Australia’s new Prime Minister Tony Abbott will be claiming a lot of mandates during the coming term of Federal Government. Some, including his determination to repeal the carbon tax, are likely to meet formal opposition within the Parliament. Other parts of his “Real Solutions” policy platform, however, can expect far easier passage through both the House of Representatives and the Senate and it will be up to outside forces to dissuade and amend. The incoming Coalition Government’s far-reaching plans for asylum seekers in Australia unfortunately fall in that second category.
Tony Abbott and his new ministry were sworn in earlier this week. He moved immediately to launch Operation Sovereign Borders, which is in effect a military-led joint agency taskforce with the goal of preventing unauthorised boat arrivals in Australia. Now on its second day of work, its brief is to tow asylum seeker boats back to Indonesia when safe to do so. Also part of the Sovereign Borders operation, Abbott has promised to significantly expand the capacity of offshore detention and processing facilities in Nauru and Papua New Guinea.
Beyond these first aggressive steps however, it is difficult to know exactly what policies the new government will seek to implement, when, or how. Certainly a range of regressive measures were mentioned during the election campaign: the return of temporary protection visas for asylum seekers already in Australia; slashed legal funding for asylum seeker advocacy, and reduced rights of appeal against Department of Immigration and Border Protection judgements are all on the cards. But there are still plenty of known unknowns, including how the various micro-party Senators will respond to the proposals, and how much of the previous government’s Papua New Guinea “solution” will be kept.
Temporary protection visas were phased out in 2007, having been largely discredited as a deterrant for new boat arrivals. They essentially created a second class of recognised refugees in Australia, one which had far more limited access to health and welfare services, and one which had to reapply for protection every three years. Refugees under temporary protection visas were also denied the family reunions that fully recognised refugees were able to claim, which led to more, not fewer, asylum seekers making boat voyages to Australia. Most of the 288 women and children on board the SIEVX when it sunk in 2001, for example, were family members of temporary protection visa holders already in Australia.
Cutting funding for asylum seeker legal services is a cynical strategy to effectively remove the rights of asylum seekers, without actually changing the law. In the same way, abolishing the Refugee Appeals Tribunal cuts the checks and balances in Australia’s migration system, leaving almost complete decision-making power with the Department of Immigration and Border Protection.
The logistical and legal details of both immediate promises are also yet to be explained, and could be affected by the number of new asylum seeker arrivals during the next three months and the cooperation (or lack thereof) of Indonesian authorities. There also remains significant potential for parts of the Coalition Government’s asylum seeker agenda to be challenged in the courts.
Whatever does come however, it’s unlikely to be positive for asylum seekers in Australia and the ASRC is preparing itself for a fight. As a community-funded organisation, it remains independent of the new government and free to pursue its agenda without threat of defunding. You can expect hard-fought and passionate campaigns against the reintroduction of TPVs (and the potential for no asylum seeker to ever receive permanent residency in Australia) as well as against the proposed dissolution of the Refugee Appeals Tribunal.
We would urge all asylum seeker supporters to also remain engaged and vocal as these changes are put forward by the new government. Based on the now far out-dated political strategy of demonising asylum seekers, its policies are not as popular as it thinks. A community-led backlash against plans to further isolate and imprison asylum seekers and deny them their rights to protection, could well be a catalyst for far wider change in Australia.
About the author:
Paul Howell is a freelance business journalist and communications consultant, based in Melbourne.
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