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Who’ll Pay for the Migration & Maritime Powers Bill?

Wednesday, 26 November 2014  | Gordon Preece

Australians often arise from political slumber when power bills rise. Witness the ‘Carbon Tax’ election. But the Migration and Maritime Powers Bill proposing the most draconian inflation of government and ministerial powers since White Australia may well pass unnoticed. When a massive increase in the bill of human misery is being prepared for asylum seekers, we self-interestedly ask ‘for whom the bill tolls’, forgetting that as part of humanity, it also tolls for us. 

The House of Representatives, including its insipid opposition, recently tossed overboard the careful checks and balances of international human rights and national law, judicial oversight, ministerial accountability, and military secrecy. Fortunately, the Senate have the chance this week to further refute Paul Keating’s infamous description of their role as ‘unrepresentative swill’ and speak up for unrepresented and de-voiced asylum seekers. 

Last week senators stood with ripped-off retiree victims of unscrupulous financial advisers, eyes blinded by self-interest. It displayed responsibility as a House of Review. Will it again refuse railroading by short-term national self-interest for the sake of justice, compassion and prudence? 

Perusal of the Parliamentary Library Bill Digest (23/10/14) and a submission by NGO and Human Rights organisations ( to the Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee (14/11/14) exposes this lamentable legislation.  

This barbaric Bill unilaterally removes references to the universally recognised cornerstone of international refugee protection UN Refugees Convention from the Migration Act. It replaces them with idiosyncratic interpretations, like a malleable nose of wax in Madame Tussaud’s, manipulating it in the mirror of populist media and paranoia. 

Several instances illustrate. Asylum seeker mothers' babies, even if born here, are rendered stateless, creating ‘profound, negative effects on children’s identities, development and greater risks of children experiencing labour and sexual exploitation, trafficking, poverty and discrimination’ (UNICEF Australia). They will be denied health care, legal protection, education and job opportunities. This on top of a detention system that 80% of paediatricians label child abuse. It denies the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Minister’s supposed and conflicted role as these children’s Guardian.  

Behind each apparent silver lining of the Bill lies a dark cloud. Proposed removal of children and parents from detention is welcome and overdue. But the Bill reintroduces various temporary protection visas (TPVs), denying permanent protection to thousands just because they arrived by boat.  

TPVs are no answer. They are profoundly, often permanently damaging, their limbo of temporariness and uncertainty, requiring regular re-proving of refugee status, leaving asylum seekers depressed and destitute. Yet ‘we are also shooting ourselves in the foot. It is in our interests that people are settled quickly, recover from trauma, find work or study and contribute economically and socially. The bottom line is, people found to be refugees must be given permanent protection from persecution’ (Paul Ronalds, Save the Children).

The Bill also introduces overdue ‘rapid processing’ for boat arrivals. But it uses ‘streamlined’ reviews, denying appeal hearing rights to the Refugee Review Tribunal and replacing it with a less qualified Immigration Assessment Authority. Such shortcuts deny fairness and have earlier led to major mistakes in life or death decisions.  

Further, the Bill expands boat turn-backs, allowing indefinite detention, even abandonment at sea. Crucially, the law of non-refoulement is over-ridden, returning asylum seekers to their persecutors, as in recent (accomplished) Sri Lankan and (attempted) Tamil Indian cases.  

In sum, the NGO joint submission recommends ‘Stop the Bill’. The mantra ‘Stop the Boats’, while saving lives, has created a living death in detention or on TPVs. The Bill’s narrow stress on deterrence (as our white ancestors suffered), unbalances other aspects of justice. Individual and familial human rights, natural justice, the presumption of innocence, prevent asylum seekers being treated as mere means to the end of deterrence. It is a disaster for human dignity and democratic accountability. 

The Bill not only closes the back-door for permanent visas to boat people, but the front-door to UNHCR declared refugees from Indonesia, patronisingly decreasing chances of a regional solution and increasing tensions with Indonesia. 

The Senate should again stand against self-interest, this time of a short-term nationalistic form. It should heed appropriately other Abrahamic religious examples. Our former Gallipoli foes Turkey have welcomed 1.8 million Syrian and Iraqi refugees. Its PM told the G20: ‘we cannot close our borders because they are … our neighbours, but before everything they are human beings’. Similarly, we should heed Obama’s embracing of illegal immigrants, (though ours are 90% legal refugees). As Obama said: ‘Scripture tells us that we should not oppress a stranger [refugee] for we know the heart of a stranger – we were strangers once too’. May the Senate heed these examples and stop the bill being borne by those with no say nor way to pay.

Dr Gordon Preece is Director of Ethos and Chair of Melbourne Anglican Diocese Social Responsibilities Committee.



