Friday, April 29, 2016

Cranes and Australia's growing refugee mess

It's been a crazy week. one in which I have found it difficult to do many things. that I would normally including posting and responding to comments.

This, by the way, is one of the old cranes on Cockatoo Island in Sydney Harbour. This one reminded me of nothing so much as a Transformer movie figure. Standing below it, it is angular and harsh and very industrial. But then, it is all of those things!

More on Cockatoo Island in a later post.

Australia's refugee policy is a gift that keeps on giving. In previous discussion, I made the point that regardless of the arguments for or against the approach, the way that it was structured was high risk to the Government in terms of the probability of things going wrong. I also made the point that, with given objectives and rules, there was still a question of humanity in approach.

The last week has illustrated both points.

First we had the PNG Supreme Court Ruling that the Manus Detention Centre was illegal, followed by the PNG Government's decision that it must close. The Govrnment's first response was to wash its hands of matter. According to the Courier Mail, Australian Immigration  Minister Peter Dutton: stated
responsibility for the regional processing centre on Manus Island lay with PNG, saying the Supreme Court decision bound the PNG government, not the Australian government.
“We want to see people off Manus and off Nauru but they won’t be coming to Australia,” he said.
 Even as the Manus Island solution was unraveling, the case of a Nauru rape victim was before the Australian courts. The evidence of Immigration official David Nockels is quite extraordinary, displaying an inhumanity in process that I find hard to comprehend.

Even as the rape case was before the court we had the self immolation and subsequent death of the Nauruan detainee known as Omid. Today we have a report that Prime Minister Turnbull had again rejected an offer from New Zealand to take 150 refugees from Australia’s offshore detention centres saying: “Settlement in a country like New Zealand would be used by the people smugglers as a marketing opportunity.”.

Think about that for a moment. There is a certain inconsistency between Minister Dutton's position that the Manus problem is a matter for PNG and Mr Turnbull's stance. If those centres are matters for the PNG and Nauruan Governments, how can Australia reject a resettlement offer? It's not an Australian decision.

The PNG Government seems clearly of the view that the Manus detainees are Australia's responsibility and, in the end, that will be the case. Meantime, this editorial in the Melbourne Herald Sun shows the confusion even among those who support the Abbott policy.

It is true that, as the Herald Sun suggests, that Labor leader Shorten has been struggling to hold divisions within his Party as the bib and bub concensus between Coalition and Labor starts to break down. Whether a break down in that concenus would hurt Labor is far from clear notwithstanding the Herald Sun.

I don't have a crystal ball. I suspect that the Abbott/Turnbull position is a bit like that crane, still impressive but rusting.

The Government has a problem now with PNG and what to do about the detainees. It has problems on Nauru. Whichever way you cut it, there is plenty of scope for things to go wrong yet again.

One of the sideshows in all this is the electoral competition in New England.

Barnaby Joyce as Deputy Prime Minister has loyally locked himself into support for the Government's position, while opponent Tony Windsor has made refugee treatment one of the three key issues of his campaign. Those who support the Government position on the issue are already in Mr Joyce's camp,.those who oppose are more likely to be in Mr Windsor's camp. It's the ones in the middle who count.

Normally, I would have said that refugee matters would not be important at the end of the day because other issues were seen as more important. Now I don't know.

Many things can happen between now and the election. I do know that there are many who may support the Government's general stance but are concerned about the results of the policy. Unless the Government can resolve or reduce the inhumanities, unless further shocks can be avoided, their votes may shift.

My view here is based upon my knowledge of the structure of country communities, of the way they interact. There is not time tonight to explore this properly, but it comes back to community activism and the way people interact across broader social and political divides. My feeling is that it may lead to a 1% or 2% shift in votes, and that would be enough for Mr Windsor to win if the current polls are to be believed.


Anonymous said...

From my point of view there's an interesting legal question as to how enforceable the PNG judgment is against Australia, given that Australia wasn't a party to the judgment. Certainly it's politically enforceable, I think, which is what counts in the end... But then what of the detainees on Manus Island? Our own High Court has recently held that the Nauru arrangement is valid (Gordon J dissenting) (Decision summarised here: Personally I though Gordon J's dissent was spot on - the Nauru scheme is Australian, and it would not exist without Australia as the deus ex machina.

Therefore will the government transfer the detainees to Nauru? And has that woman who was raped been provided with the abortion she sought? And what of poor Omid?

I think both major parties will run into trouble on this one.


Jim Belshaw said...

The legal questions are interesting, LE, if outside my real knowledge base. Trying to keep things very simple, for I get confused! We have three separate jurisdictions. The court in each jurisdiction can only deal with laws and actions within that jurisdiction. The PNG decision if I interpret it correctly ruled that detention in the particular form breached the PNG constitution. The PNG Government has to deal with that.

The Australian High Court decision dealt with the legal validity of Australian Government actions. It ruled that they were within power, Gordon J dissenting. There are issues in that judgement that make me uncomfortable, but the effect appears to be that Australia can follow the Government's approach so long as it's not ruled illegal in the other country.

Legally, the detainees on Manus Island are a PNG problem. The PNG Government has created the problem for itself by acceding to Australia's wishes. If I had been PNG PM, I would never have agreed to enter into the agreement because of the foreseeable risks. They did, and the consequent problem is a PNG problem. Yes, it is a problem for Australia too, but first and foremost it is a PNG problem.

The Nauru leg was never going to fall over in a legal way in Nauru because of the nature of that village state.

The collapse of the Manus leg places the Australian Government in an insidious self-created bind. Legally, it can just walk away. However, the political and diplomatic price of that probably makes it an untenable position. So Australia will have to pay whatever price is required to sort the issue. The Government has to hope that it can come up with a politically acceptable solution that at least pushes the problem south past the next election. Whichever way it goes, Australia will pay.

I have tried to argue, not very well, that if you start from the policy parameters the Government has set, what is the most humane solution. The outcome may not be perfect, but it would be better than what we have now.

The Government now finds itself in the position of a car maker who has developed a robot that keeps operating after the production line has shifted. It has operated policy by algorithm, setting up rigid rules that, suddenly, don't work.

Winton Bates said...

This comment might perhaps be related to the opening line: "it's been a crazy week", if it wasn't completely off topic.

I have just read that Tom Lewis, former premier of NSW has died. I find it hard to understand why I can't remember Tom Lewis, when the name "Cleaver Bunton" does ring bells.

Anonymous said...

The Government now finds itself in the position of a car maker who has developed a robot that keeps operating after the production line has shifted. It has operated policy by algorithm, setting up rigid rules that, suddenly, don't work.

Yes. Exactly.

Although I noticed something interesting on my twitter feed - Nauru has an identical provision to PNG in its Constitution. If asylum seekers try to challenge the laws in Nauru - what will happen then?


Jim Belshaw said...

I didn't know Tom Lewis had died. I remembered Tom Lewis but had forgotten Cleaver Bunton. On Cleaver Bunton -

I didn't know that, LE. The Nauruan legal system is hardly robust. I wouldn't hold out any degree of confidence. Meantime, the management arrangements for Nauru appear to be unwinding with the takeover of Broad Spectrum by the Spanish Company. AS a matter of curiosity, and its not something I had focused on before, what are the legal, contractual and financial arrangements with the camps?

Anonymous said...

Well that is a very interesting question, Jim! I'm not quite sure we have access to that specific information - although surely someone's sought it through FOI??? Hmm. will have to have a fossick.


Jim Belshaw said...

Fossick away, LE. I look forward to the results!