The implementation of Turnbull’s asylum ban is hard to figure, but the motives are clear. But while the Coalition will score the victory, what really is won outside parliament?
If a government wants to make a policy announcement that draws minimal negative attention, Sunday is a traditionally good day on which to do so. Similarly, major policy announcements are typically planned for the busier periods of the 24-hour news cycle. So when Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull gave this press conference on Sunday, both of these tactics were invariably in mind.
Given the extraordinary content of the policy, I think they were looking to draw as little attention to it as possible. In summary, it is the government’s intention to permanently ban any person who has sought asylum (by boat) and found themselves in detention on Manus Island or Nauru, from travelling to Australia. It is designed, ostensibly, to disincentivize the business of people-smuggling. More realistically, it is a pre-emptive measure that attempts to dance around the government’s obligation to design a better system of asylum processing – one that doesn’t leave people stranded in poorly-maintained offshore facilities.
The parameters of the ban are relatively simple. The straightforward (but often dangerous) action of exercising your right to seek asylum by any means available would immediately become a crime, the consequence of which would deny to you any future travel in Australia. There are no stipulated exemptions; you cannot, so it seems, go through any procedure to contest your ban (on the grounds, for example, that non-boat methods of seeking asylum were unavailable to you), and it is retrospective.
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Effectively, the ban is a sweeping one. It removes from the government the burden of having to actually demonstrate a proposed threat, which is an essential part of national security procedure in a democracy where the rule of law is upheld. It is logical to gather evidence of threats and remove them accordingly, which obviously in some cases must include visa refusals. But in this instance, there seems to be a curious lack of concern for the value of judiciousness. Of course, if under the policy the simple act of arriving by boat is enough to have you classified as a threat then sure, the government has technically “proved” you to be such, and in breach of law, when you do it – but it is decidedly and curiously little to prove. And that is the problem: the definition of a “threat” being hollowed-out so much so as to render it beyond reasonable understanding.
The proposal, therefore, seems to make little sense, but the political motives are clear.
In order to build internal rapport and regather what is, at least by perception, his dwindling authority, the PM is trying to appeal to the Right-wing constituency represented by his backbench. This is a concession, however, not an assertion of leadership, so it is unlikely to give him more strength to win on that front. Additionally, an endorsement from the Right in the Senate has become essential for the passing of a great deal of legislation. From the moment the press conference was held, this policy sought the approval of Pauline Hanson, which was duly received.
Additionally, there is the issue of policy productivity, on which the PM has been criticised from the Right and the Left. So with Sunday’s policy announcement he was trying to save face by appearing stoic and productive. If it passes, then a much-needed tick in the “achievement” box is granted. And its passage is likely. In search of a consensus with the Opposition, the PM has tied this new policy back to the similarly tough Rudd era. As I have previously written, Labor has seldom functioned as a legitimate opposition on matters of national security, working within a received consensus rather than suggesting necessary improvements of their own.
Expect in the coming weeks a victory to be proudly declared by the PM, and that aforementioned achievement to be repeated ad nauseam. What is actually gained, however, remains an open question.