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Peter Dutton’s new portfolio is no longer about stopping the boats but whether to maintain cruel and expensive detention. By Mike Seccombe.

Inside Peter Dutton’s asylum-seeker endgame

Newly appointed minister for immigration and border protection Peter Dutton.
Credit: AAP IMAGE

The note from the asylum seekers of Foxtrot compound on Manus Island, handwritten 10 days ago as they began their hunger strike, was as naive as it was desperate.

“We will die in PNG [Papua New Guinea] if Australian government resettle us in PNG. Take us to Australia please or we will die here,” it read.

“Please hear us Mr Peter Dutton. We know you are different, not cruel.”

Inside the compound a banner was displayed. “Peter Duton [sic],” it read, “Prove you are not Scott Morison [sic]” 

The naivety was in the expression of hope for a brighter future under the newly appointed immigration minister, former health minister Dutton, than under the former minister Scott Morrison. There is no reason to expect Dutton to be any more accommodating than his predecessor.

To the extent that there is a difference between the men it is not what the asylum seekers claimed to “know”. It is in perceived competence. A recent survey of 1100 doctors conducted by Australian Doctor magazine nominated Dutton as Australia’s worst health minister in 35 years. One GP was quoted calling Dutton the “dullest, least innovative and most gullible” minister he’d seen.

Whatever might be said about Morrison – arrogant, secretive, authoritarian – he is neither dull nor gullible, and his time in charge of immigration and border security was marked by constant policy innovation when it came to making things harder for asylum seekers.

He stands as probably the most successful minister in the Abbott government, measured in terms of delivering what he promised. Morrison promised to stop the boats. He stopped the boats.

His success came at considerable cost, to be sure. Cost to Australia’s relationship with its largest neighbour, Indonesia, cost to Australia’s international reputation, to the rule of domestic and international law, and to notions of open and accountable government. It came at a monetary cost of billions of dollars and incalculable human cost.

But in political terms at least, it was worth it. Poll after poll has shown that most Australians, and particularly Liberal and National party voters, approve of a hardline policy on asylum seekers.

Back in 2011 a survey by Essential Research found that 50 per cent of respondents considered the issue of dealing with asylum seekers to be as important or more important than economic management, education or health. In August last year another poll by the same company found three-quarters of Coalition voters thought the Abbott government’s handling of the issue to be “fair” and “responsible”, although 30 per cent also thought it could be tougher.

It did get tougher. In December Morrison managed to get the senate to pass the final major piece of legislation he wanted, providing for temporary protection visas, “fast-tracking” refugee assessments, freeing the government from the strictures of the refugee convention and giving the immigration minister unprecedented secret and unchallengeable powers.

He had to hold children hostage to get it – he told recalcitrant crossbench senators he would only move 94 children held in detention on Christmas Island back to Australia if the legislation passed.

With considerable angst, it was. The senators waved through the severest, most punitive refugee laws Australia has ever seen.

As Graham Thom, refugee coordinator at Amnesty International Australia, says, the legislative regime constructed by Morrison made the Howard government look “pretty moderate by comparison”.

Says barrister, refugee law specialist and former Liberal Party staffer Greg Barns: “There’s no other area of Australian law, whether at local, state or federal level, where a minister has so much power invested in his or her own personal discretion. No area. He can play God with their lives.”

And with the passage of that legislation Morrison’s work was done. 

When Prime Minister Tony Abbott reshuffled his ministry just before Christmas, Morrison was promoted to the portfolio of social services, where presumably his capacity for formulating cunningly punitive policy will be useful.

In Morrison’s place, Abbott installed Peter Dutton, the former Queensland policeman whose capacity for empathy is perhaps best exemplified by his decision to absent himself from the parliamentary chamber in 2007 when the apology was delivered to the Aboriginal Stolen Generations.

With the architecture of refugee policy in place, it did not matter much if Dutton was, as the GP told Australian Doctor, dull and uninnovative. He had other qualifications for the job: a combative approach, insensitivity to criticism and an obdurate determination.

Ten days after they wrote their sadly hopeful messages to the new minister, the asylum seekers on Manus Island have surely realised nothing substantial is about to change under Dutton.

His handling of the Manus crisis this month came straight from the Morrison playbook.

When word filtered out to Australian refugee advocates and the media that there was trouble on Manus, the first response was denial.

And then, when it became impossible to deny that things were bad and rapidly deteriorating, a lot of duck-shoving and tough talk.

On Friday, January 16, three days after the peaceful protest reportedly began among about 100 men in Mike compound – amid further reports that the hunger strike had been taken up by some 500 or more in Oscar, Delta and Foxtrot compounds, that the centre’s water supply had failed, that some asylum seekers had engaged in acts of self-harm such as swallowing razor blades and sewing their lips, that some had begun to collapse, that tensions were rising between inmates and local security – Dutton expressed his concern.

