Decency to one group of refugees shouldn’t come at cost of brutalising others

By Daniel Webb | 09 Dec 14

The Australian Government has a long standing policy of not paying ransoms. Yet last week it demanded a hefty one for the release of over 100 children from immigration detention.

In September Immigration Minister Scott Morrison introduced the Migration and Maritime Powers Amendment Bill after he’d struck a deal with Clive Palmer to reintroduce Temporary Protection Visas.

All the focus was on temporary visas. Palmer proudly announced that, at his insistence, a new class of temporary visa called the ‘Safe Haven Enterprise Visa’, or SHEV, had been created.

But the Bill created SHEVs in name only, leaving the detail to be figured out later. However, it did include a raft of other regressive measures that were not just bad news for asylum seekers but were bad news for our democracy.

The Bill removed any obligation on the Government to comply with international law when conducting boat turn-backs. It retrospectively classified babies born in Australian hospitals as boat arrivals. It abolished appeal rights in asylum seekers cases, removed all references to the Refugee Convention from Australian law and licensed the Government to deport asylum seekers from Australia without needing to first assess their refugee claims.

The Bill expanded Morrison’s personal powers, marginalised international law and sidelined the courts.

It also reintroduced TPVs.

The Bill was roundly condemned as an attack on human rights and the rule of law – an unprecedented power grab. The Labor Party, the Greens and the Independent cross-bench Senators all opposed the Bill. The United Nations Committee Against Torture condemned it.

A Senate inquiry into its implications received over 5000 submissions. Only one was supportive – from Morrison’s own department.

Morrison responded by threatening that thousands of people would languish in detention unless, and until, the Bill was passed – ignoring the fact that he could release them any day of his choosing But the Senate didn’t buy Morrison’s threats. They knew he couldn’t lock asylum seekers up forever – the High Court would surely have something to say about that.

So, with the stick having failed and the Bill facing the resounding defeat it deserved, Morrison resorted to a tactic less familiar to him – the carrot. He brazenly dangled the liberty of over 100 children in front of the cross-bench Senators, along with work rights for those in the Community and the lives and safety of an extra 7000 refugees to be resettled over the next four years.

But Morrison’s offer of decency was entirely contingent on the Senate passing his Bill. He made it abundantly clear that if he didn’t get his way then these 100 children would spend Christmas languishing in detention.

Morrison’s tactics quite literally made these children the hostages of his political agenda. Their rights and liberty in no way hinged on a principled assessment of the necessity for their detention. Their freedom didn’t depend on any assessment of their wellbeing or of the harm being caused by their incarceration. Their futures had absolutely nothing to do with any consideration of their human rights.

Their fate hinged entirely on the Senate paying Morrison’s asking price – the passage of his Migration Bill.

Morrison’s tactics were truly despicable. Any pretence of him being motivated in all this by a humanitarian agenda to save lives is surely dispelled by his unashamed leveraging of the liberty of children.

But what is just as astounding as Morrison’s tactics is the fact that they worked.

While Senators Lambie and Madigan held firm, the rest of the cross-bench caved – first Nick Xenophon, then the Palmer United Party, then Ricky Muir. They paid Morrison’s ransom.

No doubt they’ll console themselves with notions that by giving Morrison what he wanted they secured some level of humanity and decency for one group of refugees. Indeed they did. But in so doing they’ve licensed Morrison to mistreat an indeterminate number of others.

Palmer said that as a father, he felt the most important thing to do was to get refugee children out of detention today. But what of those who arrive tomorrow? Future child arrivals will no doubt lament the short-sightedness of Palmer’s paternal concerns.

The Migration and Maritime Powers Bill is a truly appalling piece of legislation. Its repugnance is surpassed only by the tactics used to secure its passage. The fact they worked reveals that we’ve lost all sense of principle and perspective in the asylum seeker policy debate.

This piece was originally published on the Human Rights Law Centre website.

Daniel Webb is the Director of Legal Advocacy at the Human Rights Law Centre. @DanielHRLC