Tom Keneally ‘threw the switch to alienation’ when discussing the issue of refugees and asylum-seekers with the BBC.

Tom Keneally ‘threw the switch to alienation’ when discussing the issue of refugees and asylum-seekers with the BBC

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.

Bestselling author and Booker Prize winner Thomas Keneally did not meet this standard when interviewed by Zeinab Badawi on the BBC World Service’s Hardtalkprogram on June 18. The writer spoke sensibly in refuting the claim of US-based commentator John Oliver 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.

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 World War II, this term has been associated with the camps constructed by the Nazi Germany ­regime in the late 1930s and early 40s. 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, about 50,000 unlawful ­arrivals came to Australian shores and an estimated 1200 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 Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island 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 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 UN camp somewhere in Africa for 15 years.

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

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 hard line ­towards people-smugglers and those who engage them while slowly and quietly resettling 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 present asylum-seeker problem worldwide is so great that no government or international body can resolve it in the short term. Despite what Keneally told the BBC.

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