“I’m very concerned that somehow people are conveying a message that through non-compliant behaviour, by refusing to take food or water, that somehow that behaviour will change the outcome for those individual cases in terms of their desire to be settled in Australia,” he said.

“If people are acting on that advice, they should dismiss that advice,” he said, but did not offer any evidence of refugee advocates encouraging the detainees.

“My message today is very clear to the transferees on Manus and in other facilities: whilst there has been a change of minister, the absolute resolve of me as the new minister and of the government is to make sure that for those transferees they will never arrive in Australia.”

In subsequent days, it was reported that as many as 200 of the men on Manus required medical treatment, mostly for dehydration.

A week after the protest started, guards in riot gear entered the compounds and reportedly took away 20 or 30 of those identified as leaders. Some were reportedly taken to the Chauka isolation unit where “non-compliant” detainees are held in solitary confinement. As of Thursday, refugee advocates claimed 76 were in jail in the regional capital, Lorengau.

Some of the detainees claimed to have been “beaten like dogs” by PNG police. Dutton dismissed those claims. Only an “appropriate” level of force had been used, he said, without going into further detail. We are left to wonder what level of force the minister considers appropriate.

Dutton congratulated security staff and the police on their response.

You will note here the repeated use of the words “reported” and “reportedly”. Uncontested facts are hard to come by when recounting the goings-on in Australia’s offshore detention centres. There are often major discrepancies between the official versions of events and the versions that leak out through whistleblowers and refugee advocates to the media.

But the government is apparently working to rectify that situation, according to a report in Guardian Australia this week. It cited documents obtained under freedom-of-information provisions that show multiple referrals of news media to the federal police during Morrison’s tenure as minister, relating to stories about asylum seekers, in an attempt to uncover confidential sources and whistleblowers.

The mere fact that such investigations are afoot tends to support the belief that the government is concerned the media are getting good information.

We have previously seen glaring examples of official misinformation about events in the centres, most notably a year ago, when violence broke out on Manus, resulting in the death of one inmate, Reza Barati, and injury to dozens of others.

We were initially told the violence occurred when asylum seekers broke out of the facility. But an official investigation by the former head of the Attorney-General’s department, Robert Cornall, blamed the violence on contracted security guards from the company G4S, other staff, PNG police and other Manus Island residents who ran amok inside the facility. 

Two men have since been charged with Barati’s murder.

The events of that night provide vital context for the recent protests on Manus, says the Greens’ spokeswoman, Sarah Hanson-Young.

“Every single one of those people inside the camp this week lived through those events of February 16 last year. Everybody there knows how volatile the situation can get,” she says.

The continuing mutual hostility between Manus locals and the asylum seekers explains why the “transferees” (as Dutton prefers to call them) are despairing about their prospects: continuing detention on Manus or resettlement elsewhere in PNG.

Hanson-Young and other advocates frankly concede there is a significant element of racism on both sides. She says the people of PNG “think these people are criminals, and think they will soon have these criminals walking around in their community, and having better food and accommodation than they do”.

Not that there has been much movement on the resettlement front. On ABC television on Tuesday, Leigh Sales tackled Dutton on that point. Given that the government’s Operation Sovereign Borders had been in place since it was elected 16 months ago, why had no one yet been resettled?

That, said Dutton, “is an issue for the PNG government to comment on. That’s not something that I will comment on.”

But, says Madeline Gleeson, a research associate in the Andrew and Renata Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law at the University of New South Wales, “the idea that [PNG and Nauru] are running things by themselves is a complete fiction.”

“It’s clear under international law that Australia does have responsibilities, on multiple bases,” she says. “The government has always denied that. They prefer the inaccurate idea that a state’s human rights obligations only exist within its territory.

“But if a state has effective control over people, in the sense that its authorities have actual physical power over them, it has responsibilities regardless of whether those people are in its territory or not.

“In addition, if Australia provides all the money, all the support, all the infrastructure, to allow these centres to be run on Nauruan and Papua New Guinean territory, then we’re facilitating any human rights violations which occur within them, and have responsibility on that basis, too.”

Furthermore, Gleeson adds, “it is a fundamental rule of international law that we absolutely cannot send refugees anywhere they may suffer persecution or significant harm.”

It is a different matter if they choose to go voluntarily. But how voluntary can such a decision be when it comes down to a choice between indefinite internment in what is effectively a jail, and placement in a hostile and threatening community?

Beyond human rights violations is another issue that some polls have shown to weigh as heavily on the minds of Australians – cost.

It is hard to determine exactly, because the expense of the government’s hardline policies is split among so many programs and departments. But various informed estimates have been made, and they are staggering.

The government’s own commission of audit last year reckoned it cost $400,000 a year to hold an asylum seeker in offshore detention. That was almost twice what it cost to keep them in detention in Australia, and 10 times the cost of letting them stay in the community on a bridging visa while their claim was assessed.

In all, the government spent $3.3 billion on detention and processing in 2013-14, according to the commission.

