The Labor party has just rejected a move to close Nauru and Manus Island as places for processing asylum claims. If the move had succeeded, it would have been a welcome retreat from the intentional cruelty of the present system. It is profoundly regrettable that the Labor party has decided to stay with a flawed system which disfigures this country.
Australia’s treatment of boat people needs a radical rethink. It is shameful that we are now trying to treat asylum seekers so harshly that they will be deterred from seeking our help at all. It is shameful that this deliberate mistreatment of asylum seekers has been “justified” by describing them falsely as “illegal”, when in fact they commit no offence by coming here and asking for protection. It is shameful that the deliberate Coalition lies about asylum seekers have not been roundly condemned by the Labor party.
There are better ways of responding to asylum seekers. If I could redesign the system, I would choose between two possible models.
The Regional and Tasmanian solutions
Boat-arrivals would be detained initially, but for a maximum of one month, to allow preliminary health and security checks. That detention would be subject to extension, but only if a court was persuaded that a particular individual should be detained longer.
After that period of initial detention, boat arrivals would be released into the community on an interim visa with a number of conditions that would apply until the person’s refugee status was decided:
• they would be required to report regularly to a Centrelink office or a post office, to make sure they remained available for the balance of the process;
• they would be allowed to work;
• they would be entitled to Centrelink and Medicare benefits;
• they would be required to live in a specified rural town or regional city.
A system like this would have a number of benefits. First, it would avoid the harm presently inflicted on refugees held in detention. Prolonged detention with an unknown release date is highly toxic: experience over the past 15 years provides plenty of evidence of this.
Second, any government benefits paid to refugees would be spent on accommodation, food and clothing in country towns. There are plenty of towns in country areas which would welcome an increase in their population and a boost to their local economy. According to the National Farmers’ Federation, there are more than 90,000 unfilled jobs in rural areas. It is likely that adult male asylum seekers would look for work, and would find it.
However, even if every boat person stayed on full Centrelink benefits for the whole time it took to decide their refugee status, it would cost the government only about $500 million a year, all of which would go into the economy of country towns. By contrast, the current system costs between $4 billion and $5 billion a year. We would save billions of dollars a year, and we would be doing good rather than harm.
A variant of this would be to require asylum seekers to live in Tasmania instead of regional towns. As a sweetener, and to overcome any lingering resistance, the federal government would pay one billion dollars a year to the Tasmanian government to help with the necessary social adjustments. It would be a great and needed boost for the Tasmanian economy, and Australia would still be billions of dollars better off.