Let me be blunt: there is no defensible argument for why the Murugappan family shouldn’t return to Biloela. Not one.
It is a tragedy that Priya and Nades Murugappan have spent the last three years raising their Australian-born daughters, Kopika and Tharnicaa, in the remote Christmas Island detention centre. This latest decision to reunite them in Perth, some 3500km from their community in central Queensland, is a political Band-Aid designed to take their plight off the front pages and out of the public consciousness.
This farce must end. Far from sparking a resurgence in people smuggling, an act of compassion could enhance Australia’s reputation globally. The only cost would be to Scott Morrison who, in the toxic internal politics of the Liberal Party, knows politicians rarely lose points for oppressing the vulnerable. Morrison may have built his reputation on the slogan “stop the boats”, but he would be acutely aware of being outflanked by leadership rival Peter Dutton, the archdeacon of far-right virtue-signalling.
Morrison’s political calculus is the key; the responsibility might notionally belong to Immigration Minister Alex Hawke, a factional warlord and Morrison supporter, but it is the Prime Minister who will ultimately call the shot.
My critics will opportunistically accuse me of hypocrisy for backing the Murugappans’ resettlement in Australia since, as prime minister, I announced that asylum-seekers arriving by boat after July 2013 would not be resettled in Australia. This would rely on a false premise – the Murugappans arrived before 2013 and weren’t covered by that announcement. And, for that matter it, also relies on a politically driven misrepresentation of my government’s policy after the July 2013 announcement.
Refugee policy was among the toughest matters to contend with in government. The Green party’s calls to welcome all-comers, come what may, is just as facile as the Liberals making policy on the basis of three-word slogans.
We sought a humane third way that would stop asylum-seekers being robbed blind by criminal gangs who didn’t give a damn about their safety, packing them into unseaworthy boats, charged them a fortune and letting them drown.
Our policy intended that asylum-seekers who arrived by boat after July 2013 would be resettled in third countries like New Zealand and Papua New Guinea. Second, PNG would withdraw its reservations to the Refugee Convention. Third, Labor’s agreement with New Zealand was shredded by Tony Abbott in 2013, odiously declaring Aotearoa shouldn’t be a “consolation prize” for people he clearly wanted to punish.
The PNG regional resettlement arrangement was for one year. Under its terms, PNG and the UNHCR were to swiftly process claims within that year and clear the detention centre on Manus Island. After that year, the deal could be extended, modified or abolished depending on its performance. A re-elected Labor government would never have simply rolled over that agreement indefinitely, as the Liberals have done, and then made it as cruel as possible. Indefinite detention is morally and legally wrong and those people should have been brought to Australia – just as Howard brought back those transferred under his “Pacific Solution” after 2001, despite his rhetoric that they would not set foot here.
Our policy also boosted the humanitarian intake to 20,000 places a year – compared with 13,750 places under Morrison – and we signalled movement towards an intake of 27,000 people in subsequent years. These people would be taken from refugee camps around the world, their refugee status having already been determined by the UNHCR. It was also in line with my longstanding vision for a Big Australia, rejuvenated regions and more development in our water-rich north.
We also abolished temporary protection visas, which left the axe of deportation dangling over the heads of genuine refugees trying to make new lives in Australia.
In short, our policies never would have sanctioned the inhumane treatment meted out to the Murugappans, who have clearly laid down roots in a community that loves them.
The legal power that is most important in the Murugappans’ case is the so-called “ministerial discretion” enshrined in the Migration Act under Bob Hawke, with the support of Philip Ruddock. They place in the government’s hands a broad power to recognise exceptional circumstances where the black letter of regulation would deliver an unjust outcome.
We know the Morrison government isn’t afraid to use these discretionary powers. Minister Dutton famously intervened swiftly to save two foreign au pairs from deportation after representations from his friends. While certain instances may raise eyebrows, there is nothing extraordinary about these discretionary powers; they are sometimes used thousands of times in a year. All that is lacking here is the political will – because Morrison doesn’t want to be politically outflanked by Dutton to the right.
We know from Morrison’s handling of sexual assault allegations that he often struggles to empathise with people unlike him. So let me conclude by quoting his colleague, Barnaby Joyce, on the plight of Kopika, Tharnicaa and their parents: “Maybe if their names were Jane and Sally and they were playing the local netball side, we’d think twice about sending them back to another country which they’re not from.”
For God’s sake, if the Nats can see the injustice of this, surely it’s time for Morrison to actually summon up the courage to act.
Photo: Nades and Priya Murugappan with their daughters Kopika and Tharnicaa.