This week Prime Minister Scott Morrison lost an historic vote, the first for a government in 90 years. It was a loss by only one vote, and might have been avoided had a neutral speaker been appointed as an interim measure to allow the speaker Tony Smith to cast his vote.
It was a Bill to allow the remaining 1000 odd detainees on Manus Island and Nauru to come to Australia for emergency medical treatment, if needed, on the say so of two doctors, but only with ministerial approval.
Scott Morrison at his ebullient best
Surprisingly the loss hasn’t disturbed his composure, and in subsequent debate, he has given no ground, and been at his aggressive best in castigating the Labor Party for its failure to stop the boats when in office.
Perhaps it is because he is now electioneering on a preferred issue on which he has undeniable authority. Turning back the boats was a crucial issue in winning the 2001 federal election for John Howard.
Scott Morrison can argue that Labor has once again weakened the Coalition’s successful border policy, and will have to take responsibility when the boats start arriving again on the rocky shores of a re-opened Christmas Island Detention Centre. It was on these very rocks that some poor desperate refugees lost their lives.
Even although about 78% of those still in detention have been processed and shown to be genuine refugees, it is distinctly possible that they will be sent to the Christmas Island facility to frustrate the provision of the new legislation.
A humanitarian Bill, condemned as weakness.
The Independents together with the opposition, have been painstaking in their efforts to come up with a Bill that neither jeopardizes Australia’s security nor grants sick detainees with back-door access to Australian residency, even although the government has been doing so on the quiet for sometime.
In addition the legislation specifies that the medical evacuation provisions apply only to the present cohort of detainees, not to any new arrivals. This clause eliminates Dr Kerryn Phelp’s Medevac Bill as an incentive to come to Australia. Furthermore Australia now has established a potent Border Force that should have no difficulty in continuing to turn back the boats.
In spite of this the government has fought the Bill at every turn, even to the point of trying to create a constitutional furphy. Yet the Bill has been passed, and is now law. Interestingly division vote results were given standing ovations from visitors in the gallery.
Why the opposition supported the legislation.
You might have thought that there was little need for changing the rules for the management of detainees, given that the Coalition since 2013 has stopped new boat arrivals, and successfully removed all but about one thousand, including all children; but has there been a price for this?
Although the government has been able to slowly but surely deal with the backlog of refugees in detention, and boasts that it has closed 19 detention centres, it is an almost impossible task to manage the expectations of those in indefinite detention, especially when they are battling crowded conditions and poor health.
The administration bureaucracy has come to be perceived as insensitive to the plight of valid refugees. It appears that they may have been vindictive to some by taking legal action to prevent them from going to Australia for medical care they did not think was needed. While there is a more than adequate doctor to population ratio, they do not have to my knowledge, a specialist psychiatric unit. 11 or 12 lost hope, and became so depressed, that they took their own lives.
There have also been delays in decision making with one detainee dying when he might have lived had he been evacuated earlier.
Disturbances and riots in the two detention centres have been regarded as insubordination to be punished, rather than symptomatic of genuine underlying mental and emotional anguish needing treatment.
What to do with asylum seekers is still an unresolved national problem
It was actually Kevin Rudd who in August 2013 declared that asylum seekers would never be able to settle in Australia, an announcement that caused international concern for the welfare of refugees at the time, but was adopted by the Abbott government after winning the ensuing election. It has been an important factor in altering the mind-set of refugees, and deterring people smugglers.
Although it may have been an effective deterrent, the difficulty of finding satisfactory alternative destinations has never been completely resolved in the five years of Coalition government, and the problem is likely to persist for further refugees, unless there is a change in the present policy vowing to never let them enter Australia.
Not only are their liberties curtailed, and their housing conditions basic, many have encountered hostility from the locals on Manus Island, and all face daily uncertainty about their fate. Little wonder that so many men, women and children have developed severe mental health problems waiting.
Australia’s manifestly rigid and hard-hearted management of refugees contrasts starkly with the willingness of the German government to accept about one million displaced persons from Syria, the Middle East, and Africa. We do not have anything like the problem they are dealing with.
Admittedly all nations have the right to determine who is eligible to enter their country, but is it humane to ban refugees forever from entering Australia because they have bypassed our processing protocol? Should we not take into consideration the urgency of their situation?
Given the difficulty Australia has had, and will continue to experience in re-settling refugees elsewhere, is it not cruel to keep them in indefinite detention?
Asylum seeker policy should be bipartisan. We want political parties to tell us how they will tackle the nation’s problems such as this, without point-scoring over how good they are, or have been.