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Australia’s immigration policies failed Michael Howard

By Howard Glenn - posted Thursday, 12 May 2005

When faced with criticism of Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers from local and international sources, Australian Government ministers responded by saying how envious Europe is of our policies and that the British Government was thinking of adopting them as their own.

It’s part of a deep denial of reality, which sees the Howard Government portraying its policies as the "best practice" model for dealing with refugees and trying to give their policy credibility by marketing it into another country.

Lynton Crosby and Mark Textor successfully marketed the “we will decide” election slogan for the 2001 Australian federal election, while their British Conservative party’s “are you thinking what we’re thinking" had all the hallmarks of a focus group response and too much spin. However this template failed in Michael Howard’s campaign.


Of course, since the days of Robert Menzies, there has been a strong tradition among Australian conservative politicians to seek approval from the home country. But you know there is something upside down when Conservatives in Britain talk about copying Australia.

The Conservative Manifesto seems to owe a lot to Lynton Crosby, renowned in Australia for a campaign beating up on those fleeing from the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, for domestic political advantage. We make sure that we check the beasts coming into our country for foot and mouth disease, but British quarantine let a bad case of head and heart disease through.

Putting aside the needless misery Australia’s immigration policy has caused to a bunch of Afghanis and Iraqis since 1999, let’s look at the Australian model, which was on offer to Britain in the Conservative Manifesto.

First, the Australian model confuses migration and asylum. We claim to have taken in 650,000 refugees since World War II, however all of these refugees, excluding around 25,000, were actually migrants picked from resettlement camps. The other nearly 25,000 were the only ones that came to Australia and claimed asylum. So we haven’t had much relevant experience over the last 60 years in dealing with asylum claims.

In the most recent “wave” of boat arrivals, coming from the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, around 10,000 people arrived in a 4 year period by boat. After a hostile reception and being locked up in remote detention camps in the Australian desert, over 90 per cent were given refugee status. They are the visible asylum seekers. The overcrowded boats, with sad and desperate looking people, made for graphic media images. The Government responded to the deep-seated fears of invasion from the teeming millions of Asians by taking strong and decisive populist action.

Detention in desert camps didn’t deter these boat people. The only strategy that worked was intervention by the Australian navy, who towed boats to a detention camp, first on the desert island of Nauru and then to the jungles of Papua New Guinea. Since 2001, only two small boats have made it through this blockade. But others have set out and then been pushed back to Indonesia, where the Australian Government continues to pay hotel accommodation for Afghan refugees, to make it appear that Australian borders are closed.


The Conservative Manifesto did not seem to get the same response from British voters as the Australian Government’s immigration policy did here. There are a few reasons for this: the British public have a long history of dealing more fairly with refugees, most notably through post WWII migration of Jewish refugees and refugees from varied European conflict, for example the Hungarian Uprising in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, so the refugee experience was better understood and attempts to confuse refugees as representatives of the totalitarian regimes they were actually fleeing from, were not so easy.

In Britain, the incumbent administration hasn’t sought to use asylum seekers as scapegoats like the Australian Government did with the “children overboard” scam, and by stopping media interviews or even photographs of asylum seekers “to respect their privacy” and labelling them "illegal".

The Blair Government’s manifesto committed itself to improving the immigration processes by separating genuine claims of asylum from those of would-be migrants. The Blair Government’s occasional, highly publicised mistakes are in the context of tens of thousands of claims each year. The challenge of returning failed asylum seekers swiftly, safely and without violating their other human rights is still there. But the British experience is a lesson to other countries.

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About the Author

Howard Glenn leads lobby group Rights Australia Inc, was previously founder and national director of Australians for Just Refugee Programs, and brought the widest range of organisations and individuals together to challenge poor treatment of asylum seekers and refugees.

Formerly CEO of the National Australia Day Council, he was responsible for modernising national celebrations and the Australian of the Year Awards, and involving communities across Australia in debates on reconciliation, republic and national identity.

Howard was an adviser to the Minister for Aboriginal Affairs in the Hawke-Keating Governments, and had key involvement with Indigenous education policy, the response to the deaths in custody Royal Commission and the establishment of the reconciliation process. Outside government he has extensive community sector involvement, currently on human rights, HIV-AIDS, drug and alcohol issues. When not at a computer, Howard is a middle distance runner and a surf lifesaver.

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