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February 08th 2016 print

Peter O'Brien

Refugees: With Friends Like These…

It is too much to hope that those who wear their hearts on their sleeves for illegal arrivals, especially when news cameras are nearby, will ever grasp the wisdom of silence. Their yen to bask in the limelight makes a practical, low-key solution very nearly impossible

look at meCourtesy of Fairfax Media’s Michael Gordon, another of those pseudo-thoughtful, reasonable-in-a-parallel-universe “analyses” of illegal immigration and the recent decision by the High Court to uphold the government’s right to detail and process illegal arrivalss in offshore locations. Apparently, if you follow Gordon’s logic, this adjudication is confronting Malcolm Turnbull with some big decisions.  That would be, on the one hand, (a) to continue the successful policies instituted by Tony Abbott, as our latest Prime Minister solemnly promised to do or, on the other hand, (b) to repudiate his pledge and abandon them.

I’m guessing Gordon was expecting the government to be rebuffed by the High Court; if so, no surprise there. When you exist and work in a milieu where everyone you know — or everyone of whom you approve, in any case — thinks the same way and trades in the same pieties, it can be hard coming to grips with the concept that the law might see things in a different light.

Presumably, Gordon believes that, had the High Court gone the other way, Turnbull would have had an easy decision, one to which the Prime Minister would have been much more amenable.  An adverse High Court ruling decision would have given him easy cover to break his solemn assurance to conservatives that, on offshore detention and other matters, he intended to cleave to the party line. Specifically, according to Gordon, Turnbull’s  immediate ‘hard decision’ is:

whether he moves quickly to send around 100 children, including 37 babies, to the tiny, sweltering island with their mothers to face a precarious life in limbo.

Roughly 10,000 native Nauruans are happy to call this ‘tiny, sweltering island’ their home, but it seems that it is a locale unfit for some 250 ‘asylum seekers’ who, if taken at their word, face unspeakable persecution in their countries of origin. Better to swelter, one would think, than be strung up.

Warming to his topic, Gordon advises Turnbull

the most prudent course would be to say little and do nothing that will compound the distress of those who, after all, were only brought back to Australia because of serious mental and physical health concerns.

I wonder if Gordon recalls that, under the jackbooted Howard regime, many ‘asylum seekers’ were quietly and unobtrusively resettled in Australia and New Zealand at the same time people smugglers were being put out of business.  Howard received no credit for this. Indeed, it went unremarked until Rudd and Gillard set out to please and appease people like, well, Gordon by relaxing the Pacific Solution, all the while insisting that the Howard approach had actually failed.  Talk about spinning triumph into defeat!

Interestingly, the Nine Network’s Inside Story (Feb. 4) showcased one of the beneficiaries of those Howard era policies, Dr Munjed Al Muderis.  His Wikipedia entry tells us he took a people-smuggling route to Christmas Island, whence he was sent to Curtin Detention Centre. He was, by his own account,  “dehumanised” — not least by being addressed as “982″, his assigned number.  He was punished with solitary confinement and repeatedly told to go back where he came from. In 2000, ten months after being sent to Curtin, he was granted refugee status and was free to resume what has become a lustrous career.

Whilst we might deplore Muderis’ method of coming to Australia and wonder at what “dehumanization” he endured, he seems a thoroughly decent man and very capable surgeon.  A success story, in fact. So successful has he been in his new homeland, it is entirely conceivable that he might might someday find himself nominated for Australian of the Year?  Were that to happen, it would be courtesy of John Winston Howard.

Muderis’ fate would be very different were he to arrive undocumented in Australia today.

If Gordon and those from whose camp he reports — that would be, for starters, Senator Sarah Hanson-Young and  Tanya Plibersek — really wanted to help these people they would take their simpatico correspondent’s advice and ‘say little’.  My advice would be stronger: take a cue from detention-centre residents and stitch your lips together, as a needle and thread may well be the only means of foiling that look-at-me urge to seize the spotlight for a bit more moral preening. The more they beat up this issue, the more they signal their boundless virtue, the more they are tying the hands of the government and reducing its flexibility in finding some low-key, practical solution.

But a practical solution is not, of course, what they really want. Infinitely more valuable is possession of a stick with which to beat the government. What could be more useful than the plight of the remaining few hundred illegal immigrants, the remnants of all those which Labor imposed upon Australia and its taxpayers, who must shoulder the cost of their care, handling and sustenance?

Gordon also reveals

the government is captive to its own brutal rhetoric and the mindset that any show of compassion will represent a green light for people smugglers to resume their trade.

He might be onto something here.  My sources tell me that the angst inside the party room is palpable. The general tenor of one faction seems to be ‘how the hell did we get ourselves into this mess?  Why, oh why, did we let ourselves adopt and endorsing the brutal rhetoric of Rudd’s pre-election bid to re-position himself and his party?’

Add another item to the list of thorny issues exacerbating the divisions and discord under Turnbull.