With the resumption of federal parliament, the apparently interminable theatre surrounding the government’s Budget, particularly the fate of various contentious measures — including the Medicare co-payment, deregulation of tertiary fees, the government’s paid parental leave scheme, indexation of the petroleum excise and repeal of the mining tax — will preoccupy the Canberra press gallery, and both the broadcast and print media.
Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison
With the continued uncertainty in the Senate, the blow-torch will be on the Treasurer, Joe Hockey, to find a way out of the corner into which he has painted himself.
But the business of government covers a far wider range of issues, and there have been positive developments in an area which has been a political mine-field for successive governments — the Department of Immigration.
Under the Rudd and Gillard governments, immigration policy seemed to be determined by the desire to get favourable headlines in the Fairfax media and the ABC. Labor’s permissive border-control policy saw a vast increase in people-smuggling operations, with asylum-seekers boarding boats in Indonesia and setting sail for Christmas Island, which lies a short distance off the coast of Java.
Australia’s border-protection policy was virtually turned into a naval escort service for boats run by people-smugglers, who made fortunes from desperate people wanting a new start in Australia.
The numbers tell the story: in the first year of the Rudd Labor government, the number of boat asylum requests was just 21. Five years later — the last full year of the last Labor government — the number of boat arrivals exceeded 18,000, according to the Refugee Council of Australia.
These people, who could afford to fly to Indonesia and then buy a place on a boat to Australia, took the places of tens of thousands of refugees who could not.
The Abbott government ended the people-smuggling business by its tough policy of off-shore processing of asylum-seekers and its interception of arriving boats on the high seas. It was the subject of fierce criticism from much of the media, as well as church and human rights groups and the Labor opposition.
By sticking to its policy, the government has virtually halted the flood of unauthorised boat arrivals.
One of the consequences is that some of the harsh measures which the government enacted to make its policy effective are being relaxed.
Immigration Minister Scott Morrison has announced that the government intends to end one of its more unpopular actions, the mandatory detention of asylum-seeker children and their parents, by the end of 2014.
While illegal asylum-seekers who arrive by boat have no right to move freely into the community, there is a widespread perception that keeping their children in detention damages their physical and psychological health.
The government’s action will be accompanied by a range of measures to assist these families integrate into the community, including support for families in getting appropriate health care and accommodation, in enrolling in English-language classes, and in getting children into schools and parents into work.
The initiative undoubtedly has a political, as well as a humanitarian, purpose. Currently, the Australian Human Rights Commission is conducting an inquiry into children in detention, and the new policy will blunt some of the criticisms which are expected to come out of its report.
Perhaps, more importantly, closing down the people-trafficking networks has paved the way for the government to announce that it will expand its humanitarian refugee intake to people who have recently fled the advance of Islamist terrorists in northern Iraq.
Previously, both the British and French governments had announced that they would open their doors to Christians forced to flee for their lives in northern Iraq.
The Sunni terrorists of the Islamic State movement have seized control of significant areas of both northern Iraq and Syria, principally in desert areas, but including some populated cities such as Mosul in northern Iraq.
They employ tactics of extreme brutality, including summary executions of Christians, Shia Muslims and Kurds, and the forced conversion of Christians and the Yazidi people of northern Iraq.
The Abbott government is considering offering refuge to as many as 4,000 Iraqis and Syrians after the Anglican Primate of Australia, Dr Philip Freier, called on Australia to offer asylum to Christians facing death in northern Iraq.
Scott Morrison linked the relaxation in immigration detention and the admission of persecuted minorities from Iraq to the government’s success in combating people-smuggling. He said that, by stopping the boats, “We freed up more than 4,000 places in our SHP [Special Humanitarian Program] in 2013-14 and more than 4,000 places in 2014-15.” Additional places will become available in later years, if required.
The Special Humanitarian Program helps people, with established links and communities of support, to come to Australia.
The Immigration Minister’s initiatives show a sense of compassion which will be welcomed by all Australians, even those who have been the government’s most strident critics in the past.