The ‘stop drownings at sea mantra’ cloaks a racist agenda

Boats, boats, boats. That’s pretty much what the Liberal–National government put on offer during the 2013 election campaign. Sure, it’s a message that was carefully melded into the carbon tax and Labor leadership chaos but, essentially, the biggest point of Tony Abbott’s political differentiation was ‘stop the boats’. And, if you didn’t hear it loudly enough, it was littered throughout campaign paraphernalia and the Coalition’s centrepiece booklet, ‘Our Plan: Real Solutions for all Australians’.

The results of this mantra? Look no further than the incidents on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, where some asylum seekers have died from infections after minor injuries and illnesses. Playing politics with asylum seekers arriving by boat has reaped great dividends for the Coalition but where are the roots of the current crisis on Manus? Are its antecedents contained within the White Australia policy to exclude Kanaks from the domestic labour market? Former Liberal Prime Minister Robert Menzies and his ‘yellow peril’ mania and anti-Communist rhetoric in the 1950s? Former ALP Minister for Immigration, Gerry Hand, and the introduction of ‘mandatory detention’ in 1992? Or the debacle in 2001, where John Howard refused entry to 433 asylum seekers stranded aboard the Norwegian freighter MV Tampa?





While these events make a contribution to the eternal Australian phobia with the outside world and the prospect of invasion from the north, the crisis on Manus Island has its roots back in 1998, when a freshly re-elected Liberal–National government decided that its future electoral prospects lay in the issue of asylum seekers, unauthorised boat arrivals and the so-called ‘illegal’ immigration. This is the time when then Minister for Immigration, Philip Ruddock, claimed ‘whole villages… packing up’ their suitcases in the Middle East were coming to Australia. Politics, since this time, has been bereft of ideas on asylum seekers, and is as further away as ever in being able to implement reasonable, humanitarian or creative solutions.

The greatest issue is not the boats. It’s not the asylum seekers and it’s not even the people smugglers. It’s the political class that has provided weak and lazy leadership and, after 16 years of endless rhetoric about asylum seekers, the issue is more vexed than at the height of the Tampa stand-off in August 2001.

There are 226 federal parliamentarians, 76 in the Senate and 150 in the House of Representatives. Most, if not all, are university educated. Yet, the issue of asylum seekers has become almost more intractable than the Israel–Palestine question, and set in place another decade of partisan and inane policy responses. If placing asylum seekers in an expensive little orange boat and towing them by navy vessel to Indonesia is the best that we can do, well, we’re simply not trying hard enough.

Ruddock, after those relatively innocuous comments in 1998, ramped up the rhetoric in 2000 by producing a series of videos, warning would-be asylum seekers that they would be ‘eaten, bitten or mauled’ by wild animals, if they took the voyage across seas to land in Australia. He sold his soul in exchange for cheap applause at the 2001 Liberal Party election campaign launch. He is now lingers in federal Parliament as the ‘Father of the House’ and still wears an Amnesty International badge, as if he’s reminding himself, and anyone else that might be interested, that there’s some skerrick of light in that deep darkened soul. Good luck with that exploration.

Ruddock was also the first Minister for Immigration to start classifying asylum seeking as an illegal act, even though the Migration Act didn’t support this proposition, nor was it supported by the United Nations’ Refugee Convention, which Australia is a signatory to. This needs to be explained yet again: asylum seekers arriving by boat (or any other method) are not ‘illegal’ (although current Minister for Immigration, Scott Morrison did direct the Department of Immigration to use the terms ‘illegal maritime arrivals’, rather than ‘irregular maritime arrivals’ from October 2013 onwards).

In reality, prospective asylum seekers are classified as unlawful non-citizen arrivals and remain so until their credentials are determined. If they are found to be genuine asylum seekers, they remain in Australia. If not, it is at this point that they are defined as illegal and deported at the first opportunity or, if this is not possible, incarcerated in a migration detention facility.

This legal status has been consistently ignored by Coalition members of Parliament and there seems to be a warped sense of pride in the levels that asylum seekers can be demonised. Current Minister for Immigration Scott Morrison is in his element—he appears as a smiling cadaver, no doubt hoping for the same applause accorded to Ruddock, but we’re yet to see what his reward from this Faustian pact will be. A promotion perhaps at the time of the next Cabinet reshuffle or a keen diplomatic posting post-retirement?

