The moral case on asylum seekers doesn’t resonate. We must begin to talk about self-interest

December 10, 2014

By Graeme Innes and Allison Orr

Last week’s Senate horse-trading, in which kids’ Christmas cheer was served up to the cross-benchers to achieve the long-term cruelty of temporary protection visas, epitomises Australia’s lack of real political leadership on the issue of asylum seekers. But short-term political gain aside, it is we the Australian public who are being hurt by the leadership vacuum on this issue.

The Abbott government has increased Australia’s refugee intake from 13,750 to 18,750 over the next five years, as a cross-bench sweetener, from the 20,000 figure under Julia Gillard. TPVs were introduced under John Howard, abolished under Kevin Rudd, and now brought back by Abbott.

Once again, Australia’s policy on asylum seekers is going around in circles. Much has been written about the moral case for changing Australia’s policy response to boat arrivals. We need an effective, sustainable response, not a policy merry-go-round focused on short-term political gain.

Human rights activists have made this case well. They cite our Refugee Convention obligations – that it’s not illegal to seek asylum, that the number of boat arrivals are very small by international comparisons. These arguments, made for over a decade, have failed to move public opinion or the policy response. Our national fixation on boats continues, and policies become increasingly harsh, military in style, and expensive. The moral case for change does not resonate.

So Australia must change the conversation on asylum seekers, for a reason that’s the simplest in the book: self-interest.

Let’s turn this argument on its head: it’s not about the government’s obligations to asylum seekers. It’s about their obligations to us. Government has a duty to the Australian people to implement effective policies, in terms of both results and in cost. For more than a decade, policies have been explicitly political, and have lacked long-term vision.


It’s hard to argue that Operation Sovereign Borders has not “stopped the boats”. This outcome has been achieved. But experience tells us that these policies create problems of their own.

First, there is the cost. Keeping 2,200 people in immigration detention on Nauru and Papua New Guinea costs more than $1bn a year. When the government is cutting funds to programs for Australians, how can this expenditure be justified?

There will also be long-term problems with these policies, as there were with the Pacific Solution. Offshore detention centres become increasingly difficult to manage, as is happening now. The mental health impacts on detainees make the situation untenable, and open Australia to compensation cases. Further, around 60% of people on Nauru under the first Pacific solution were eventually resettled in Australia, because other countries would not resettle those who had sought Australia’s protection.

The government claims that people currently in detention will never be resettled in Australia, but this is predicated on finding another country where they can be resettled. If this fails, we keep them in detention indefinitely, and return to the cost and compensation problem. The government has all but admitted this, as the increased refugee intake will largely deal with those in detention, not new refugees.

Harsh policies might stop the boats, but that is all they achieve. Howard admitted that keeping people in long-term detention was “one of the many failings” of his government.

This issue has been mired in short-term politicking for so long that we are unaware there are solutions beyond moving boats out of Australian waters to become someone else’s problem, or locking up those that do make it here.

The only long-term durable solution is to get past ad hoc unilateral responses, and engage in a multilateral, integrated regional solution. This would allow governments to prepare for and manage people flows.

Our government has an obligation to us to implement policies that look beyond short-term political gain. It must consider the long-term fallout as well. Our political leaders have failed us, so we need to look to the broader community. We call on leaders across Australia – from business, academia, sport, science, the media – to take a stand on this issue, make the call for change, and demand effective, long-term, sustainable policy.

Leadership is about defining an issue and marshalling persuasive arguments in its favour. Howard defined asylum seekers after Tampa in 2001 as illegal queue jumpers who presented a threat to our border. His case was so persuasive that we have argued on those terms ever since. It’s time for new leaders to redefine this issue in ways that persuade the broader Australian community.