In the past five years, more than 95,000 people who arrived by plane have lodged a claim for asylum in Australia, new statistics show.
Labor’s Immigration Spokesperson, Senator Kristina Keneally, has labelled this a “crisis”, stating:
Peter Dutton’s incompetence and recklessness has allowed people smugglers to run riot and traffic record-breaking numbers of people by aeroplane to Australia.
But the “crisis” is not that visa-holding travellers are flying to Australia, then later lodging a claim for asylum. It’s not unprecedented for tourists or students to later lodge a claim for asylum due to circumstances beyond their control.
In 1989, for example, after events in Tiananmen Square, Australia provided refuge to thousands of Chinese students who had entered Australia with visas.
Instead, the “crisis” is the Australian government’s failure to properly manage the refugee-processing system. It gutted the ranks of experienced decision-makers and made organisational changes that undermine the quality of decisions, contributing to long processing delays and backlogs.
These organisational failures may have contributed to the increase in asylum applications over the last five years.
Protection visa decisions are highly complex. They must examine a variety of factors, including country-specific conditions and individual circumstances.
Yet, as the Australian National Audit Office noted in 2018, the Home Affairs department experienced a significant loss of “corporate memory” due to staff turn-over, “with almost half of SES officers present in July 2015 no longer in the department at July 2017”.
In a Senate Estimates hearing last year, Home Affairs officials said the average processing time for permanent protection visas, from lodgement to primary decision (not including appeals), was 257 days, or 8.5 months.
And the department’s training deficiencies are well-documented. The most recent Australian Public Service Employee Census put the department’s organisational management problems into stark relief: only 35% of employees said the department inspired them to do their best work, while two-thirds of respondents said they did not consider department senior executives to be of “high quality”.
These publicised problems raise important questions about the quality of decision-making at the primary level.
Poor decision-making at the primary level can lead to higher numbers of appeals. So it’s perhaps unsurprising that appeals to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) from people who arrived by plane are also experiencing significant blowouts.
This results in a backlog. In 2017, the tribunal made 5,153 decisions on refugee claims, and so far this financial year, only 815 claims have been concluded.
In part, these worrying figures are due to the federal government appointing people with Liberal Party ties to the AAT over the last couple of years.
The Attorney-General recognised these problems in the 2019 Report on the Statutory Review of the Tribunal, which pointed to “competencies of members” as a key contributor to complications in the operation of the tribunal.
Stacking the AAT with political allies, many of whom are not lawyers and who are not appointed on merit, has removed independent expertise from the tribunal, risking errors and further delays.
And with more errors come further appeals in the courts. This not only places a heavy burden on the resources of the Federal Circuit Court and Federal Court, but also leads to more delays and backlogs in the AAT, where the court sends matters which were unlawfully decided for re-determination.
The solution is in proper organisational management. Instead of blaming refugees for fleeing persecution by safe means, the government must address the failures of its refugee processing system.
To this end, an urgent review of the Department of Home Affairs policies and organisational failures is needed. A review could find out whether there’s a management culture stopping Home Affairs from attracting and retaining staff who can make reasoned and well-supported decisions in an environment they can be proud of.
Similarly, there must be a transparent and independent system for appointing AAT members that prioritises skills and experience over politics – exactly what was recommended by the Attorney-General’s recent review.
If people seeking asylum can have their claims assessed quickly and fairly, then those who are not refugees can be sent home, while those needing safety could receive it.
Without the chance to remain in Australia for years while their claims are assessed, there would be no loophole for traffickers and others to exploit.
In turn, the number of non-genuine claims will go down, allowing decision-makers to focus on those who are actually fearing persecution.
We should be supporting refugees to access safety by air. If people fleeing persecution can access a flight to Australia, they won’t risk a dangerous journey by boat to find safety.
This is not an airport border “crisis”, it’s a management failure that can be fixed with more staffing, better resourcing, and transparent and meritorious appointments of decision makers.
Correction: A previous version of the article stated 815 refugee claims were concluded this year. This has been updated to clarify that 815 of claims were concluded during this financial year.
The ALP’s defeat at the 2019 federal election was a surprise. Shorten’s Labor fell short, against both wider commentariat predictions and unrepresentative polls. Yet, if we take a step back, the result is less surprising if we locate Labor’s defeat in the wider “crisis” of social democracy.
Across the advanced industrial world, the centre-left largely remains in opposition, with poor prospects for immediate future government. In the UK, Corbyn-led Labour has been unable to capitalise on the Brexit result, and the chaos that enveloped Theresa May’s Conservatives. A likely “Boris bounce” (or “Hunt honeymoon”) may only make the gap wider.