December 6, 2014, 3:08PM
Hi, Gordon,

I appreciate the passion in the blog piece, but I think it skates too quickly over the fact that the new border protection regime has effectively brought to an end the loss of life at sea. Between 2008 and last year, it is estimated that about 1200 people died attempting to make the perilous voyage to Australia. Since last year's election, it is my understanding that there have been no deaths in such circumstances.

The loss of life, whilst tragic in itself (and, I would argue, entirely preventable), was accompanied by a raft of deleterious consequences - the inevitable ripple effects, in other words, of something so horrific. From the anguish of loved ones who have lost friends and family, to Navy personnel traumatised by having to drag the bodies of infants out of the water, many more than 1200 people have been affected - sometimes deeply - by those deaths. Whatever one thinks of some of the current government's border protection policies, it has been eminently successful in ending the waste of human life. That, surely, is worthy of celebration.
Gordon Preece
December 10, 2014, 1:37PM
Thanks, Scott, for your response. It's one thing to be passionate but I'd like as much to be just and reasonable. In at least one version of this article, and elsewhere in public, I've acknowledged the achievement of massively reducing deaths at sea. This is necessary but not sufficient to have a humane refugee policy that abides by international refugee conventions.

The new legislation and the drift of both parties' policies has been to excise us from our international human rights obligations. We are consigning children, proven UNHCR refugees in Indonesia, TPV holders, and re-enfouled asylum seekers sent back to the source of their persecution to a permanent limbo and probable persecution, gaol, inability to express their faith, and even possible death.

Many in detention experience a living death in various professionally acknowledged forms physically and mentally destructive 'detention'. Further, Mr Morrison blackmailed the Senate using children in detention, who could have been released at any time, as a bargaining chip - a cynical, means-to-an-end use of the most vulnerable. There is more to a humane and Christian approach to refugee policy than just the mantra of stopping the boats. The bill should have been stopped too.


December 23, 2014, 11:03PM
Hi Gordon,

Thanks for your response. I should have said in my earlier note that I, too, am concerned by what seems to be a case of ministerial overreach, and what could amount to the illegitimate expansion of ministerial power. And I am also concerned about the conditions under which many asylum seekers currently exist.

However, I think this debate, and the merits of current government policy, need to be contextualised by the disaster in this area over the past six years. It should be borne in mind that when Labor came to power in 2007, there were only a handful of people left in our detention centres. Those on Nauru and Manus Island were no longer being used, precisely because there were no longer people making the perilous journey to our shores in unseaworthy boats. All of that unravelled (see below), requiring what I would see as difficult, but in some cases, sadly necessary, decisions to be taken.

Further, the problem with the stating that there is a "more humane" approach to this issue is that there don't seem to be any forthcoming. When The ALP came to power several years ago, there were calls for a more "humane" approach, one which would remove the "stain" on the nation's conscience (as Kevin Rudd put it). 50,000 arrivals and 1200 deaths later, I'd argue that such an approach, and its putative "humanity", needs to be called into question. Not only has it led to the re-establishment of an international criminal network; it also limits Australia's practical capacity to aid offshore refugees. Our investment of time, resources and money into processing those coming to our shores by boat frustrates our ability to help those who, as I write, have been languishing for years in camps around the world. My point is that there have been unintended (though eminently foreseeable) consequences to policy approaches that were claimed to be more moral and more just.

I have read a lot of criticism of current government policy – some of it certainly justified. What I am yet to read are solutions that allow us to welcome all people coming by boat, whilst avoiding the aforementioned costs. The Greens, for example, propose to increase our humanitarian intake to 30,000, and claim that this will provide an alternative to the risky journey many are willing to take to Australia across the open ocean. Aside from being founded on some unwarranted assumptions (e.g. that asylum seekers are taking to boats because they have not been provided with legitimate means of entry), the policy is silent on what to do about anyone outside that figure. Unless we’re willing to remove all limits on our humanitarian intake, I’m not sure what else we can do to deter people who, given the opportunity, would attempt to enter Australia in this dangerous manner.

It's in this context that I view, say, TPVs. I appreciate the concerns that critics have raised; but I also appreciate what the government is attempting to do – again, when contextualised by the things I have already noted. I see it as an attempt to weigh the admission of temporary sanctuary with the overarching need for deterrence (and in regards to your characterisation of life on a TPV as a “living death”, I’m afraid I have to part with you here. The phrase conjures up images of, say, life in a North Korean labour camp. Whatever life is like for someone holding a TPV – which, as I understand things, affords them access to Medicare, receipt of social security benefits and work rights – I don’t think it can fairly be characterised as a “living death”).

“Stopping the boats” might have become a mindless mantra, but behind it lie genuine humanitarian, economic and (international) security concerns. I think Nick Jensen, talking about policy makers in another piece, probably reflects my view: “They have had great anxiety in trying make this policy balance all the issues at stake, and in their minds it often comes down to an imperfect policy which has the least amount of evil”.

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