It was one of the more naive propositions from a journalist so far this year. On Tuesday, ABC TV 7.30 presenter Leigh Sales interviewed Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton on border protection. The specific focus was on the Labor/Greens/independent bill that passed the House of Representatives, concerning medical evacuations of refugees and asylum-seekers currently on Manus Island and Nauru.
After apologising for continuing to interrupt, Sales put it to Dutton that, following the new legislation, a people-smuggler would now have to refine the product on offer to asylum-seekers who are based in Indonesia or nearby. According to Sales, the new offer would be as follows: “OK, you can get on a boat to Australia, but there is a very high chance that you will be turned back. If you’re not turned back, you might be sent to Nauru and Manus Island. If you’re there, you might be able to get two doctors to sign off on a medical evacuation for yourself. The minister might allow that to happen. If you get to Australia, you might be able to lodge a court action and find yourself staying in Australia.” She added: “That doesn’t sound like a very attractive product.”
How naive can you get? For starters, people-smugglers — who grow rich on the misfortune of others — are not truthful. They highlight the chance to success, not the possibility of failure. And certainly not the likelihood of drowning.
Any perceived weakening in Australian border protection makes it easier for people-smugglers to sell their product. When prime minister John Howard and Tony Abbott put up the red flag, the boats stopped coming. When Labor’s Kevin Rudd moved the sign to amber, some 50,000 asylum-seekers reached Australia by boat in around five years. It is estimated that some 1200 of the 50,000 drowned at sea.
It was Rudd who put asylum-seekers on Manus Island and Nauru when he replaced Julia Gillard as prime minister in the lead-up to the 2013 election. And it was Abbott — with the assistance of first Scott Morrison and then Peter Dutton — who effectively stopped the boats for what has now amounted to six years.
It is perfectly understandable that some Australians feel sympathy for asylum-seekers and refugees in detention. However, it should be remembered that virtually everyone who arrives in Australia by boat has taken part in a secondary movement. In short, they are not fleeing immediate fear of death or persecution at the place from which they embarked on their sea journey.
Take a young Iranian man currently in offshore detention, for example. He probably will have flown, on a valid passport, from Iran or close by to Jakarta with the expressed intention of engaging a people-smuggler to reach Australia. Meanwhile, refugees in the UNHCR camps in parts of Africa and Asia, who cannot afford to pay people-smugglers, have to wait until places are found in such nations as the US, Canada and Australia.
Many Australians who strongly oppose unauthorised boat arrivals do not object to our generous refugee and humanitarian intake, currently running at about 17,500 a year.
Also, the decision of the Abbott government to accept a special intake of some 12,000 victims of the civil war in Syria was widely accepted and appears to have been successful.
In other words, there are well-meaning people on both sides of the debate. It is understandable that some Australians believe that detainees on Manus Island and Nauru should be accepted immediately in Australia. And it’s understandable that some focus on the likely unintended consequences of well-meaning actions.
However, anyone arriving in Australia on Tuesday and turning on ABC TV’s The Drum would not get this impression. The program’s co-presenters Julia Baird and Ellen Fanning like to describe The Drum as being long on respectful discussion and short on rhetorical aggression.
This was not the case on Tuesday, when former race discrimination commissioner Tim Soutphommasane let fly at the Coalition policy on border protection in general and its opposition to the medical evacuation legislation — which will give medical practitioners in Australia a significant role in determining which refugees and asylum-seekers will remain in offshore detention.
Soutphommasane described the government’s decision to re-open the detention centre on Christmas Island as “flicking the switch to fear”. He depicted this as the “foreshadowing of some race politics to be played later this year”. Later, he labelled some of those whom he disagreed with as racists engaging in hate. Baird did not contest his assertions.
Soutphommasane’s Drum appearance followed the publication by MUP of his booklet On Hate. This is a profoundly partisan treatise. The author sees hatred as rampant in Australia but defines it as related to identity. He depicts non-white Australians as the target of hate — along with women plus “gays, lesbians or transgender people”.
Soutphommasane is so ideologically blinkered that he only sees hate in right-of-centre or conservative circles. He ignores the reality of anti-Semitism. Hatred of Jews was once the preserve of the extreme Right. Not any more. Anti-semitism is rife within left-wing or left-of-centre politics. I You would never know this from reading On Hate.
Likewise, Soutphommasane ignores the hate and ridicule directed at conservative Christians. And he overlooks the violence and threats of violence directed at right-of-centre individuals.
Unlike journalists and commentators, democratic governments have to make decisions and resolve problems. It’s all too easy to shout “racist” or “hate” when a government moves to enforce border security and, as a consequence, eliminate or reduce drownings at sea. And it’s all too easy to believe that people-smugglers are truthful traders.