Dutton’s terrible invention

There is no purpose to this but cruelty. The refugee debate in this country has reached a point where it is answering ministerial confections with punitive policy. It is difficult to write about it with anything other than disgust.

Peter Dutton’s proposal to criminalise for life the legal act of seeking asylum ends the lie that this government’s border protection policies are about deterrence, that they are about ending deaths at sea. The policy is about one thing above all else: punishment.

Already, the minister has discretion to refuse visas. Already, the chance of a refugee on Manus or Nauru coming to Australia at any point in their life is minute. This new legislation simply forces the cruelty of separation on families split by settlement. It takes the current rigorous checks on marriages and replaces them with blunt fiat. It says a refugee by dint of having once boarded a boat, having once risked their life to hope and desperation, can never do business in this country, can never visit, can never so much as make footfall on our soil.

The lie that this is somehow necessary to clear the camps on Manus and Nauru is a particularly ugly one. For half a decade, Australian politics has been untroubled by the torture done in these camps, by the rapes of women and children, by the deaths of men.

But third-country settlement does not require legislation that arbitrarily refuses any of the legitimate reasons a person might later have for coming to Australia. The cognitive dissonance that says this legislation might somehow be kind to refugees is simply a mark of how grotesque this debate has become.

Last month, Robert Manne offered a cogent explanation for some of the policy disfigurement in this area: the view that one boat, one settled person, one unlikely marriage would mark the failure of the whole system.

“In my view it has been the absolutism,” Manne wrote, “embedded in the so-called Australian immigration culture of control, rather than the racism of the White Australia Policy, which helps explain our recent policy history, now animated by a new absolutist ambition: that we should strive for a situation where not even one asylum-seeker boat reaches our shores.”

This absolutism creates a policy that smashes up thousands of lives in the hope that one person will never come here. It is this absolutism that bends immigration policy into strange and forbidding shapes.

There are serious issues in Australia’s immigration system. There are visa classes vulnerable to criminal exploitation, there is evidence of money laundering. But Dutton is more interested in punishing the vulnerable in perpetuity than he is in a robust system. There are more votes in demonising refugees than there are in controlling business.

Both sides are to blame for this. Labor, hopefully, will refuse to pass Dutton’s sick amendments. But the system is their system. Kevin Rudd’s intervention this week was as crassly disingenuous as any of his attempts at revisionism. Manus is his. Nauru is partly his, too. He did as much as anyone to coarsen this debate with fear.

It is tempting to say that the refugee debate reached a final low this week, that this is as bad as it gets, but there is too much evidence to the contrary for that view to be reliable. It can always get worse.

Next week, the parliament will vote on Dutton’s terrible invention. It is hoped they might recognise it for what it is: a farce. We badly need a solution to what is happening to innocent people on Manus and Nauru. This legislation is proof that Dutton has neither the care nor intelligence to offer it. The solution, of course, is simple: bring them here.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 5, 2016 as "Dutton’s terrible invention".

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