, the High Court decided in a six-to-one decision that the Malaysia agreement contravened the Migration Act because the refugees would not be given the protection required by the Australian legislation.

According to a key player, the High Court ruling was the product of a profound failure of process:

the government did a very bad job at … going to the organisations who would be part of any solution. And, instead, pissed them off so comprehensively they went to the High Court.




Read more:
Robert Manne: How we came to be so cruel to asylum seekers


After the failure of the Malaysia initiative, the Gillard government hurriedly reopened the Nauru and Manus Island processing centres.

In 2013, then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott debate about asylum seeker policy, and the ‘PNG solution’.

When Rudd replaced Gillard in June 2013, he announced that no one who arrived by boat would ever be settled in Australia. The boats slowed, but it was the institution of boat turnbacks under the Abbott government’s Operation Sovereign Borders that stopped them altogether.

The consequences of the Rudd and Gillard governments’ blundered handling of asylum seeker policy were considerable. Indonesia and East Timor were unnecessarily offended, the government’s political fortunes suffered and, most significantly, asylum seekers were again subjected to processing on Nauru and Manus Island.




Read more:
In Manus, theatre delivers home truths that can’t be dodged


It is conceivable that Manus and Nauru would have remained closed and Operation Sovereign Borders rendered unnecessary had the Rudd and Gillard governments heeded the advice of the Immigration Department to bring key refugee stakeholders and UNHCR on board into the process.

The institution of rigorous decision-making processes will not guarantee Scott Morrison’s success, but they could help him avoid many of the pitfalls that contributed to the downfall of the Rudd and Gillard governments.


Carolyn Holbrook is presenting a talk on this topic at the Australian Policy and History ‘History and the Hill’ Conference at Deakin University on Thursday, June 13The Conversation

Carolyn Holbrook, ARC DECRA Fellow at Deakin University, Deakin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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What will the Coalition be remembered for on tax? Tinkering, blunders and lost opportunities


Robert Breunig, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University and Kristen Sobeck, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

This article is part of a series examining the Coalition government’s record on key issues while in power and what Labor is promising if it wins the 2019 federal election.


Politicians often invoke the word “reform” to convey the significance, or gravitas, of a particular policy change they are proposing.

However, the tax policies implemented over the six years of the Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government should be more aptly described as: no reform, lots of tinkering, two blunders and some lost opportunities.

To be fair to the leaders of the Coalition, both Abbott and Turnbull began their prime ministerships professing a large appetite for tax reform.

In opposition Abbott and his treasury spokesman Joe Hockey had promised a major inquiry. Hockey said it would pick up where Labor’s Henry Tax Review left off:

We thought the Henry Tax Review was going to be a proper process. Now, that has obviously been an abject failure. We’ve said – Tony Abbott announced
in Budget and reply speech – we will have a proper process for proper tax reform, and whatever comes out of that process, which will be a white paper, we will take to a subsequent election, seeking the mandate of the
Australian people – their approval.

Treasury’s Re:think tax discussion paper, which is as far as the tax white paper process got.
Source: Commonwealth Treasury

It got as far as a discussion paper, seeking submissions.

When Turnbull assumed the leadership, the draft white paper, which would have followed the discussion paper, was scuttled, and the process ended.

Tinkering…

Instead what resulted were marginal changes to personal income tax. One of the brackets was expanded and a new low and middle income tax offset was added.

Marginal changes to superannuation tax further added to the complexity of the tax system as a whole. The current superannuation system disproportionately rewards higher income earners because most contributions are taxed at the same low rate (15%) regardless of the taxpayers’ income tax rate.

The Coalition’s response was to apply a 30% tax on contributions for those earning $250,000 or more (down from the previous threshold of $300,000) and to cut the cap on concessional contributions from $30,000 ($35,000 for those aged 49 and over) to $25,000. And it capped at $1.6 million the amount that could be transferred into the “retirement phase” where fund earnings in retirement were exempt from tax.

It made the system much more complex, and it could have been done more simply, perhaps by reimposing tax on super earnings in retirement (at a low rate) or by taxing by contributions at a standard discount to taxpayers at a marginal rate, as recommended by the 2009 Henry Tax Review.

Alongside these marginal changes, there was also a failed attempt to cut the company tax rate (only the tax rates for small companies were cut) and a muddled discussion about the progressivity of the income tax system.

All in all, many a tinker, but no reform.

Blunders…

Human-induced climate change is compromising the sustainability of our planet. The only way to solve it is by changing incentives using the economic toolkit at our disposal. The Carbon Tax was a good tax. It shifted the costs of pollution onto those who created it, instead of subsidising processes that damaged the environment.

No solution to climate change is possible without corrective taxes.

At some point we’ll have to climb that mountain again, assuming the mountain is not underwater before politicians come to their senses.

The repeal of the Minerals Resource Rent Tax was also a step backwards. By taxing rents (excess profits) instead of profits, it avoided the disincentives created by traditional company taxes. And, it was a good example of the kind of taxes that could eventually replace or supplement company tax.

