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Academic Robert Manne: Why Australia has a ‘uniquely harsh’ border control system

refugees

Asylum woes: “The mindset suggested that if even one brick in the asylum-seeker deterrent system was removed from the anti-asylum seeker edifice that had been constructed over the past twenty-five years, the entire building would collapse and a large number of boats would return.”

ONE of Australia’s leading public academics has documented what he describes as Australia’s descent to a “uniquely harsh” border control to stop asylum seekers.

“Thirty years ago if you had been told that Australia would create the least asylum seeker-friendly institutional arrangements in the world you would not have believed it,” Robert Manne (pictured) told a justice and mission conference in Sydney, organised by the Sisters of St Joseph to celebrate the order’s 150 years of foundation.

Prof Manne, who is emeritus professor and vice-chancellor’s fellow at La Trobe University, said within the past three decades Australia had introduced a system of indefinite mandatory detention for asylum seekers who arrive by boat; had accepted the idea that certain categories of refugees and asylum seekers could be imprisoned indefinitely; that those who were intercepted by our navy should be forcibly returned to the point of departure; that those who had not been able to be forcibly returned should be imprisoned on remote Pacific islands; and that those marooned on these island camps should never be allowed to settle in Australia even after several years. 

“How then has it come to pass?” he questioned.  

Prof Manne outlined four reasons for this.

Immigration absolutism

Prof Manne said there was a lingering aspect of the White Australia Policy which was a contributor to Australia’s harsh border control – its absolutism, the almost 70-year conviction that not a single person of non-European stock should ever be permitted to settle in Australia. 

“In my view it has been the absolutism, embedded in the so-called Australian immigration culture of control, rather than the racism of the White Australia Policy, which helps explain our recent policy history, now animated by a new absolutist ambition – that we should strive for a situation where not even one asylum-seeker boat reaches our shores,” he said.

Bureaucratic inertia

Prof Manne said the history of anti-asylum seeker border control policy was a history of deterrence measures. 

“The first two that were tried – mandatory detention and temporary protection – failed, at least as measured by the absolutist standards of the immigration authorities,” he said.

“The second two measures that were introduced by the Howard Government in the spring of 2001 – offshore processing and forcible turn-back to point of departure – succeeded. Between 2002 and 2007 virtually no boats reached Australia. 

“What is interesting about this history is the force of bureaucratic inertia, the continued expansion of the system in a way that was unrelated to evidence or experience. 

“It was clear by the second half of 2002 that the combination of offshore processing and turn-back had successfully stopped the arrival of asylum seeker boats. 

“It was also clear by late 2013 that the combination of offshore processing, naval turn-back and now (then Prime Minister) Kevin Rudd’s 2013 addition, no settlement in Australia, ever—which I call ‘Rudd’s curse’– had once again successfully stopped the boats. 

“Yet in both cases this fact had no influence in softening policy with regard to the earlier deterrent measures – mandatory detention and temporary protection –which had by now been rendered entirely redundant. 

“The ends had been achieved by other means. Yet the earlier means were nonetheless retained. 

“How is this purposeless cruelty to be explained? In his analysis of post-totalitarian Czechoslovakia, The Power of the Powerless, Vaclav Havel outlines in some detail a system that no longer serves any interest – where within the system both the relation of different measures to each other and the relation of means to ends had long been forgotten by everyone. 

“He calls the engine that drives this system ‘automaticity’. 

“Despite the fact that no asylum-seeker boats now reach Australia, refugees are still granted temporary visas; asylum seekers who cannot be deported are still locked away indefinitely; refugees and asylum seekers who have been sent to offshore processing centres are left to rot there permanently. The force of bureaucratic inertia, the reign of automaticity, helps explain the purposeless cruelty of the current asylum seeker system.” 

Robert Manne

Robert Manne is emeritus professor and vice-chancellor’s fellow at La Trobe University and has twice been voted Australia’s leading public intellectual. He is the author of Left, Right, Left: Political Essays, 1977-2005 and Making Trouble. He presented the Sesqicentenary Talk – How is Australia’s Cruelty to Asylum Seekers to be Explained? at the Running Jump Conference, Mary MacKillop Place, North Sydney, on August 17-18.

Group thinking

Prof Manne said there had been only one time in the history of the anti-asylum seeker border protection policy where deterrent measures were dismantled. 

“(Kevin) Rudd abandoned both offshore processing and turn-back although his government retained mandatory detention,” he said.

“At the time I thought this partial dismantling a risk. I now think it a mistake. The consequence of the dismantling of the two most successful dimensions of the deterrent system was the arrival between 2009 and 2013 of some 50,000 asylum seekers by boat and more than 1000 drownings. 

“Because of this experience a curious mindset, which was already present in the Howard years, came to dominate the key policymakers and Immigration public servants during the period of both the (Tony) Abbott and (Malcom) Turnbull governments. 

“The mindset suggested that if even one brick in the asylum-seeker deterrent system was removed from the anti-asylum seeker edifice that had been constructed over the past twenty-five years, the entire building would collapse and a large number of boats would return. 

“Let one example of this strange mindset suffice. Late last year doctors and nurses at the Royal Children’s Hospital announced that they would not return the handful of gravely damaged children under their care to a detention centre in Melbourne. 

“The Minister, Peter Dutton, responded by saying that the result of their irresponsible behaviour would be naval officers pulling the bodies of dead children from the ocean. 

“He apparently sincerely believed that freeing a few children from detention in Melbourne would send an international signal to the people smugglers that would see a return of the boats and the drownings. This was telling evidence of how far by now officials in Canberra have lost touch with reality. 

“Officials now believe that one act of human decency will lead to an armada of asylum-seeker boats setting out for Australia. 

“One reason for the cruelty of the current asylum seeker policy is, then, the severe case of groupthink – the willingness of intelligent people to still their critical capacities in the interest of conformity – that now afflicts Canberra.”

The banality of evil

Prof Manne said more than 2000 men, women and children were slowly being destroyed in body and spirit. 

Although the Government had announced the closure of the Manus Island detention centre, those detainees from Manus and from Nauru have been marooned there for two years or more. 

“Among the families of those who were brought from Nauru to Australia for medical treatment, 267 now live in daily, crippling fear of return,” Prof Manne said. 

“I am certain that the Immigration and Defence officials who are responsible for administering the policy are not sadists. 

“Therefore, there is something further about our willingness to inflict such cruelty that needs to be explained.

“The most important idea in Hannah Arendt’s ‘Eichmann in Jerusalem’ is the banality of evil. 

“In essence what Arendt tried to explain was how evil acts might be perpetrated by conventional individuals because of their blindness, their loss, for one or another reason, of the capacity to see what it was that they were doing.  

“Arendt’s idea helped explain how the atmosphere created within Nazi Germany allowed the most extreme of all state-sponsored acts of political evil to appear to a conventional character like (Adolf) Eichmann to be normal.” 

Prof Manne said the extreme context from which the idea emerged did not mean that the concept of the banality of evil could not illuminate far smaller matters. 

“The Turnbull Government is presently allowing the lives of some 1750 human beings to be destroyed for no purpose,” he said.

“They are willing to allow this to happen because they no longer possess, in the Arendtian sense, the ability to see what it is that they are doing, and because the majority of the nation has become accustomed to thinking of what we are doing as perfectly normal.” 

By Mark Bowling

Written by: Mark Bowling
Catholic Church Insurance

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