Just before the federal election that put Tony Abbott in power, his soon-to-be immigration minister Scott Morrison said the government may stop telling the public when asylum boats arrive in Australia.
Instead, reporting details about boat arrivals — including numbers on board, their nationalities and whether any are children — would be an “operational decision” of the defence officers in charge of the Coalition's “Operation Sovereign Borders”.
This plan apparently hasn't been devised or discussed with defence yet, and arrivals will continue to be sent to Papua New Guinea or Nauru under Labor's scheme, but if Morrison's plans go ahead refugees could be held, processed and deported to another country (even repatriated to the country they fled) all in total secrecy.
A boat blackout like this would mean the Coalition could control the information and public perception of its boat policy, while sidestepping actual responsibility for the people affected by it.
Who could say whether the Coalition can actually “stop the boats” when knowledge of their arrival could be kept secret under “operational decisions”?
Now that Abbott is PM-elect, media attention has turned to how he may carry out his stop-the-boats election promise. Full-scale cover-up is apparently one option, but the rest of the Coalition's policy is a mix of recycled John Howard-era tactics and some new ideas announced just before the election.
Abbott quickly confirmed to Papua New Guinea’s prime minister that he would continue to dump refugees on the Third World nation.
Operation Sovereign Borders would include more navy vessels and a military-like patrol of northern waters. Abbott has refused to back down from his claim that he would be able to force the navy to turn boats back to Indonesia at sea, which was proven to be dangerous and life-threatening during the few times it was tried under Howard.
Abbott's yet-to-be-known three-star general would theoretically oversee this; meanwhile the government would set about spending $420 million to buy boats from Indonesian fishers to prevent their use as asylum vessels. This plan has been described by Indonesians as offensive, and may force many Indonesians to give up their livelihoods. It is a stunning example of Abbott's generally racist and bigoted approach to refugees and so-called people smugglers.
On the mainland, the immigration department would “clear the backlog” of 30,000 refugees now on bridging visas in Australia by putting them all on temporary protection visas. TPVs mean a life of limited rights, no family reunion and the constant threat of having protection revoked and then being deported.
Applying the TPVs retroactively to refugees already in Australia is a step further than even Howard’s policy.
Abbott has also announced he would put a stop to the ongoing review process of ASIO's security checks on refugees. These reviews were won through a court case that found the permanent detention of refugees assessed negatively and in secret by ASIO was unlawful. The UN refugee agency recently found 150 counts of human rights violations under the system.
Already several people have had their negative assessments reversed and been released from detention. If Abbott stops the remaining reviews he will, in effect, arbitrarily pass a life sentence on dozens of people who have never been charged or tried for any crime.
Then, just before Australia went to the polls, Morrison announced the government would stop legal aid for refugees that come by boat. It's almost a joke in its sheer formality: after stripping even their right to ever be resettled in Australia they are still finding things to take away. Morrison said it would save money — about $120 million over four years. Abbott defended the new policy by saying people who come “the wrong way” should not “get this spending”.
Greens immigration spokesperson Sarah Hanson-Young said the party would oppose the move, because “it's clear that DIAC assessors make mistakes … we may be sending people back to their deaths”.
Pressure to raise the number of deportations is also up, and more groups of refugees are making the ostensibly voluntary decision to return rather than face an uncertain future in PNG or Nauru.
Abbott restated the central view of the Coalition’s policy on September 9 when he said: “People who come here illegally by boat, even those who might ultimately be found to be refugees, will not get permanent residency of our country.”
Now that most of the details of the Coalition's extreme policy has been revealed, media attention and scrutiny is wholly focused on whether it will “work”. Formerly critical reporting on Labor's PNG offshore-resettlement deal has turned to mild approval because boat arrivals have supposedly dropped by 44%.
Just the fact that “Can the boats really be stopped?” is the central question of the “debate” is a sign of the victory of the right. Not whether we should stop the boats, or why we even need to stop them. In this limited debate, the idea of offering refugees safe passage from Indonesia to Australia as a way to stop dangerous boat journeys is not even discussed.
Abbott's policy does nothing to reduce the number of refugees in the world, and, in fact, his pledge to the United States to back any wars it may start will serve to boost refugee numbers.
But if boat arrivals do in fact drop under Abbott's rule because he serves enough barbaric cruelty to break the will of people who have survived even the Taliban or the Sri Lankan army, it will mean only that the world refugee problem is forced further onto the global South.