View from The Hill

What more can either side do to asylum seekers?

There is currently a race to the bottom on humanitarian asylum seeker policy. Department of Immigration and Citizenship

One would never have thought it could reach this stage, but Australia’s debate about asylum seekers is now worse than in 2001.

As Labor and Coalition try to out-tough each other, the boat arrivals are being demonised and the players are willing to say anything for the sake of holding their lines.

I come at this issue believing that the inflow of people has reached a level that a hard line policy is needed. But at some point the dehumanisation becomes a disgrace.

Take Immigration Minister Tony Burke’s reaction to reports that if all arrivals are sent to Manus - as the policy says - this will include babies, pregnant women and small children.

The Immigration department’s policy until now has been that babies and children under seven are not sent to Manus because of concerns that they shouldn’t be administered anti-malarial medication. Pregnant women have not been sent, either.

Burke won’t clarify if there will be an exemption for small children because, he says, “if I carved out children of a particular age, it would take about a fortnight before we saw boat loads of children of that age being pushed across the Indian Ocean”.

Ultimately over time everyone will be processed and settled overseas, he says. He also says he applies the principle that people need to be “safe” and suggests that there is a time limit on some of these situations. That can only mean that children grow up, but it does take quite a while.

While Burke’s position has a certain dreadful logic, common sense suggests that, unless he is totally irresponsible, he is not as minister going send kids to Manus who are at risk of contracting malaria. How could he sleep at night if he had put children in danger?

There will have to be exemptions – and they won’t be able to be hidden for ever.

It was the same story with Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus, who happened to be taking part today in the announcement of money for the HIV/AIDS Legal Centre.

Presumably Dreyfus saw the irony when he was questioned about sending gays to PNG, which locks them up.

“It’s a general policy that anyone who arrives in Australia by boat without a visa … will be transferred to Papua New Guinea”, he said, adding that Burke had made it clear that transfers would not occur until there were “appropriate circumstances for everyone who is sent”.

But that doesn’t mean a change in PNG law, because Dreyfus wasn’t proposing Australia put pressure on PNG over its gay law.

On another day the attorney would do a good pitch on the importance of human rights.

Then there is the opposition’s latest upping of the ante. The Coalition is appalled because Labor has managed to sound harsher than it does. So immigration spokesman Scott Morrison flew to Nauru and announced the Coalition would set a tent city to increase capacity there by 2000 people.

The trip by Morrison and two media representatives from News Corporation was funded by Toll, which provides tents. The Australian newspaper disclosed who paid but Tony Abbott was only willing to say the trip was privately funded. Scott and his press secretary were in the air when questions were put; the spokeswoman in his office would say nothing. The opposition says all will be revealed in Morrison’s pecuniary interest statement – when the moment has passed.

The government doesn’t mind the idea of tent city so much as the fact that Morrison specified the number who would be accommodated. That would give information to the people smugglers, Burke said.

One doubts these people smugglers are so innumerate that they would not know that the capacity of the tiny state of Nauru is not finite.

The government says that a big difference is that under its PNG policy no arrivals will be settled in Australia while the opposition has not been able to give this guarantee for the people sent to Nauru. Deputy opposition leader Julie Bishop when questioned kept repeating that a Coalition government would “encourage” settlement in third countries.

We are talking here about new boat arrivals found to be genuine refugees, not “economic” refugees. The competition between the main parties is over which side can best ensure that not even one of these people will ever settle in this country.

This is not a debate that anybody should be proud to see at the centre of our election contest.