In Germany, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) was once a colossus of European social democracy. But it has failed to dent Angela Merkel’s long dominance of German politics, and critically, is now being pushed even behind the German Greens as the main left challenger.
Elsewhere, the results are poor. Last year, Matteo Renzi’s centre-left coalition lost out at the Italian elections, and the extraordinary populist government of the Five Star Movement and far-right League hold office. In France, the Socialist Party (PS) has seemingly not recovered from the Macron win at the French Presidential election. The Dutch Labour Party (PvDA) is also still licking its wounds from a humiliating defeat in 2017.
The picture is not consistently bleak, though. In Portugal, Antonio Costa’s left coalition (an unwieldy group of left parties dubbed “the contraption”) has proved remarkably resilient. Moreover, the Swedish Social Democratic Party is governing in coalition in that traditional bastion of social democracy. The recent win of Mette Frederiksen in Denmark has also given optimism for the centre-left parties. And of course, the impact and leadership of Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand was another positive result for the left.
Yet, there are wider structural problems for the centre-left, which mean that even these more recent positive electoral results may conceal ongoing identity issues. If we return to Australia, we can see what is underpinning these results – the structural decline of the vote for the centre left.
As the table below shows, the primary vote of the ALP has consistently fallen, and certainly stagnated over the past three elections. Indeed, the ALP has not won an election outright for over a decade.
If we put this into a comparative view, we can see more starkly the wider trend and decline in the structural vote of the left. The following table aggregates the main centre-left party’s vote share for each decade, and is grouped by region. Here, the Australian story of decline parallels the fortunes of its sister parties.
Generally, the left vote is falling in the Nordic countries and Western Europe – the mainstay of social democracy. In the Mediterranean countries, the centre-left parties have been electorally devastated by the GFC and, critically, the Euro debt crisis. Even in countries where the centre left has not been dominant (Ireland, Japan, Canada – in the “other” category), the story is of decline.
If it is a story of decline, what might be driving it? Two key factors help capture, but not necessarily explain, the problem. First, the centre left is losing its traditional vote base in many countries, in some measure because citizens are far less likely to have a strong partisan identity.
The second part of the story is the decline of the major parties as dominant forces, and increasingly the rise of far right, populist, and other party challengers. The recent election in Finland is a striking case where, for the first time, neither major party achieved over 20% of the vote. Social democratic parties face more challengers and, as in France, are squeezed by left and right.
Is this a crisis of social democracy? Perhaps. The bleakest view, offered by writers like Ashley Lavelle is that the parties are actually already “dead”. In this view, social democracy was a specific egalitarian model – especially in the 1970s – and since the parties have capitulated to neoliberal orthodoxy they are bereft of meaning (Hawke-Keating era is the Australian exemplar).
A different approach is to understand the problems facing the centre-left as an electoral “crisis”, particularly the European parties. Much of this literature focuses on what has happened to these parties since the heyday of the “third way” in the 1990s. In sum, it is unclear that the parties have yet to sufficiently recover their core mission and aims.
A third view sees this less as a crisis and more a “transition” – epitomised by a writer like Herbert Kitschelt. In this view, the parties are in a process of change as they reconcile with left libertarian agendas. That central dilemma – environment concerns vs “traditional” jobs – played out starkly in Queensland for the ALP, over the Adani mine.
Moreover, as Carol Johnson writes in her excellent new book, the centre left parties have expanded their idea of equality, and this has brought new dilemmas.
As Anthony Albanese, freshly minted among a whole crop of centre-left leaders, is discovering, these issues will not be resolved quickly. Given the wider diversity of the centre-left, it remains unclear what the next, “fourth” wave of social democracy might entail.
When Britain ceded its control of Hong Kong in 1997 – after its 100-year lease expired – concerns were raised that a 50-year “one country, two systems” formula would be insufficient to protect citizens’ rights.
Britain’s last governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, was among those warning about the risks to the territory’s autonomy under Chinese control.
However, it was argued at the time the “one country, two systems” deal was the best outcome that could be struck under the circumstances.
Twenty-two years later, not quite halfway through a 50-year transition to a notional end to a “two systems” arrangement, it is clear that the relatively benign outcome envisaged in 1997 is under unusual stress.
Mass pro-democracy demonstrations over recent days have underscored the fact that Hong Kong residents are fearful of creeping mainland control that will obliterate their relatively unfettered rights under the 1997 formula.
