After ripping up Australia's commitment to the 1951 Refugee Convention on several occasions in the past, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced on October 30 that the Australian government intends to do so again.
In the latest iteration, the government is threatening to formally prevent any refugee who arrives by boat from ever getting an Australian visa. This would include short-term tourist and business visas, let alone the permanent protection envisioned by the Refugee Convention.
The legislation will apply to any refugees taken to a “regional processing centre” (notably the offshore hellholes of Manus Island or Nauru) since July 19, 2013. This legislation is being seen by refugee advocates as a cynical attempt to sabotage action in the Papua New Guinea Supreme Court to enforce the closure of the Manus Island detention centre.
The date is significant because it is the date on which former Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced that refugees arriving by boat “will never be settled in Australia”. This is one example of Labor's complicity in the ongoing drift to the right in refugee policy in this country.
However, it is Pauline Hanson's far-right One Nation party that immediately claimed credit for the latest move.
These two facts highlight the key dynamics of this development. First, it is an authoritarian, right wing move, approved and supported by the most prominent representatives of the right. Second, it is a policy direction that could not have achieved much success were it not for Labor’s shameful perfidy over the past 15 years.
On the latter, a number of Labor politicians have indicated that the latest move by the government is extreme. Opposition leader Bill Shorten told Fairfax Media: “It seems ridiculous to me that a genuine refugee who settles in the US or Canada and becomes a US or Canadian citizen is banned from visiting Australia as a tourist, businessman or businesswoman 40 years down the track.”
Deputy leader Tanya Plibersek and others have claimed Labor is waiting to see the detail — as if detail is needed! — before deciding whether or not to support it. It should be noted that the reported contents of the government's proposed legislation go far beyond Rudd's shameful 2013 proclamation.
However, even at this late stage — when the horrific human rights abuses on Manus Island and Nauru stand exposed, when it is clear that the government is prepared to go below what many would previously have considered bottom lines — Labor is still arguing the case to justify the government's move.
Shorten also told Fairfax Media: “Of course [!] people who come by people smuggler should not be allowed to settle here — we will never allow the people smugglers back in business.”
Coalition and Labor politicians have used the excuse of opposing “people smugglers” and “saving lives at sea”. However, these are merely justifications for a racist policy designed to distract attention from the government's plans to attack living standards and social rights across the board.
It should be noted that the proposed legislation will affect anyone who “arrives by boat”, ignoring the fact that not everyone who arrives by boat paid money to a “people smuggler”. It also ignores that many “people smugglers” — even if they accept money — arrange transport for humanitarian reasons. Some genuine refugees are accused of being “people smugglers” simply because they were crew members on a boat.
In any case, regardless of their motives, “people smugglers” save lives. Many of the people who facilitated transport for Jews fleeing Nazi Germany were paid. They would be labelled “people smugglers” by Turnbull and Shorten, but who would criminalise their “clients” today?
Governments in “democratic” capitalist governments around the world in the 1930s and 40s facilitated the human rights abuses committed by the Nazi regime because they refused asylum to Hitler's victims.
The Refugee Convention was created precisely to try to prevent a repeat of such acts.
Turnbull and Immigration Minister Peter Dutton are the latest standard bearers of an Australian government push to turn the Convention into nothing but a meaningless scrap of paper.
However, just as no empire nor dictatorship, no matter how authoritarian and abusive, can last forever, neither can the regime of human rights abuse based in Canberra today.
These latest moves against refugees — and therefore the basic rights and dignities of everybody in this country and around the world — will eventually be defeated.
The only question is how long it will take and how many lives will be broken before that day arrives. Now is the time to get involved in the refugee rights movement to make the progressive victory we all need happen sooner!
Rallies against the government’s refugee policy are happening in Sydney and Melbourne this Saturday November 5 in Sydney: 1pm Hyde Park North and Melbourne: 1pm State Library Victoria