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Sustaining the unsustainable

By Bruce Haigh - posted Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Far from being on the periphery of Australian politics, the Asylum seeker policy is at the centre, it is the elephant in the room. It has taken on a life of its own and now to varying degrees dictates the working agenda of a number of key government departments and agencies including, Immigration, Defence, Customs, Foreign Affairs, Prime Minister and Cabinet, Attorney-General, AFP, ASIO and ASIS.

We have witnessed the progressive politicisation of the uniformed branch of Defence. Starting with the deployment of the SAS onto the Tampa under John Howard to the current breaching of Indonesian sovereignty by the Australian Navy as it tows boats back across the maritime boundary.

Refugees legitimately seeking asylum, for that is what they are doing, do not constitute a security threat. Yet Immigration Minister Morrison acting on the hysteria generated by Prime Minister Abbott, has chosen to couch the legitimate quest for freedom, by asylum seekers, in terms of an invasion and to prove perverted logic has appointed General, Angus Campbell, to manage the response.


The overwrought and over the top reaction to what in reality is the movement of a small number of people has, overtime, created an informal but highly centralised mega department in Canberra, not overly concerned with the rule of law.

Immigration have advised sending Tamils back to Sri Lanka without hearing their claims for asylum on the basis, untested, that they are economic refugees. They oversee the hellish holding camps for asylum seekers on Manus and Nauru. They have primary responsibility for a policy which treats people very badly and illegally both in terms of Australian domestic law and international law.

The Attorney – General’s Department has acquiesced in these illegalities and supports the indefinite detention of over 50 Tamil refugees on security grounds based on the flawed assessment of ASIO, which has received its advice from the Sri Lankan government, the victors in a civil war which has seen the defeated and persecuted Tamils seeking to flee the country.

The Department of Foreign Affairs, apparently acting on domestic political imperatives, has obfuscated the reality of existence for Tamils in Sri Lanka which embraces persecution, in order to back the Australian government’s policy of denying refugee status to Tamils. Together with the AFP, who has officers stationed in Colombo, has sought to strengthen the resolve of the Sri Lankan authorities to stop boats with Tamils on board sailing for Australia.

The AFP has also been involved in working with people smugglers in Indonesia and Malaysia to disrupt sea borne smuggling operations to Australia. ASIS have also been involved in these operations and in gathering information on the likely movement of people from other countries, including Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan.

Prime Minister and Cabinet is the co-ordinator and political driving force of this mega department, although power shifts and positions are contested, sometimes hotly, depending on the ambitions at play within the Khaimah. However a consensus and team mentally has built, a common language agreed behind officially sanctioned walls of silence, which has helped unify the bureaucratic players assisted by the consensus on this key issue between both major parties.


The adverse centrifugal impact on the political advisory process by the perverse and fearful response to asylum seekers arriving by boat has the potential to substantially undermine established democratic process.

The resulting pressure on core processes and beliefs will inevitably lead to a judicial inquiry or royal commission into Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers. None of the fictions invented about the responsibilities of the PNG or Nauruan governments toward deported and incarcerated asylum seekers can absolve the Australian government from their legal and humanitarian responsibilities.

Morrison claims he has stopped the boats, he has not, his agents continue to turn them back. He has not developed a sustainable policy. The numbers are building on Indonesia. What will they do?

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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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