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Robert Manne: How we came to be so cruel to asylum seekers

A relative of asylum seekers being held on Nauru cries at a press conference to launch an Amnesty International report. Reuters/David Gray

This is an edited extract of a talk delivered to the Integrity 20 Conference at Griffith University on October 25, 2016

If you had been told 30 years ago that Australia would create the least asylum seeker friendly institutional arrangements in the world, you would not have been believed.

In 1992 we introduced a system of indefinite mandatory detention for asylum seekers who arrive by boat. Since that time, we have accepted the idea that certain categories of refugees and asylum seekers can be imprisoned indefinitely; that those who are intercepted by our navy should be forcibly returned to the point of departure; that those who haven’t been able to be forcibly returned should be imprisoned indefinitely 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 this come to pass? There are two main ways of explaining this.

The first is what can be called analytical narrative: the creation of an historical account that shows the circumstances in which the decisions were made and how one thing led to another. I have tried my hand at several of these.

The second way is to look at more general lines of explanation. I want to suggest five possibilities. These general lines of explanation are not alternatives to each other but complementary. Nor do they constitute an alternative to explanation by way of analytical narrative. Rather, they attempt to illuminate some of the general reasons the story took the shape it did.

Immigration absolutism

It is very common to explain the creation of Australia’s uniquely harsh anti-asylum seeker system of border control as a partially disguised return of the old racism of the White Australia Policy. This now seems to me mistaken. Even though there have been occasional political hiccups: Blainey 1984; Howard 1988; Hanson 1 1996; Hanson 2 2016, one of the more remarkable achievements of Australian history is the seamless transformation of white Australia to a multiracial and multicultural society since the early 1970s.

Nor is there evidence that Australians are hostile to non-European refugees selected by the government. As I observed as a refugee advocate in the late 1970s, it was easier for the Fraser government to settle 70,000 Indo-Chinese refugees from the camps of South-East Asia the government had selected than it was to allay public fear or anger over the 2,000 Vietnamese who arrived in Darwin spontaneously by boat.

There is, however, another aspect of the White Australia Policy that is usually overlooked: its absolutism, the almost 100-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.

Party politics: Howard’s curse

It is obvious that the Tampa “crisis” of August-September 2001 was the most important moment in the creation of Australia’s contemporary asylum seeker policies. There is no need to rehearse what happened once again. For obvious reasons, the creation of the offshore processing centres and, even more importantly, the use of the Australian Navy to turn back asylum seeker boats to Indonesia was crucial for the future.

What, however, is less often discussed is the way in which the Prime Minister, John Howard, spurned the bipartisanship over asylum seeker policy offered him by Kim Beazley, and the long-term consequences of his political opportunism. During Tampa, Beazley supported every radical measure taken by the government. Memorably, he said this was no time for “carping”. The only bridge too far for Beazley was a bill that denied that it would be a criminal offence for a border control official to take the life of an asylum seeker.

Howard seized on that remark. For the purpose of the 2001 election and in the election campaigns of 2004, 2010, 2013 and 2016 (with 2007 being the exception), the Coalition has profitably been able to accuse Labor of being weak on border protection. It was not only Tony Abbott who based his prime ministerial credentials on the success of his border control policies. In the last election campaign, Malcolm Turnbull used the trope of Labor’s weakness on border security as the one populist element in what was essentially a non-populist election pitch.

The consequence of this has been that over the past 15 years the chance of an even remotely humane reform of the system carries with it the chance of severe electoral punishment for the Labor Party. The only hope now for a return of some humanity to the policy is the willingness of a Coalition government to initiate such reform, or to offer Labor bipartisanship in trying to work together to find a less cruel and ruinous policy. I call the last 15 years of opportunistic partisan contention over asylum seeker policy “Howard’s curse”.

Bureaucratic inertia: automaticity

The history of anti-asylum seeker border control policy is 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. The second two measures that were introduced by the Howard government in the spring of 2001 — offshore processing and forcible turnback 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 turnback had successfully stopped the arrival of asylum seeker boats. It was also clear by late 2013 that the combination of offshore processing, naval turnback and now Kevin Rudd’s July 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 the purposelessness of this cruelty - which is presently rendering the lives of 30,000 refugees or asylum seekers in Australia miserable — 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, in essence because of the success of the turnback policy, the mandatory detention system is maintained, refugees are granted temporary visas that offer no hope of citizenship or permanent settlement; some 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 so much of the current asylum seeker system.


There has been only one time in the history of the anti-asylum seeker border protection policy where deterrent measures were dismantled. Rudd abandoned both offshore processing and turnback, although his government retained mandatory detention. 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 1,000 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 Abbott and Turnbull governments.

The mindset suggested that if even one brick in the asylum seeker deterrent system was removed, the entire building would collapse. By now the Immigration minister, the Immigration Department and the relevant Defence officials all agreed with each other that large numbers of boats would return if even the slightest change was allowed to be made to the anti-asylum seeker edifice that had been constructed over the past 25 years.

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. The Minister 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 purposeless 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

At present more than 2,000 men, women and children are slowly being destroyed in body and spirit. Some are being destroyed because they have been marooned on Nauru and Manus Island for two years or more. A small number of refugees or asylum seekers have been imprisoned for several years in Australia because of the existence of an adverse ASIO file, or because Iran will not accept involuntary repatriation. Among the families of those who were brought from Nauru to Australia for medical treatment, 300 now live in daily, crippling fear of return.

I am certain that the Immigration and Defence officials who are responsible for administering the policy are not sadists. There is thus 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. The idea is usually misunderstood. In essence what Arendt tried to explain was how evil acts might be perpetrated by conventional individuals because of their blindness, their loss 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 Eichmann to be normal.

The extreme context from which the idea emerged does not mean, however, that the concept of the banality of evil cannot illuminate far smaller matters. A detailed moral history of Australia’s asylum-seeker policy since the introduction of mandatory detention in 1992 has not yet been written. What it would reveal is the process whereby the arteries of the nation gradually hardened; how as a nation we gradually lost the capacity to see the horror of what it was that we were willing to do to innocent fellow human beings who had fled in fear and sought our help.

Recently an inmate on Nauru set himself on fire and died. Dutton argued in response that people self-immolate so they can get to Australia. It took 30 years of brutal behaviour for a remark like this to be possible and for Australians not to notice how truly remarkable was the Minister’s brutality.

Our current uniquely harsh anti-asylum seeker policy is grounded in the absolutist ambitions that can, in my view, best be explained by Australia’s long term migration history and its associated culture of control. It has become entrenched because of the force of bureaucratic inertia that has seen the system grow automatically while any interest in, or understanding of, the relation of means to ends has been lost. And it is presently maintained by an irrational but consensual mindset that has Canberra in its grip: the conviction that even one concession to human kindness will send a message to the people smugglers and bring the whole system crashing down.

Because of these factors, the prime minister, the minister for immigration and the senior officials of immigration and defence are presently allowing the lives of some 2,000 human beings to be destroyed on the basis of faulty but unquestioned speculation, and of another 30,000 in Australia to be rendered acutely insecure and anxious for no purpose.

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.

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