The most disturbing development of this recent chapter in the handling of asylum seekers in Australia can be found in the new catchcry: stopping drownings at sea. It camouflages a fundamentally racist policy by making our vainglorious leaders seem concerned about the humanitarian impact of people making the journey across high seas, ostensibly putting our grand intentions of saving people from drowning first, while relegating the racist intention of excluding these people and ensuring they never reach our shores to a secondary position.

The notion of ‘stopping drownings at sea’ developed currency during former Prime Minister, Julia Gillard’s botched attempt at the ‘Malaysia solution’ in 2011, where Malaysia would accept 800 asylum seekers from Australia, in exchange of 4,000 ‘processed’ refugees residing in Malaysia. It was at this time that Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey started claiming the most important issue was to ‘stop drownings at sea’. Hockey was most vocal at this time about the issue, stating ‘one evil should not be compounded by another evil by a government’, even crying on the floor of Parliament. He hasn’t had much to say about the issue recently but, perhaps he’s been too busy worrying about ending the age of entitlement.

‘Stopping drownings at sea’ also found its way into the Report of the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers, released in August 2012, but after 18 months, the results of policy can be seen to be immoral and practically flawed. Its policy contradictions and duplicity make it a cross between Hannah Arrendt’s The Banality of Evil and Franz Kafka’s The Trial. In the act of supposedly ‘stopping drownings at sea’, we will capture asylum seekers at sea, either tow them back to Indonesia like live cattle or incarcerate them, and implement such a wicked and hateful regime against them. And all of this from the hand of bureaucrats in central Canberra, with the imprimatur of a Prime Minister desperate to be able to continue announcing ‘I stopped the boats’.

What the proponents of the Manus Island and Nauru options never outline is that while we’re supposedly rescuing asylum seekers and deterring them from making the hazardous journey by sea, we’re punishing those that make the journey by placing them in unsafe environments—apparently, our humanitarian concern is so great that we’re prepared to implement an inhumane solution to arrive at a humane conclusion. A bit like destroying the Bến Tre village during the Vietnam war to save the village. Or, to destroy the soul to save the soul.

It’s akin to selecting a group of law abiding Australian citizens and sending them to the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq to deter the rest of the population from committing crime. Or someone running from a rampaging murderer on the street, knocking on your door, you decide to lock that person up in your bathroom, and then invite neighbours to throw rocks and sticks at them. And eventually kill them.

There are major problems with Tony Abbott’s approach to asylum seekers on boats. The entire policy of off-shore processing and Operation Sovereign Borders has been shrouded in secrecy, and whatever information does become available, is littered with errors and misinformation. Abbott even likened his government’s treatment of asylum seekers to being ‘at war’ with an enemy, ironic, considering asylum seekers arriving by boat are fleeing real wars in Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Iraq and Sudan.

So, where does leave us? The recent incidents at Manus Island and Nauru indicate the policies are not sustainable. It’s as though Abbott and Morrison are extending Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiment, permitting extended sessions of torture to see how far institutionalised abuse can be carried out.

I’m not seeking to change opinions within the electorate, because the ideas about asylum seekers are so entrenched and immovable within the community that it’s almost not worth the bother. It’s obvious that while there are many in the Australian community that are deeply concerned about the treatment of asylum seekers and the policy course the Coalition government has taken, there are many others that would prefer even harsher treatment, as shown in the Essential Media Communications report, ‘Too soft or too tough on asylum seekers’.

But when we have sight of the Chinese Government taking Australia to task for human rights abuse of asylum seekers and the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Julie Bishop, attempting to deal with Hun Sen, the Prime Minister of Cambodia, which is one of the poorest countries in the world, to take receive Australia’s asylum seekers, we know that there is a great deal wrong and something needs to be done.


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Eddy Jokovich

Eddy Jokovich is a Sydney-based journalist and producer of many books, magazines and handbooks and has worked as a war correspondent, journalist, lecturer in media studies and production.