Australia’s asylum seeker obsession puts democracy at risk

The pressure on core processes and beliefs will result in a judicial inquiry or royal commission into Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers. Photograph: LUKAS COCH/AAPIMAGE
The pressure on core processes and beliefs will result in a judicial inquiry or royal commission into Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers. Photograph: LUKAS COCH/AAPIMAGE

Scott Morrison’s creation of a single border force confirms it: asylum seeker policy is dominating the working agenda of the government and its departments. An inquiry is inevitable

Today, in his address at the Lowy Institute, immigration minister Scott Morrison announced the creation of the Australian border force, a “single integrated border protection agency” of customs and immigrations assets – including detention centre management. A commissioner, to lead the agency, will report directly to Morrison and “pick up where Operation Sovereign Borders leaves off”.

This latest announcement shows that far from being on the periphery of Australian politics, asylum seeker policy is now at its centre. It has taken on a life of its own and now, to varying degrees, dictates the working agenda of a number of key government departments and agencies. The overwrought reaction to what in reality is the movement of a small number of people has in effect created a de-facto “mega department” in Canberra, informal but central to the government’s agenda, and not overly concerned with the rule of law.

It includes the department of defence, whose uniformed personnel have become politicised by their involvement in immigration control. It began when the SAS were deployed onto the Tampa under John Howard; now the commando who led the attack is the deputy chief of the army. The Australian navy has also been compromised, made to breach Indonesian sovereignty as it tows boats back across the maritime boundary.

Refugees legitimately seeking asylum, for that is what they are doing, do not constitute a security threat. Yet Morrison, acting on the hysteria generated by Tony Abbott, has chosen to couch asylum seekers’ legitimate quest for freedom in terms of an invasion.

Immigration have advised sending Tamils back to Sri Lanka without hearing their claims for asylum on the basis, untested, that they are economic refugees. They oversee the hellish holding camps for asylum seekers on Manus and Nauru. They have primary responsibility for a policy which treats people badly and illegally, both in terms of Australian domestic law and international law.

The attorney-general’s department has acquiesced in these illegalities and supports the indefinite detention of over 50 refugees, mostly Tamils, on security grounds. Its decision is based on the flawed assessment of ASIO, which has received its advice from the Sri Lankan government, the victors in a civil war which has seen the defeated and persecuted Tamils seeking to flee the country.

The department of foreign affairs, apparently acting on domestic political imperatives, has obfuscated the reality of existence for Tamils in Sri Lanka, which embraces persecution, in order to back the Australian government’s policy of denying refugee status to Tamils. Together with the AFP, who has officers stationed in Colombo, foreign affairs has sought to strengthen the resolve of the Sri Lankan authorities to stop boats with Tamils on board sailing for Australia.

Concluding secret deals with Cambodia, a notoriously corrupt state, for the resettlement of refugees seeking asylum in Australia does not remove Australia from its responsibilities and the UNHCR has said as much. Nor can returning Tamil asylum seekers to Sri Lanka without testing their claims be construed as anything less than an act of bastardry.

The AFP has also been involved in working with people smugglers in Indonesia and Malaysia to disrupt sea borne smuggling operations to Australia. ASIS have been been involved in these operations and in gathering information on the likely movement of people from other countries, including Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan.

Prime minister and cabinet is the co-ordinator and political driving force of this “mega department”, although power shifts and positions are contested, sometimes hotly, depending on the ambitions at play. However, a consensus and team mentality has built, a common language agreed behind officially sanctioned walls of silence, which has helped unify the bureaucratic players. The consensus on this key issue between both major parties has helped.

The effect of asylum seeker policy on the political advisory process has the potential to substantially undermine established democratic process. The pressure on core processes and beliefs will result in a judicial inquiry or royal commission into Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers. And none of the fictions invented about the responsibilities of the PNG or Nauruan governments toward deported and incarcerated asylum seekers can absolve the Australian government from their international legal and humanitarian responsibilities.

Morrison claims he has stopped the boats, but he has not. His agents continue to turn them back, at great cost. He has not developed a sustainable policy. The numbers are building on Indonesia. An inquiry is inevitable. What will they do?