Most Australians appreciate the cut and thrust of the domestic political debate.  However, when talking to foreigners, all of us have a responsibility to be as factual as possible and to avoid hyperbole.

Best-selling author and Booker Prize winner Thomas Keneally did not meet this standard when interviewed by Zeinab Badawi on the BCC World Service’s Hardtalk program on June 18.  The writer spoke sensibly in refuting the claim of US commentator Jon Stewart that Australia is a racist country.

But, earlier in the interview, Keneally threw the switch to alienation when discussing the issue of refugees and asylum seekers. Whatever anyone thinks about the policy of successive governments on this issue, the fact is that Australia, on a per-capita basis, is one of the most generous nations in the world when it comes to settling refugees.

Settling refugees means accepting them as individuals who qualify for the free health and education available to Australians – along with access to a generous welfare system.  And, in turn, refugees become eligible for residential status and eventually full citizenship. Some of Australia’s most successful citizens came here as refugees.

But you would not know this from watching or hearing the Hardtalk interview. Keneally told Badawi that Australia has failed the test of “national honour and honesty” with respect to asylum seekers. He went on to accuse Australian governments of lying but did not specifically identify the (alleged) lies to which he was referring.

Keneally told Hardtalk “we began by arguing that to save Australia from terror we had to keep these people in permanent detention. So we have what can only be called concentration camps in Australia…in which people are punished psychologically for having the ambition for being Australians”.

This is simply misleading.  Keneally is a social democrat and a supporter of mainstream Labor governments.  He should know that detention for asylum seekers entering Australian territory unlawfully was an initiative of Paul Keating’s Labor government in 1992.  It had nothing to do with the threat of international terrorism, which became a concern some time later.

Also, the reference to concentration camps is grossly inaccurate in this instance. Since the end of the Second World War, this term has been associated with the camps constructed by the Nazi Germany regime in the late 1930s and early 1940s.  Some were forced labour facilities, others were death camps.  No one willingly entered these institutions.

Contrary to Keneally’s claim, no one is punished for having the ambition to become an Australian.  Tens of thousands with such an ambition enter Australia as immigrants every year as do thousands of refugees.  Detention was established to restore Australian control of Australian borders.  This became increasingly necessary as individuals arriving by boat destroyed their personal papers on the advice of people smugglers.  This means that authorities have no way of assessing the character of individuals arriving on Australian shores.

Keneally told Badawi that Australia has adopted a policy of “punishing people not the people smugglers”. This overlooks the fact that the only way to stop the people smuggling trade is to cut their customer base.  The Coalition governments led by John Howard, Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison understood this.

So did Labor’s Kevin Rudd during his second term as prime minister.  During Rudd’s first time as prime minister and in the early years of his successor, Julia Gillard, some 50,000 unlawful arrivals came on Australian shores and an estimated 1,200 drowned at sea.  At this time, Australia’s immigration system was effectively contracted out to people smugglers.

It’s rare indeed for a BBC journalist to criticise an interview from the right.  But that’s what Badawi felt compelled to do.  She pointed out to Keneally that while he referred to concentration camps others described them as detention centres.  And she added that “you can’t allow unfettered numbers of asylum seekers to come in”.

Quite so. Keneally’s proposal is to use the money saved from closing existing detention centres on Nauru and New Guinea’s Manus Island and use the money saved to set up centres in Indonesia designed to process asylum seekers for settlement in Australia.

However, it is not clear why asylum seekers who make it to Indonesia or a nearby nation should get preference when it comes to settlement in Australia.  There are tens of millions currently seeking asylum – in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, Latin America and elsewhere.  There is no reason why Australia should give preference to individuals with the money to make it to our northern shores ahead of those who, say, may have been in a United Nation camp somewhere in Africa for 15 years.

Refugees and asylum seekers in offshore detention currently are free to leave if they wish.  They are in no sense incarcerated in a concentration camp. Moreover, the Coalition has been successful in re-settling some of these men, women and children in the United States.

The sensible approach to an almost intractable problem is to put a red flag up the front and operate a green flag out the back.  In other words, it makes sense for Australia to adopt a hardline towards people smugglers and those who engage them while slowly and quietly re-settling those on Nauru and Manus Island.  In effect, this has been Australia’s policy for years.

Such a process is not assisted by exaggerated statements made by prominent Australians to international media outlets.  If, as Keneally states, the Australian government is an institutional liar and committed to maintaining concentration camps to punish people, then it is reasonable to come to the view that a majority of Australians will prevail against such deceit and injustice.

They won’t – as recent election results have indicated – because the view put by Keneally to the BBC is flawed.  These are the facts. Australia is a generous recipient of refugees compared with most other democracies, including New Zealand.  Moreover, the current asylum seeker problem world-wide is so great that no government or international body can resolve it in the short term. In spite of what Keneally told the BBC.



Gerard Henderson is Executive Director of the Sydney Institute. His Media Watch Dog blog can be found at