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A plethora of experts, but few with knowledge

By Bruce Haigh - posted Monday, 15 April 2013

When Prime Minister Gillard looked to appoint an expert body to examine refugee policy, she did not look to where she might find genuine knowledge and experience. She rather chose those that she felt would endorse her policies of deterrence and the unenforceable, quite unworkable and cruel Malaysian ‘Solution’.

She didn’t get all that she wanted but she got enough. Her experts had some pride they couldn’t appear to be examining policy at her direction, rubber stamps, but of course they were.

Had she chosen real experts she would have received advice that she did not want, advice, which was politically unpalatable. The chairperson of the expert group, Angus Houston, had no previously acknowledged expertise in the area of refugee policy, other than being head of the Defence Force at a time when the Royal Australian Navy was tasked with intercepting, and helping, refugees making the dangerous passage by sea in boats to Australia.


Houston recently demonstrated the extent to which he is a government cipher by claiming that all Sri Lankans arriving by boat were economic refugees. This assertion was made before boat arrivals from Sri Lanka have been given an opportunity to lodge and have their claims heard in terms of Australian and international law. It is a line of convenience run by the government of Sri Lanka and accepted by the Australia because it dovetails into domestic requirement to return refugees in order to establish political advantage.

Deterrence, as an instrument of policy toward refugees, has not and will not work. It completely ignores the factors driving people to get on dangerous boats and undertake risky and hazardous journeys, it completely ignores human nature and it is totally devoid of compassion and common sense. A proposal to release asylum seeking families into the community on Bridging Visas and not allow them to work, whilst paying them 89% of the new start allowance, is a cruel punishment on top of what they have already suffered. Refugees come to Australia to start a new life, which includes the opportunity to work. They come to Australia to start a new life, not to bludge.    

Houston’s record on human rights is not outstanding. There is little on the public record to indicate he did much during his six years as head of the defence force to address the question of abuse of service personnel. His successor, General David Hurley, has shown a far greater commitment to the issue including a focus on quite serious grievances concerning serving members of the ADF.

Of the other members of the expert panel Michael L’Estrange can claim little expertise and the report of the select group, of which he was a member, appears to bear that out.

The third member, Paris Aristotle, has long been viewed with concern by refugee activists for seeking to play on either side of the fence and be all things to all men and women, when no such position exists within refugee advocacy, particularly over the past sixteen years.

The real experts on refugees are out of the loop, deliberately so, through decisions taken by Howard, Rudd and Gillard who have sought either to shamelessly politicise the issue for perceived electoral gain or have not had the moral courage to act, in accord with Australian domestic law and international conventions, to which we are signatories, and in so acting take the Australian public with them. To do that they would have had to handle strong domestic criticism; however they have demonstrated, through the recent attempt to ram through parliament the now failed press bill, that they fear criticism.


The opposition spokesperson on immigration, Scott Morrison, is at war with refugees. He gives every indication of not liking any of them, at least those arriving by boat. He appears to see refugees as gate crashers, aka, John Howard, “We will decide who comes here and when”. He is not alone, it is a sentiment shared by some within the Department of Immigration, who take their gate keeping responsibilities to levels matched only by night club bouncers. However they are not all to blame; the dysfunction of the two major parties must affect the capacity of the public service to formulate policy and discharge its duties.

Morrison is a nasty piece of work; he talks the talk of a bully and as such will come a cropper when boats keep appearing on the horizon after he becomes Minister. The Navy will not be party to causing deaths at sea, so he will need to hire mercenaries or pirates to tow his boats back. Morrison has failed to understand or comes to terms with the drive, initiative, desperation and courage of some refugees to escape persecution using ‘whatever it takes’. The latter he should understand because that what is driving both his own apparent personal vendetta and Coalition policy, if it can be referred to as such, toward individuals travelling to Australia by boat seeking refugee status.

Morrison and Abbott delude themselves if they think they can stop the boats. Short of sinking boats, they cannot and will not stop them. The needs of the refugees are far stronger than their puny political ambition.

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About the Author

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat who served in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 1972-73 and 1986-88, and in South Africa from 1976-1979

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