The government’s jury-rigged solution this week to the vexing problem of the Murugappan family — keep trying to deport them but allow them to stay in community detention until legal avenues are exhausted, instead of Christmas Island — isn’t sustainable politically or logically, let alone morally.
At some point the government will have to make a permanent decision: continue to try to deport them or let them live in Biloela, in Queensland. It may get lucky and have a judge make the decision for it, but it shouldn’t count on the political environment for deportation improving significantly. Images of little kids in distress have a way of overriding the community’s general antipathy to asylum seekers.
Exacerbating the political problem is that it doesn’t have a strong policy argument for deporting a family with two children born here and with strong roots in a regional community — the kind of roots that in other circumstances would have the government celebrating the family as exactly what Australia needs.
The entire argument is that even now, years after the boats were stopped, the tiniest lack of resolution on the part of Australia will see an armada set forth for our shores.
There’s some finicky detail-type problems with this argument. Having allowed the Murugappans to remain in community detention in Perth, surely that would be all that’s needed for the apparent army of people smugglers overseas to hype into Australia weakening its resolve and opening the gates. People smugglers — whether bribed by our security agencies or not — aren’t known for their rigorous and honest assessment of Australian administrative and migration law when hoping to encourage gullible asylum seekers on to boats.
But the bigger problem is that the “blinking = floodgates” argument no longer holds up once you’ve demonstrated you can turn boats back and prevent them from reaching Australian territory — which the government has done very effectively. Indeed it’s puzzling that it has not made much more of its success. The fact that its boat-turnaround policy worked so well, when so many, including Crikey, claimed it wouldn’t, should allow it to demonstrate that it can be flexible in unusual cases — as this one, involving children born in Australia, is.
Far from being a challenge to the government’s resolution against abetting people smugglers, the Murugappan family should have been an opportunity to display the benefits of its success at stopping the boats.
The Migration Act, after all, offers extensive discretion for ministers to replace decisions on visa applications with more favourable ones, on humanitarian grounds or otherwise in the public interest. The current system may not be as foundationally discretionary as the pre-1989 system that Labor’s migration minister Robert Ray transformed, but the minister still has wide-ranging powers to intervene.
Frequently, as Ray warned at the time, this use of discretion is motivated by access to the minister — which means mates and donors can benefit.
“Those who tend to get access to a minister are members of parliament and other prominent people around the country,” Ray said in 1989. “I worry for those who do not have access and whether they are being treated equally by not having access to a minister.”
Ray was exactly right. Amanda Vanstone famously used her discretion to grant a visa in 2005 to an alleged organised crime figure — later jailed for drug trafficking — who was connected to Liberal Party donors. Philip Ruddock was the target of unproven “cash-for-visa” allegations in 2003. Peter Dutton used his discretionary power to help two au pairs employed by people linked to him — as part of hundreds of exercises of his power.
Progressive critics of the government and refugee advocates are reluctant to give the government any credit for its asylum-seeker policies. And, as so many including Crikey have reported over the years, they have been marked by ostentatious punishment, bloodymindedness, lies, negligence, censorship and the murder, abuse and sexual assault of people under our protection.
But any realistic appraisal must include that the boat turnback policy has prevented hundreds of deaths from maritime incidents among those trying to reach Australian shores — a major achievement regardless of what motivated it.
And the success of that policy is what should allow the government to exercise the flexibility in its migration powers that it is so ready to use for those with greater access to ministers.
Does the “blinking = floodgates” argument still hold up now the boats have stopped? Write to [email protected], and don’t forget to include your full name if you’d like to be considered for publication.