When it comes to the business of politicising the right to asylum, no country jettisons the key principles of international law better than Australia.
Politicians are proudly ignorant of the United Nations Refugee Convention and the courts pay lip service to the idea, while preferring rigid domestic interpretations of the Migration Act.
It should therefore have come as no surprise that the Scott Morrison government jumped at the chance to demonise refugees in its dying days. As voters headed to the polls, the commander of the Joint Agency Task Force Operation Sovereign Borders, Rear Admiral Justin Jones, revealed that a vessel had “been intercepted in a likely attempt to illegally enter Australia from Sri Lanka”.
The Rear Admiral insisted Australia’s policy on such arrivals had not changed: “We will intercept any vessel seeking to reach Australia illegally and to safely return those on board to their point of departure or country of origin.”
With only a few more hours left of being the most jingoistic defence minister in a generation, Peter Dutton tweeted a warning: “Don’t risk Australia’s national security with Labor.”
In another comment Dutton, who is now opposition leader, said: “People smugglers have obviously decided who is going to win the election and the boats have already started.”
Former home affairs minister Karen Andrews said emboldened people smugglers “are targeting Australia”. The “people smuggling vessel” had been intercepted “off Christmas Island”.
Andrews might as well have been using the same language to condemn drug traffickers and their commodities which, in terms of analogy, Australian politicians have implicitly done for decades. But the obvious target was the Labor opposition vying for government. “Labor’s flip flopping on border protection risks our border security. You can’t trust them," was the message.
The Liberal Party picked up on the Sri Lankan connection, bombarding voters in marginal seats with text messages about this newfound discovery. “Keep our borders secure by voting Liberal today,” came the prompt.
As things have subsequently transpired, the entire operation from Cabinet to the phone messages, had the approval of then-Prime Minister Morrison.
Revealing the existence of ships moving on mysteriously convenient schedules (another, according to the Saturday Paper, was also intercepted by Sri Lankan authorities) raised two burning questions.
The first goes to the troubling relationship with Sri Lanka, which the government had gone some way to promoting as a safeguard against asylum seekers. Canberra has tended to skirt over issues of human rights, not least those associated with that country’s long civil war. Canberra has done its best to encourage Colombo to prevent people leaving Sri Lanka for Australia by boat.
In 2013, 2014 and 2017, bay-class naval vessels were gifted to the Sri Lankan Navy to aid the interception of smuggling operations.
During his time in government, Dutton has made several trips to Colombo. He visited in May 2015 as Minister for Immigration and Border Protection to discuss “continued cooperation regarding people smuggling and to further strengthen ties between our two countries”.
He duly rubbished people smugglers as “cowardly and malicious” for aiding individuals to pursue their right to asylum and praised the success of Operation Sovereign Borders: “Since we started turning back boats there have been no known deaths at sea.”
He paid another visit in June 2019 to shore up the commitment.
It was prompted by a report that a vessel carrying 20 Sri Lankan asylum seekers had been intercepted off Australia’s North West coast, with the possibility of six others on route.
Then, as now, Dutton blamed his Labor opponents for somehow encouraging such journeys while reiterating the standard, draconian line: “People are not coming here [to Australia] by boat and regardless of what people smugglers tell you, the Morrison government, under the Prime Minister and myself, will not allow those people to arrive by boat.”
The second question goes to the supposed success of Operation Sovereign Borders. This military-grade, secretive policy had supposedly “stopped the boats”. But why reveal a chink in the armour unless it was manufactured with the aid of the Sri Lankan authorities?
As comedian and political commentator Dan Ilic observed in a pointed remark to Dutton: “This happened on your watch dude.”
The Sri Lankan revelation demonstrated, when it comes to such matters, mendacity oils the machine of border protection.
The Coalition and Labor agree on this draconian policy.
After the Labor government decided in 1992 to make the arrival of individuals, without formal authorisation, a breach of law warranting mandatory detention, the Coalition, led by PM John Howard, proceeded to turn cruelty into an art form.
The Howard government used Special Air Service Regiment soldiers against 400 individuals, rescued at sea by the Norwegian vessel MV Tampa in August 2001, in defiance of maritime conventions and in blatant disregard for human safety. They held the asylum seekers at sea off Christmas Island for almost ten days. The asylum seekers were accused of piracy and economic opportunism.
This barbarism led to the “Pacific Solution”, a tropical concentration camp system which has had a few iterations since.
Governments, both Coalition and Labor, have drawn political capital from harsh policies against unwanted naval arrivals, smearing the merits of asylum and ignoring the obligations of international refugee law.
The new Anthony Albanese government has the chance, however unlikely it is to pursue it, to extract the political and replace it with the humanitarian.
[Dr Binoy Kampmark lectures at RMIT University.]