Canberra Times: Activists should direct protests at Tories

By Kevin Rudd

The fact that hundreds of human beings seeking asylum continue to be indefinitely detained at the behest of the Australian government is a tragedy. It is immoral. And it is illegal.

Scott Morrison could end this today without “restarting the boats”. But he refuses. His cold political calculation is simple: in the Liberal Party’s toxic leadership battles, he has more to gain by sticking to the far-right on refugees and climate denial than risk being outflanked by his rival, Peter Dutton.

Morrison’s mistreatment of the Murugappan family from Biloela is a case in point. However, the fact that they have been moved from Christmas Island to Perth – albeit still some 3500km from their Queensland home – is a testament to the fact that refugee activists can force Morrison’s hand if he detects a media management problem.

Beyond the Liberal party room, most Australians who reflect deeply on this policy are repelled by the indefinite detention of people who have committed no crime. This view is held almost universally among the Australian Labor Party.

Activists still have a vital role to play in elucidating the reality of indefinite detention and heaping pressure on Morrison, just as they highlighted John Howard’s failures including the SIEV-X catastrophe, the “children overboard” scandal and the accidental detention of vulnerable Australians.

However, for many activists gathering tomorrow, their focus won’t be on shifting Morrison’s political calculus but on attacking Labor on the eighth anniversary of my government announcing one-year regional resettlement arrangements with Papua New Guinea.

While their hearts may be in the right place, they are playing straight into the hands of Morrison, Dutton and Rupert Murdoch – all of whom relish seeing progressives attack Labor while giving the Coalition a free pass. This is standard text for the Green party.

In this difficult area of public policy, there are no perfect answers. But our approach has always been more humane than the conservatives and more truthful about dealing with the real problems of people-smuggling syndicates and drownings at sea than the Green party.

Here are the facts. We abolished temporary protection visas, which kept the axe of deportation hanging over refugees’ heads and undermined their efforts to integrate into Australian society. The Liberals reintroduced them.

We increased the humanitarian intake from 13,000 to 20,000 places annually, and were moving to 27,000 when we left office. The Liberals have now slashed this to 13,750 places.

My government dismantled Howard’s Pacific Solution, although it was subsequently re-established (with offshore processing) under Julia Gillard in response to Tony Abbott’s cynical obstructionism in parliament.

And we lifted Australia’s foreign aid commitment to 0.5 per cent of gross national income, although this was delayed by Gillard and smashed under Abbott.

We have never supported indefinite detention – onshore or offshore. This Coalition-approved fiction is often repeated by a Green party more driven by its political interest in winning Labor seats than in kicking the conservatives out of office. Every time they attack Labor rather than the conservatives, they let Morrison wriggle off the hook.

What was our policy? We transferred asylum-seekers to countries like Papua New Guinea for rapid processing and safe resettlement – either in those countries, or third countries like New Zealand. We gave effect to this policy with a one-year agreement with PNG, under which it abandoned its long-held objections to the full protections offered under the Refugees Convention.

We didn’t take this decision lightly. But it was a humane way of stopping our fellow humans being robbed blind by organised criminals who would pack them onto unseaworthy boats without caring a damn about whether they drowned on the way.

And it worked. Morrison likes to wrap himself in khaki and spout “Sovereign Borders” but it was our policy that actually broke the people-smugglers’ business model.

Critically, these were only one-year arrangements as codified in the black-and-white text of the PNG memorandum. It’s available online. We agreed that asylum-seekers would be quickly processed and resettled within 12 months. Then, after a year, the arrangements could be reviewed, modified or cancelled.

After we lost the 2013 election, it was obvious the processing was too slow. Progress was further stalled by Abbott cancelling the New Zealand option – odiously declaring Aotearoa would not be a “consolation prize”.

The Liberals simply rolled the arrangements over, year after year. A re-elected Labor government would have let the arrangements expire and brought them to Australia for processing, or New Zealand for resettlement, years ago.

As asylum-seeker activists gather tomorrow, I urge protesters to seize upon the divisions among centre-right voters and pressure Morrison to change course as he was forced to on the Murugappans.

That is likely to be much more fruitful than expecting the Labor Party – which has been in the minority for 22 of the last 25 years – to solve these problems from opposition. Unless, of course, that is what the Green party actually wants.


Published in the Canberra Times on 24 July 2021

Photos: ADF, NASA, WEF