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Promises, promises: what's in a promise?

By Clarrie Burke - posted Wednesday, 30 October 2013

We will stop the boats ... stop the boats ... stop the boats ... stop the boats ... (Tony Abbott 2013)

It was the Liberal/National Party (LNP) launch to the 2001 federal election campaign. The packed auditorium of true believers was abuzz in an air of expectancy. Then Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, was poised to address an aggravating issue in Australian politics.

Howard had chosen this event to vent his resentment and frustration at what he saw as the continuing stream of "illegal/unauthorized", "queue-jumping" "boat people" arriving on Australian shores through the back door. In the wake of the controversial "Tampa affair", he stood defiantly behind a lectern, on national television, and announced the Coalition's tougher policies on boarder control. With arms flailing in righteous indignation, he commanded:


We will decide who comes to this country, and the circumstances in which they come.

The "commandment" received resounding support from the partisan crowd, giving it the green light and making it an election issue.

As the election campaign got under way, Howard proceeded to demonize asylum seekers reaching Australia by boat in a most prejudicial way―as unwelcome illegal/unauthorized arrivals who could harbour terrorists, and seriously disrupt the social and economic fabric of Australia. He made no mention of them as desperate fleeing human beings, or of their human rights as asylum seekers under the UN Refugee Convention―of which Australia is a signatory.

Predictably the human rights community was outraged. Human rights defenders claimed that Australia's Prime Minister was creating an image of Australia as a mean spirited country, lacking in compassion. They accused him of resorting to politics of fear in the way he shepherded the electorate to support his "cruel and inhumane" approach to offshore detention of people desperately attempting to seek asylum in Australia. It gave rise to questions about our moral/humanitarian values, principles and obligations; questions such as, what happened to our traditional belief in the Good Samaritan? and, is the second verse of our proudly proclaimed National Anthem mere platitude?

Then, in order to deter the so called "boat people" from setting foot in Australia, the Howard Government excised the mainland from the migration zone. This denied them landing rights on the Australian mainland, and at the same time access to Australian justice.

Accusations of neo-colonial imperialism followed, to explain the politically expedient and exploitative manner Howard lured impoverished ex-colonies, PNG and Nauru, into doing Australia's detention work for rich remuneration―PNG's dubious human rights record notwithstanding. It was an irresistible offer PNG and Nauru could not afford to refuse. The controversial scheme became known as the "Pacific Solution". To achieve his ends, Howard brushed aside the human rights declared in the UN Refugee Convention, which applied to "boat people" seeking asylum in Australia. In doing so he simply ignored Article 31 of the Refugee Convention. As Dr Daniel Webb, Human Rights Law Centre expert puts it:


Article 31provides that states are prohibited from penalizing asylum seekers on the basis of their 'illegal entry or presence'.

Continuing, Dr Webb advised that, "By singling out boat arrivals for offshore processing and mandatory, indefinite detention and also by removing their right to apply for an Australian visa, our current law and policy does precisely what Article 31 says it can't." (Email, 28 October 2013)

In the same vein, respected expert on international refugee and asylum law, Professor James Hathaway―professorial fellow at the University of Melbourne―took umbrage with the "Pacific Solution", also arguing that it was in breach of the United Nation's Convention relating to the status of refugees:

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About the Author

Clarrie Burke was formerly Associate Professor in Education at QUT. In retirement he has been an executive member of Amnesty International (Queensland) and joint coordinator of the Queensland Schools Amnesty Network.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Clarrie Burke

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