Promises, Promises: What’s in a promise?

By Clarrie Burke | 14 Jan 14

By Clarrie Burke.

We will stop the boats … stop the boats … stop the boats … stop the boats …
(Tony Abbott 2013)


The Turn

It was the Liberal National Party (LNP) launch to the 2001 federal election campaign. The packed auditorium of true believers was abuzz in an air of expectancy, as then Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, readied himself to address an aggravating issue in Australian politics.

Howard had chosen this event to vent his resentment and frustration at what he portrayed as the continuing stream of “boat people” arriving on Australian shores through the back door. In the wake of the controversial “Tampa affair”, he stood defiantly behind a lectern, on national television, and announced the Coalition’s tougher policies on border control. With arms flailing in righteous indignation, he commanded:

We will decide who comes to this country, and the circumstances in which they come.

The “commandment” resonated with the partisan crowd, giving it the green light and making it an election issue.

As the election campaign got under way, Howard proceeded to demonise asylum seekers reaching Australia by boat in a most prejudicial way―as unwelcome illegal/unauthorised, queue-jumping arrivals who could harbour terrorists, and seriously disrupt the social and economic fabric of Australia. He made no mention of desperate, vulnerable, fleeing human beings; no mention of their human rights as asylum seekers under the 1951 UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees―of which Australia is a signatory.

Then, in order to deter the so called “boat people” from setting foot in Australia, the Howard Government excised the mainland from the migration zone. This denied them landing rights on the Australian mainland and at the same time access to Australian justice.

The human rights community was outraged; claiming that Australia’s Prime Minister had created an image of Australia as a mean spirited country, lacking in compassion. They accused him of resorting to politics of fear in the way he shepherded the electorate to support what the UN Human Rights Committee Australia referred to as Australia’s “cruel, inhumane and degrading” policy of indefinite offshore detention. It gave rise to questions about Australia’s moral/humanitarian values, principles and obligations―questions such as, what happened to our traditional belief in the Good Samaritan? And, is the second verse of our proudly proclaimed National Anthem mere platitude?

Accusations of neo-colonial imperialism followed, to explain the exploitative manner by which Howard had lured impoverished ex-colonies, Papua New Guinea and Nauru, into doing Australia’s offshore detention work for extravagant remuneration―PNG’s dubious human rights record notwithstanding. The controversial scheme became known as the “Pacific Solution”. To achieve his ends, Howard brushed aside the human rights declared in the UN Refugee Convention, which applied to “boat people”. As Dr Daniel Webb, Human Rights Law Centre expert explains:

Article 31 provides that states are prohibited from penalizing asylum seekers on the basis of their ‘illegal entry or presence’.

Dr Webb further explained that, “By singling out boat arrivals for offshore processing and mandatory, indefinite detention and also by removing their right to apply for an Australian visa, our current law and policy does precisely what Article 31 says it can’t.”

Nevertheless, Howard stuck to his guns, and his slogan ―“We will decide…” ―got through to the majority of Australian people. As it turned out the flow of boats slowed after the election―due to a range of national and international push/pull factors― and Howard was quick to proclaim the “success” of the “Pacific Solution”. But in the process, the policy sent out mixed messages, and Australia’s integrity as a standard bearer for human rights was seriously questioned, nationally and internationally.


The Present

Fast forward to 2013.

During its six years in government, Labor remained in a quandary over asylum seekers arriving by boat. In desperation, Labor eventually capitulated to the Coalition’s “Pacific Solution”, which it had previously condemned. As part of Australia’s renewed deal with PNG and Nauru, both countries dutifully signed up to the UN Refugees Convention to draw attention away from PNG’s questionable human rights record. This was the same convention that Australia had violated in luring PNG and Nauru as participants in the Pacific Solution.

Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, seized on Labor’s equivocation over six years, repeatedly talking up the “deficit of trust” which had built up against Labor on the matter. He simply resurrected the Howard Government policy on border control, asserting that his party (LNP) had the right policies, and the track record to “stop the boats”. The LNP had done it once (under Howard), and he promised to follow the Howard script this time round. According to Abbott, only the LNP could be trusted to resolve this refractory issue.


the front page headline of The Sydney Morning Herald (6 September 2013) quoted Abbott as saying.