A cost analysis conducted on behalf of the Australian Churches Refugee Taskforce last year, for its pre-budget submission, came up with a very similar number. It said that, “publicly known allocations to offshore processing alone for the Department of Immigration for 2013-14 thus far are in excess of $3.28 billion”.

“This figure,” the report said, “excludes other associated costs which have been earmarked as commercial in confidence and not released, costs for these operations borne by other departments or arms of government, and other significant incentives offered to those countries in order to gain agreement with these operations.” 

At a senate estimates committee hearing last October, the department put the annual expense of running the Manus Island centre at more than $630 million and Nauru at more the $580 million. That’s just operational costs. It works out to be almost $600,000 per detainee on Manus and almost $550,000 on Nauru.

Yet the government never mentions these figures when it talks about the “budget emergency” it faces.

It is perhaps worth noting also that the Howard government, which pioneered tough policies on asylum seekers, spent billions on offshore processing of asylum seekers – the great majority of whom were ultimately determined to have legitimate claims as refugees. Most of them ended up in Australia.

Of course, the measures introduced by this government are much tougher.

Indeed, there has been a gradual evolution towards harsher asylum seeker laws over several decades. 

As Mary Crock, professor of public law at the University of Sydney, noted in a 2010 paper tracing the efficacy of various policies over several decades, when Australia experienced its first major refugee influx, at the end of the Vietnam War, the Fraser Liberal government considered and rejected many of the measures subsequently put in place.

“These included mandatory immigration detention, temporary visas, direct return of refugee boats and public praise of countries engaging in the harsh treatment of fugitives from Vietnam,” Crock wrote.

“Instead, led by Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, the conservative government chose to engage in multilateral burden-sharing arrangements characterised by containment coupled with orderly resettlement.

“If one moment can be identified as the watershed point at which Australian policy shifted most noticeably from containment to deterrence, it would have to be in 1989 when the Hawke Labor government determined that (without exception) unauthorised boat arrivals should be detained until ether granted a visa or removed from the country.”

But Crock found precious little evidence that such detention had any effect on arrival numbers.

As Crock’s and other research shows, the main determinant in arrival numbers has been humanitarian crisis in source countries, as in the case of postwar Vietnam and more recently in Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Iraq.

Ben Saul, professor of international law at the University of Sydney, is quite blunt: “Detention on the mainland has been around a long time and never stopped anyone.”

Of course, the prospect of offshore detention is more daunting, but there is reason to doubt its deterrent value, too.

The same is true of other measures, such as temporary protection visas, previously tried briefly by the Hawke government and more determinedly by the Howard government.

“Despite what the revisionists on the right say, TPVs were a failure. They actually saw an increase in boat arrivals under Howard,” says Graham Thom.

This was because TPV holders were denied the right to family reunions.

“So families realised that they would also have to get on boats if they were to reunite. The effect was that many more women and children turned up on boats,” Thom says.

“Things like offshore processing and TPVs, mandatory detention – these sorts of measures don’t stop the boats. It’s turnbacks that stop the boats. It’s when you start dragging people back to Indonesia. That’s what we saw in 2002-03. That’s what we’ve seen again now.”

Mary Crock says likewise. “The one thing that stops people is sending them back. If you look back, the way they stopped the outflow from China in 1994, it was by interdiction. The same from Haiti to the US. Deterrent measures don’t work. Even Nauru, et cetera, by themselves, are not deterrent enough.”

There are other advantages for the government in offshore processing, as Saul notes, such as making it much, much harder for asylum seekers to get access to lawyers and courts.

But that is quite a separate issue from stopping the boats.

That turnbacks work is a tough admission for opponents of the government to make.

Last year, when Labor’s immigration spokesman, Richard Marles, allowed the possibility that a future Labor government might persist with the turnback policy, he was very quickly slapped down.

“We have no doubt at all about the impact of the turnback policy,’’ Marles told Sky News’s Australian Agenda on October 26. 

“It has had an impact, and let me be clear about it, it has to be said, in combination with the regional resettlement arrangement which Labor put in place.’’ 

Marles was later forced to recant. His leader, Bill Shorten, was unequivocal that Labor remained committed to opposing the part of border security policy that appears to work, while being constrained in its criticism of the part that increasingly looks unsustainable, grossly expensive and gratuitously cruel.

Meanwhile Scott Morrison moves on to bigger and better things, Peter Dutton gets a portfolio it is thought he can handle, and the Abbott government as a whole continues to ride a winning issue.

The boats have stopped. So Dutton’s job is slightly different to that of his predecessor. He must decide what to do with the hapless couple of thousand men, women and children enduring the nightmare of offshore dentition, at huge expense, with little purpose. He must decide whether or not to continue a cruelty that serves no practical function outside politics.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 24, 2015 as "Inside Dutton’s asylum endgame". Subscribe here.

Mike Seccombe
is The Saturday Paper's national correspondent.