…and lost opportunities

Changing the GST could have ensured at least one significant contribution to overall tax reform. At 10%, the rate is relatively low by international standards and applies to a shrinking share of spending, as more and more of our money is spent in places or on goods that aren’t taxed.


Value-added (GST) tax rates in OECD and selected Asian countries.
Re:think, Treasury tax discussion paper, March 2015

These factors, combined with the fact that GST is difficult to evade and less costly to administer, suggest that broadening the base is low hanging fruit on the tax reform tree, ripe for picking.

Instead, it may as well be forbidden fruit from the Garden of Eden. We’ve gone in the wrong direction by adding even more exemptions and cutting short talk of increasing the rate.

The failed debate on company tax cuts was another missed opportunity.

What remains is a system that applies different rates to different company sizes, one of few remaining dividend imputation systems in the world, and no discussion about the sustainability of corporate income tax revenue in the future.

All up, the government’s approach over the past six years has largely been piecemeal. It also managed to dismantle two of the most significant tax reforms that could have contributed to a more sustainable tax base in the long run.

Would Labor be better?

It remains to be seen whether a Labor government will be able to achieve more. Some of the party’s proposed changes, such as the treatment of capital gains, head in the right direction, but what it is offering falls short of comprehensive reform.

At the same time, many of its proposed changes will add additional complexity, fail to account for interactions within the entire tax system and use tax exemptions to reach goals that could be better achieved with payments.

Many an international tax reform was engendered by crisis, so there’s hope, of a sort. The opportunity still remains to get in early before weaknesses inherent in the current system become grossly apparent.

What we’ve got is unfair and its complexity rewards those with the resources to pay to understand and exploit it. It is overly reliant on income and company tax in place of indirect taxes, like consumption tax, and it tries to achieve too many disparate objectives, without consideration for the workings of the family and social security payments system.

There is much scope to improve things. What we need most are fearless leaders, from all sides of the political spectrum, who treat comprehensive tax reform as important and can work together to achieve it.




Read more:
What will the Turnbull-Morrison government be remembered for?


The Conversation


Robert Breunig, Professor of Economics and Director, Tax and Transfer Policy Institute, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University and Kristen Sobeck, Senior Research Officer, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

TALIBAN THREATENS POPE IF CHRISTIANITY IS SPREAD IN AFGHANISTAN


In the lead-up to his coming trip to the Holy Land, Pope Benedict XVI has been warned by Islamic extremists that he must stop any attempts to convert Muslims to Christianity or face “the consequences of a severe reaction,” reports Hilary White, LifeSiteNews.com.

ANSA news service reports that the Taliban issued the statement on an Islamic website after the Islamic news service Al Jazeera showed American soldiers holding copies of the Bible translated into the two local languages.

“The Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan asks Pope Benedict XVI to act to stop the foolish and irresponsible actions of the crusaders upsetting the feelings of Muslim rebels, without awaiting the consequences of a severe reaction,” said the message on the website, alemarah1.org.

“The Taleban forcefully exhort the mujaheddin [jihadis], scholars and all religious circles to control the activities of the invaders and crusaders, and not allow anyone to preach religions except Islam,” the message continued.

The US army later responded, “Any form of religious proselytism by troops is prohibited,” and assured that the bibles pictured had been “confiscated and destroyed.”

At the same time, Islamic extremists in Jordan condemned the Pope’s visit, claiming that he had failed to apologise for what they regard as insults to Islam in a speech at Regensburg in 2006. The Pope is scheduled to arrive in Jordan on Friday for the first stage of a tour that will include Israel and the Palestinian territories.

Zaki Bani Rusheid, head of the Islamic Action Front, the political arm of the international organisation the Muslim Brotherhood, told Reuters, “The present Vatican pope is the one who issued severe insults to Islam and did not offer any apology to the Muslims.” The Islamic Action Front is the Jordan’s largest mainstream Islamist party.

In 2006, Pope Benedict spoke to an audience at the University of Regensburg where he had once served as professor of theology, on the inherent unity of faith and reason. In it he quoted the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus, who wrote in 1391, “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” The emperor was writing on jihad and of forced conversions of Christians by conquering Muslims.

The comments, after careful management by liberal western news media, prompted a wave of riots and violence by Muslims around the world, including attacks on Christian churches in Israel, the murder of a nun in Somalia and the beheading of a priest in Iraq.

Observers note that there are early signs that the same media that instigated the “Muslim outrage” in 2006 are setting the stage for another round.

The Huffington Post reported at the end of April that in the town of Nazareth a large banner has been stretched across the main square condemning anyone who insults Mohammad. HP’s Diaa Hadid wrote, “The pontiff may have to tread carefully with his visit to Nazareth,” and said that “many Muslims” are still angry over the Regensburg speech. Hadid quotes an Anglican head of a local ecumenical group that Christians in the area fear more violence if the Pope makes any other “contentious” statements on Islam.

The Guardian’s religious affairs correspondent Riazat Butt wrote on Tuesday that Pope Benedict “must” go to Jerusalem as a “penitent pilgrim.” Butt cites 35 Christians, Jews and Muslims who claim that “papal blunders” are sending out “‘divided messages’ on anti-Semitism and inter-faith activity.”

Report from the Christian Telegraph