Abbott then aggressively marketed the three-word slogan, “stop the boats”, so that it became a core promise and political mantra for the LNP a second time. “We will stop the boats…. stop the boats … stop the boats… stop the boats…” echoed throughout the 2013 federal election campaign.

Soon after taking office, Abbott shifted the focus from “illegal/unauthorised arrivals”, to exploitative and unconscionable “people smugglers”, “economic migrants”, and tragic deaths at sea. Accordingly Abbott’s signature policy―the “Pacific Solution”―was refashioned as the “no advantage”, “Third Country Processing Regimen”, aka “Operation Sovereign Borders”. In effect this reinforced the existing policy of indefinite detention on Manus Island (PNG), or Nauru, with no prospect of processing or settlement in Australia―nor access to Australian justice.

Political agendas soon collided. Former Coalition Prime Minister and recipient of the Human Rights Medal, Malcolm Fraser, weighed in, calling the “Pacific Solution” an “abdication of Australia’s responsibilities to our basic humanity.” Meanwhile, Dr Daniel Webb (Human Rights Law Centre) warned that “the policy is the continuation of a really concerning trend of a deterrent-based approach to a difficult humanitarian issue.”

However, the newly anointed Prime Minister soon found himself facing his own “deficit of trust”. The Government was in trouble for not practising what it had preached in Opposition. During an interview on Channel 10 (12 September 2013), Dr David McRae (Lowy Institute for International Policy) was asked to comment on Abbott’s promised means to stop the boats. He responded, saying:

These are the kind of things the Coalition would say to win an election rather than policies an Australian Government would implement when in office.

Now it remains to be seen if the Coalition puts these things aside as things that were said purely to win political office.

Meanwhile, the Jakarta Post reported that Indonesian Foreign Minister, Marty Natalegawa, took exception to the manner in which Tony Abbott had used his country as a political football during the federal election campaign. His message was that Indonesia was standing up against Abbott’s unilateral approach to “stop the boats”:

We will reject his [Tony Abbott’s] policy on asylum-seekers, and any other policy, because it is not in the spirit of partnership.

Abbott’s modus operandi was seen as “unfriendly and derogatory” towards other stakeholders (in particular, Indonesia) by another Indonesian Cabinet Minister and other high public officials.

Barely one month in office, the new Prime Minister set off for Indonesia on what was widely seen as Abbott’s grovelling tour of conciliation and contrition, to apologise to the Indonesian President for things that were said in the heat of politics during the 2013 election campaign. It was a significant back down because, during the election campaign, Abbott was adamant about his suite of key election promises to “stop the boats”: maintain the “Pacific Solution”; engage the defence force (Navy) to turn back boats carrying asylum seekers (if it was considered safe to do so); buy boats in Indonesia which were likely to be used for “people smuggling”; offer rewards for intelligence information on likely boat departures from Indonesia destined for Australia; forcibly deport “failed” asylum seekers; and reintroduce the restrictive Howard-era Temporary Protection Visa (TPV).

Despite Abbott’s new-found conciliatory approach, his Minister for Immigration, Scott Morrison, is apparently still fixed firmly on the previous page. Ramping up his hardline stance on border control, Morrison directed his Department to change the nomenclature for asylum seekers arriving by boat. Henceforth, they are to be referred to as “illegal maritime arrivals” and “detainees”. Human rights advocates consider that such language only serves to inflame this difficult humanitarian issue by further dehumanising asylum seekers. Unwittingly the renaming may also have revealed the Government’s hidden agenda―to give the impression that refugees do not exist or have rights, and to break these people. The Greens were quick to remind the Government that, “People seeking asylum … are human beings.”

As it has turned out, the Government is facing serious problems in the first real test of its election promises to “stop the boats”.


The Problems

First, repeated criticism of the operation of the PNG and Nauru Detention Centres will keep the promise of the Pacific Solution under constant challenge.

The UN Commissioner for Refugee Officials has reported the conditions on the Manus Island facility are “unsafe and inhumane―a cross between a prison and a military camp”. No asylum seeker held on Manus Island since the facility reopened in November 2012 has yet received Refugee Status Determination.

