Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Seeking mercy for Tamil family

When Labor leader Anthony Albanese flew into the Queensland town of Biloela midweek, the temperature was 31 degrees. But the heat was still far below that generated by the government’s determination to deport a Sri Lankan Tamil family who had called the town, which lies about 150 kilometres south of Rockhampton, home.

The entire saga is being played out at many levels but as usual political advantage is never far from the calculations. Albanese says he made the trip in a chartered plane for humanitarian reasons, in an attempt to add weight to calls for a reprieve for the family. The prime minister and his increasingly higher-profile colleague, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton, accuse Albanese of being a populist and a threat to Australia’s border security.

There’s no doubt the populist backlash has caught the government by surprise. All of a sudden the perceived advantage for the Coalition in the areas of national and border security was slipping from its grasp. This was all the more of a shock to Dutton, who has been assiduously attacking Labor on the issues since the election. Some colleagues suspect it is a sign he is working on realising his failed leadership ambitions. The main reason for the setback is the key protagonists in this human drama weren’t the usual suspects.

Priya and her husband, Nades, had arrived separately by boat in 2012 and 2013. They met and married in Australia and their daughters, Kopika, 4, and Tharunicaa, 2, were born here. Their cause was taken up initially not by refugee activists but by the community of Biloela, population 5700. The town is in the middle of the seat of Flynn, held by the Nationals’ Ken O’Dowd. He, like his constituents, had been quietly urging Dutton for many months to intercede in the case, using the extraordinary powers given by section 195A of the Migration Act.

These powers grant the minister absolute discretion to override the act and issue visas in the “national interest”. Often referred to as “God powers”, they are “non-reviewable” and “non-compellable”. And they are applied often. Albanese says they have been used in more than 4000 interventions by Dutton, including for two au pairs of a well-connected Brisbane family so as to avoid “any disruption” to their childcare arrangements. Abul Rizvi, a former deputy secretary of the Immigration Department, says the Biloela case is exactly what the “God powers” were designed for.

Australia’s immigration program has a focus on encouraging new migrants to settle and work in regional Australia. Rizvi says the government’s new regional visas “will almost certainly be undersubscribed”. What is obvious is that the family is very much part of the community, after five years’ working and volunteering. Albanese says these are the special circumstances that do not set a precedent. The Tamil couple, he admits, are not refugees, but they are making a worthwhile contribution.

There is no doubt Priya and her husband knew they were on borrowed time. They delayed deportation by appealing the rejection of refugee status all the way to the High Court. Their bridging visas ran out in March last year, which is when Border Force launched a pre-dawn raid on their Biloela home, forcibly removing them in separate cars to a Melbourne immigration detention centre. At that point, the people of Biloela surprised everyone by launching a change.org petition and taking the family’s cause to the national media.

Jumping on the bandwagon this past week was former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce – once again “standing up for regional Australia” – and government-friendly shock jock Alan Jones. Jones, who has an audience throughout regional New South Wales and Queensland, accused Prime Minister Scott Morrison of “pig-headedly” refusing to intervene.

The shadow home affairs minister, Kristina Keneally, dragged Morrison’s Christianity into the debate. She doubled down after criticism for doing so, telling RN Breakfast: “I am calling on him to reflect upon the parable of the Good Samaritan, which invited us as Christians to take care of the stranger in our land.” She blamed the family’s plight on the Department of Home Affairs, saying that its delays in processing allowed them considerable time in Australia to become part of the community while working and “paying taxes”.

But support for Morrison and Dutton’s hard line came from an unexpected source. Veteran Liberal backbencher Russell Broadbent praised the prime minister for “standing up against the mob”. “Good leaders,” he says, “do what is right, not what is popular.” Like federal MPs all over the country, he deals with immigration cases where people ask their local members to make representations on behalf of themselves or their relatives in very similar circumstances.

Broadbent comes to the argument with strong humanitarian credentials. He and a handful of Liberal colleagues broke ranks with John Howard in 2005 over cruel refugee policies. He says the Biloela case is about people who are playing the system and have failed to establish that they need our protection under the United Nations convention. He doesn’t blame the department for the tactics it has used, but sees them as an exercise in media management and avoiding protests.

Morrison, like Dutton, was not prepared to lash out at Jones or Joyce or indeed O’Dowd, aware that their sentiment is beyond partisan politics. He said he “[understands] absolutely the motivation and the compassion that Australians have expressed in relation to this case … and I understand that’s what motivates the suggestions that they’re making.” But he says he also understands if the wrong calls are made “you invite tragedy and you invite chaos”.

Morrison conjured up the spectre of hordes of boat people on the horizon, and of drownings at sea. He confirmed the government gave The Australian front-page stories warning, “Sri Lankan boat surge: sixth asylum bid halted” and “Tamil case sets path for 6000 others”. The surge story contradicts the Liberals’ campaign boast that they had “stopped the boats”. It breaks with Morrison’s convenient refusal to comment on or release details of “on-water matters”.

Clearly, the government feared it was losing the political advantage. But Morrison wasn’t going to give up scaring the pants off voters: “We followed a practice that we have in the past and I think that keeps the issue of the ever-present threat of illegal arrivals to Australia foremost in the public’s mind.”

The claim there are almost 6000 asylum seekers still here whose refugee claims were rejected after they arrived by boat under the former Labor government is surely an admission of failure. Keneally claims it is evidence of a departmental shambles under Dutton, seven years after Labor lost power. Unbelievably, there are still 7900 people waiting to have their refugee claims processed. The government keeps repeating the mantra that 51,798 boat people arrived under Labor but never talks about the more than 80,000 who have arrived by plane on its watch.

The Tamil family’s plight dominated much of the week and the government looks like it is planning to make asylum seekers and the threat they pose a feature in the senate when parliament resumes next week. A government source says it may ignore the timetable set by the non-government majority to debate the medevac laws repeal. A senate committee is not due to report back until next month, but the government can use its prerogative to bring on legislation when it wants.

If it does so, all the indications are the fate of the bill will be in the hands of Tasmanian independent Jacqui Lambie. Labor, the Greens and Centre Alliance are standing by the legislation foisted on a reluctant minority government before the election. It gives doctors the say on bringing sick refugees and detainees from Manus or Nauru to Australia for treatment. Centre Alliance senator Stirling Griff is unimpressed by government “beat-ups” and he says the arguments for repeal are just that. There has been no flood of asylum seekers, as the government warned in its $185 million stunt reopening and then closing the Christmas Island detention centre.

By Monday, Dutton and Morrison will be hoping the Tamil family is out of sight and out of mind, back in Sri Lanka. Intriguingly, though, the prime minister is encouraging the family to apply to return to Australia as migrants. He even said he hopes they do. But that would be a vicious circle, because anyone deported can only receive a visa to re-enter on the approval of Dutton.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 7, 2019 as "Straining the quality of mercy". Subscribe here.

Paul Bongiorno
is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a 30-year veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery.