Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
The human toll of border protection

A picture is worth a thousand words and can dramatically influence public opinion. That realisation has been a motivating factor in the way the Morrison government and its predecessors have sought to shield from public gaze the cruelty of Australia’s border policies.

As far back as 2001, media was banned from the airspace above the Norwegian mercy ship MS Tampa, with its cargo of 433 Afghan asylum seekers. In more recent times, the media has not been allowed anywhere near the “on water matters” of forced refugee boat turnbacks. Similarly, the shame of the Nauru and Manus Island detention camps were off limits to prying eyes.

These border policies have at their ugly heart something of a political contradiction. They have been electorally successful, but they are built on secrecy. The reality is mostly kept from voters, and it is this: Australia tortures people who risked their lives trying to get here, to stop others who are similarly desperate from trying to make the dangerous journey.

We haven’t heard these arguments for a few years now, ever since Scott Morrison was able to boast that he “stopped the boats”. But they were wheeled out late in the week by two cabinet ministers grasping for explanations. There is no doubt the decision of then Home Affairs minister Peter Dutton in 2019 to send the Biloela family of failed Sri Lankan asylum seekers to Christmas Island was an attempt to keep them out of sight and out of mind. Until this week, it largely worked.

This weekend, Morrison would be hoping pictures of him rubbing shoulders with United States President Joe Biden and the world’s major democratic leaders at the G7 summit in Britain would speak volumes about his importance and worth to Australian voters. But he will be vying for screen time with the heart-wrenching pictures of two distressed children kissing before they are separated so that the younger of them might be evacuated to mainland Australia, an emergency caused by a failure of medical treatment.

That one image has thrown into bold relief the human toll of Australia’s so-called border protection policies. The jury is out on what sort of toll it may take politically of Morrison and his government, but few agree it is a positive. Some Labor old hands fear every moment the national conversation is about refugees and borders is a plus for the Liberals, yet there are plenty of Liberals who aren’t so sure in this case. “If the little girl dies, it would be a disaster for the government,” is the assessment of one. Not to be forgotten, the community behind the Home to Bilo campaign is not in some inner-city electorate but in the vast, Nationals-held seat of Flynn.

Just why Dutton chose to make an example of this Tamil couple and their two Australian-born daughters is a mystery. For one thing, the Immigration Act gives a minister wide discretion to waive the rules. The couple was welcomed in the Queensland outback town of Biloela and the father had a job in the local meatworks. The law gave Dutton the option of not seeking to deport them. He chose to ignore it.

But Dutton made little secret in briefing colleagues who raised the issue with him that he thought the couple were deceitful and even malingerers. Never mind they fled Sri Lanka separately in 2012 and 2013 in the brutal aftermath of the civil war still taking a toll on Tamils at the hands of the Sinhalese victors.

The situation was so problematic that other Tamils who fled about the same time have been granted asylum here, such as Melbourne man Aran Mylvaganam. Mylvaganam told ABC TV that the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs’ assessment of the situation for Tamils is “flawed”. But the Tamils can’t expect much sympathy from the Australian government on that. The agreement Morrison forged with Sri Lanka’s Rajapaksa government seven years ago went a long way to helping him stop the boats coming from the troubled island nation.

Labor’s Home Affairs shadow minister, Kristina Keneally, says ministerial discretion is often used, and that going all the way back to John Howard’s government, plenty of failed asylum seekers have been allowed to stay.

Keneally says, “It’s time for this sad, terrible saga to come to an end. This family has been through enough.” She says the government has spent $50 million trying to deport this family. The cost of three years’ detention on Christmas Island is more than $6 million.

This latest chapter began with Dutton’s ham-fisted predawn raid on the family’s home after the Federal Court blocked his attempt to deport them. It found government departments had denied them procedural fairness. The decision to then forcibly remove them outraged the town.

Three years on that anger has grown into nationwide public disapproval. The image of the two distressed sisters is a potent game changer. It surely has to be when you have senior Coalition figures such as Tony Abbott, Julie Bishop and Barnaby Joyce all supporting the campaign to bring the family home to Biloela. From the sidelines, one of the country’s highest profile right-wing commentators, Alan Jones, is joining the chorus.

The brouhaha has flared just at a time when the Morrison government is floundering over its closure of international borders and its failures on quarantine and vaccinations. The same stubbornness and incompetence looks to be at work.

Although the Department of Home Affairs “strongly denies any allegations of inaction or mistreatment of individuals in its care”, the medical facts speak for themselves. Professor of paediatrics Elizabeth Elliott told the ABC’s Afternoon Briefing that it alarmed her the child was allowed to suffer for 10 days without being transferred to more sophisticated facilities. She is familiar with Christmas Island, having accompanied a Human Rights Commission visit there in 2014.

Reports that Tharnicaa was being treated with Panadol and Nurofen for a persistent high temperature, vomiting and diarrhoea were alarming. Professor Elliott said children can deteriorate very rapidly and “what we teach our medical students is how to recognise a child who is sick and a child who might deteriorate”. She said keeping these particularly vulnerable children on Christmas Island was “a disaster waiting to happen”.

The government is now flailing in its attempts to control the political damage mainly of its own making. While some may be happy to join Dutton and new Immigration Minister Alex Hawke in blaming the family for their predicament, the situation is beyond that and has become a genuine crisis – one the government could easily solve.

Curiously, Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews raised the prospect of “resettlement options” for the family. She must have forgotten that her predecessor had declared they weren’t refugees and so were not eligible for resettlement to a third country such as New Zealand or the US. Of course, there’s nothing to stop a desperate government changing its rules in an attempt to have this problem disappear. On Radio 2GB, Foreign Minister Marise Payne said she understood these were indeed the only options being looked at. But by the end of the week Andrews dramatically back tracked, just another indication of a government making it up on the run.

Few could disagree with Keneally that now is the time for a decision, and Andrews and Morrison should stop giving “promising indications”. She says people from all political stripes would welcome the family’s return to Biloela. She says, “This is not a political debate.”

The prime minister, though, was very uncomfortable about it at his Tuesday news conference. The questions came late in the piece, after Morrison claimed a lion’s share of the credit for the role Australia played in an 18-nation FBI-led sting on international drug cartels. His appearance raised some eyebrows, as normally he would leave it to the AFP and its minister to handle this sort of news. But capitalising on any success, especially when the dogs are barking loudly about your failures, is nothing new in politics.

Morrison somewhat disingenuously said the family “will continue to receive every medical care and where they are treated will be determined by the doctors”. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that “every medical care” his government was providing was inadequate in preventing a three-year-old child from developing sepsis.

It’s reminiscent of Morrison’s claim of the “overwhelming success of hotel quarantine” that has nonetheless caused massively disruptive lockdowns, which the budget forecasts will keep happening.

There are indications the public’s tolerance is running out. The Essential poll found support for the Coalition’s Covid-19 handling is at its lowest since the outbreak began. It resonates with Newspoll’s continuing trend down in Morrison’s approval, coinciding with the Victorian crisis.

The image of empty streets may prove just as disconcerting for the Morrison government as that of two small children crying to go home to Bilo.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 12, 2021 as "When enough is already too much".

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