According to Amnesty International’s first-hand accounts, the Nauru Detention Centre is “a toxic mix of uncertainty, unlawful detention and inhumane conditions that are creating an increasingly volatile situation.”

Second, on 7 November 2013, Australian authorities intercepted a boat carrying 63 asylum seekers, foundering off the coast of Java―in Indonesia’s search and rescue zone. The Indonesian Government refused Australia’s request to take back asylum seekers rescued at sea by Australian ships.

After a 24 hour standoff at sea, frustrated Immigration Minister, Scott Morrison, ordered the transfer of persons rescued from the SAR incident to Christmas Island for rapid onward transfer to Manus Island or Nauru.

More recently (December 2013 and January 2014) two boats were forcibly “pushed” back to Indonesia by the Australian Navy. The latter, intercepted near Darwin, was towed back over a period of six days. To achieve its purpose the Australian Navy entered Indonesian waters. The boat was then cast adrift, at night, in rough seas, amid allegations of mistreatment of asylum seekers. After running out of fuel, it drifted for some days before running aground on a reef off Rote Island. Passengers were rescued by locals and arrested by the Indonesian Police.

Allegations that Australia had violated Indonesia’s sovereignty soon followed. Chairman of Indonesia’s Foreign Affairs Commission, Mahfudz Siddiq, declared that in “pushing” the boats back to Indonesia, Australia had committed a “provocative action.” Remember that, during Abbott’s visit to Indonesia soon after he took office, he told a media conference in Jakarta: “Can I scotch this idea that the Coalition’s policy is or never has been tow-backs. … There’s a lot of difference between turning boats around in Australian waters and the Australian Navy towing them back in Indonesia.” Abbott also promised the Indonesian President that Australia would never do anything to “violate Indonesia’s sovereignty”.

Meanwhile, UNHCR spokeman, Bahar Baloch, expressed the UN’s deep concern about Australia’s policy of “pushing” back asylum-seeker boats. He warned that such action would raise significant issues which could place Australia in breach of its obligations under the Refugee Convention and International Law. Addressing the human consequences of Australia’s course of action, Green’s Senator, Sarah Hanson-Young, rebuked the Australian Government: “We’ve got a situation where a boat has been towed back by Australian officers, the boat has run aground. … These people could have drowned.”

Third, the Government was brought to account for its promised boat buy-back policy. At a Senate Estimate Hearing, the Commander of Operation Sovereign Borders admitted that no boats had been bought in Indonesia because the policy had met with resistance from Indonesia.

Fourth, the Abbott Government has suffered a serious blow from the fallout of Australian spying on the Indonesian President, his wife and other top officials. Indonesia has ceased cooperation with asylum seekers until it receives a satisfactory explanation from Australia. In this antagonistic and distrusting mood, it is hardly likely that the Indonesian Government would enable Abbott to fulfil his promise to gather intelligence information (for reward) in Indonesia, about plans for boats carrying asylum seekers destined for Australia.

Fifth, 21 year old Iraqi, “Faisal”, was recently removed from a plane in which he was ordered to return to Iraq after being served a deportation notice by the Immigration Minister. He was ordered off the plane under a Federal Court injunction sought by his lawyers. Furthermore, Iraq Embassy’s reaction casts another shadow over the Abbott Government’s promise to forcibly deport “failed” asylum seekers. The Embassy announced that: “the new democratic Iraq does not consent to forcible return, nor agree to involuntary return.”

Sixth, Abbott’s promise to re-issue Temporary Protection Visas was rejected in the Senate (2 December 2013) because, amongst other things, “Refugees on TPVs often refer to living in fear of being returned back home to the dangers they fled in the first place”, and that “… there is no reason to bring back TPVs because asylum seekers arriving by boat are no longer resettled in Australia.”

The question being asked, now, in many quarters is: At the end of this term as Prime Minister, what will we make of Tony Abbott’s promised means to “stop the boats”?


Clarrie Burke is a retired teacher and academic, a previous executive member of Amnesty International (Queensland) and Joint Coordinator of the Queensland Schools Amnesty Network.