Their immediate concern is an extradition bill, before Hong Kong’s legislature, that would enable Beijing to extradite alleged criminals. The legislation invites understandable concerns that it could be misused to secure the extradition to the mainland of China’s critics under the pretext these individuals had engaged in criminal activity.
Hong Kong’s relatively free media are alarmed at threats to press freedom inherent in the bill.
Beijing has done little to assuage these concerns. It has accused “foreign forces” of misleading Hong Kongers as part of an attempt to destabilise China.
In China, authorities have blocked foreign news sites to prevent the dissemination of reports and images from the streets of Hong Kong. This is no doubt out of concern that street demonstrations might become contagious on the mainland.
The fact these demonstrations coincided with the 30th anniversary of the June 6 1989 Tiananmen massacre in which hundreds, if not thousands, died in a government crackdown will have fuelled Beijing’s nervousness about developments in Hong Kong.
What distinguishes the latest mass protests against Chinese attempts to circumvent its 1997 “one country, two systems” undertakings from protracted disturbances in 2014 is that this time it reflects increasing alarm about Beijing’s stealthy attempts to extend its control.
In 2014, demonstrations against Beijing’s violation of its commitment to autonomous local elections lasted months. This was the so-called “umbrella movement”, distinguished by the symbolic carrying of umbrellas by demonstrators.
In 2019, and judging by events characterised by fairly heavy-handed use of tear gas, water cannons and other methods to break up the demonstrations, the authorities have resolved to try to nip in the bud this challenge to Beijing-dominated Hong Kong rule.
Whether this works remains to be seen.
The disturbances pose a challenge to Western governments at a particularly fraught moment in global affairs. Relations between the US and China are on a knife’s edge over trade and other issues. This includes sales of sophisticated weaponry to Taiwan, tightening sanctions on Iran’s oil exports, moves to bar the telecommunications supplier Huawei from building 5G networks of US allies, including Australia, and a confrontational approach to China in Washington more generally.
Ill will over Hong Kong will not be helpful.
From Australia’s standpoint, the Hong Kong disturbances come at an awkward moment as a newly elected government in Canberra wrestles with China policy.
Foreign Minister Marise Payne’s initial response to events in Hong Kong was too meek. Through a spokesperson, she said:
The Australian government is taking a close interest in the proposed amendments […]
Australia’s interests in Hong Kong deserve something more forthright than this.
Not only does Hong Kong absorb A$11 billion worth of Australian merchandise exports annually, services trade at A$3 billion is significant, and total investment in Australia of A$116 billion puts the former British territory in the top 10 foreign investors.
On top of that, about 100,000 Australians are resident in Hong Kong. This is not a small number in a population of 7.5 million.
While it is true Hong Kong is less important economically than it was in 1997, when its GDP was 16% of China’s (it’s now 2%), it still remains an indispensable financial conduit and testing ground for financial reforms.
Hong Kong provided the financial platform for China’s cautious experimentation in its move towards making the yuan a global currency. Hong Kong’s stock exchange is an important vehicle for capital-raising for Chinese companies.
The events of recent days have placed Beijing’s woman in Hong Kong, Carrie Lam, who was selected by Beijing as chief executive two years ago, in an invidious position. If she yields to the protesters and withdraws the extradition law, she will run foul of her controllers in Beijing.
If she pushes ahead in the Legislative Council with the support of 43 pro-Beijing lawmakers out of 70, as she insists she will, she risks further disturbances.
It is 9am on a chilly March morning. Delegates from across the world have assembled for an emergency meeting of the North Atlantic Council, NATO’s main decision-making body. The main item on the agenda: an update from the Supreme Allied Commander Europe on Russian escalations in Ukraine and elsewhere in Europe, to determine NATO’s response.
No one doubts the gravity of the situation. Russian forces are moving west to occupy parts of Ukraine beyond the Donbas region and the Crimea. There have also been severe Russian cyber attacks on German infrastructure, while Vladimir Putin has threatened to invade Estonia. NATO’s secretary general has asked one of his predecessors, Lord Robertson of Port Ellen, to join the meeting and share advice.
Do not adjust your set: this meeting took place, but it was a simulation – set in a very near future in which the Ukraine has joined NATO and the UK has left the EU.
These kinds of exercise are conducted regularly by NATO and national armies to anticipate what might happen in the “fog of war”. Standing in for the NATO headquarters in Brussels on this occasion was the University of Stirling in central Scotland. The delegates were students on the university’s masters programme in international conflict and cooperation, and the doctorate in diplomacy.
Lord Robertson was the only person playing himself. He briefed delegates under Chatham House rules on his time chairing NATO, including the historic decision on September 12, 2001 to invoke collective defensive action under Article 5 of the founding treaty.
Immersed in NATO’s engine room, our delegates had to strike a balance during two days of negotiations between countries advocating conflict resolution and those inclined to deterrence – if not pre-emptive action. As well as informing the students’ learning, it produced the following insights for the real world.
Delegates had to assess Russian defensive capabilities using real-life data. They concluded that while Russia looks strong on a country-by-country comparison, its armed forces remain stretched and are sometimes poorly equipped. Russia would probably not be able to sustain a war with NATO troops over several months, and would likely be challenged by fighting on two fronts.
Having said that, the country’s forces have recently modernised, making them more effective than a few years ago. Russia is also closer than most NATO powers to Ukraine and the Baltics, so could mobilise more quickly and potentially gain strategic advantages.
NATO action in Ukraine would be complicated by a low bridge that Russia has opened connecting Crimea to the Russian mainland. This makes it difficult for larger ships to move between Ukraine’s Black Sea ports and the Mediterranean. Russian expertise in cyber attacks and creating confusion by spreading fake news could also create disunity among NATO members.
Takeaway: the Russian bear is frail but can still bite.
Countries in our simulation negotiated according to national interests. The multilateral negotiation splintered into smaller discussions as mini-alliances emerged. For example, Turkey – with its improving relations with Russia and exposure to potential refugees – was so conciliatory to Moscow that its NATO membership became questionable.
On the other side of the spectrum, Ukraine and also Romania, which feels threatened by Russian aggression in the Black Sea region, sought immediate offensive action. Alliances like these weren’t always visible to the outside world. They complicated negotiations, especially when such countries had essentially non-negotiable aims.
Takeaway: things are not always what they seem, even within a negotiation. Try and stay flexible, and don’t rely on media reports about counterparts’ interests.
Just like in real life, our delegates had to keep monitoring an internal news feed. In one announcement, Russia began mobilising after hard-line statements from certain NATO members leaked to the media on day one of the negotiation. Several times, discussions had to start from scratch as delegations changed priorities and strategies.
Takeaway: constantly ask yourself how events affect your own position and those of your counterparts.
With full military intervention and occupation of Ukraine by Russia on the cards by the middle of day two, NATO allies had to deploy ground troops or risk ceding ground to Moscow. Issues agonised over the day before became less relevant as delegations were forced to compromise in the interests of collective action.
Takeaway: time pressure can make decision-making hot-headed, but can lead to clarity of purpose. Negotiators who understand this can use it to their advantage.
As EU members of our fictional North Atlantic Council discussed issues among themselves, we witnessed how the EU has become a geopolitical actor with “state-like” qualities. Before committing to security actions through NATO, EU members negotiated with each other and sought a coherent position.
One important dimension in the real world is the EU’s Russia sanctions, which are slightly different to US sanctions. With Ukraine now also party to an EU Association Agreement, the EU is demonstrating its capability to project power abroad.
Takeaway: the EU is developing its own geopolitical and security role in Europe, with potential consequences for NATO.
Within NATO, the UK has generally mediated between the US and usually softer EU positions. Our simulation showed that after Brexit, despite its important role as a nuclear-armed NATO member, the UK will likely feel squeezed between the US and EU.
Takeaway: the implications of Brexit for the UK in NATO deserve more attention.
In our simulation NATO members closer to Russia, such as Poland and Hungary, were particularly worried that military action in Ukraine would lead to a large number of refugees – with potentially serious domestic political consequences.
Takeaway: we don’t always take enough account of the linkages between military and human security.
When the BBC war-gamed a similar scenario several years ago, the UK got drawn into a nuclear war. Our fictional delegates managed to avoid such awful outcomes by using what deterrent power they had. They combined mobilisation with the offer of talks in such a way that Russia backed off. Despite some hawkish pressure, the situation was mostly defused by dominant countries such as the US as well as conciliatory EU voices.
Takeaway: On March 18, on the fifth anniversary of annexation, NATO reiterated its view that Crimea is Ukrainian territory. Meanwhile, hostilities continue in Donbas. The apparent stalemate in Ukraine could change overnight – not least with the presidential election at the end of March. If so, NATO members will have to make a choice, despite the fact that Ukraine is not currently a member of the alliance. As became clear to our participants, the one thing you can’t do in a moment of international crisis is to refuse to act if your interests are at stake.