After a hurricane comes a rainbow… Understanding the asylum seeker policy craptakes

A few years ago, while I was in the public service, I flicked on the breakfast news while scoffing down some cereal.  It had been grueling at work; I’d got home at 1am in the morning and was about to be back at it at 8am.  There was a major public issue that the government wanted sorted and I was a tiny cog trying to solve the problem.  It was a difficult problem, fantastically complex area of international and domestic law, with known facts that were changing rapidly.

The news that morning was about the issue that I was working on.  A well known and respected journalist was interviewing a person that I’d never heard of who claimed to be an expert.  Except everything that he was saying was manifestly wrong.  He’d misunderstood details and conflated issues.  He’d believed a report which was known to be factually incorrect.  And his solution wasn’t actually lawful.  But it was a simple solution.  It was wonderfully simple.  And it sounded convincing if you didn’t know that everything he was saying was nonsense.  The journalist ended: ‘Yes, I can’t see why this is causing so much difficulty for the government.’

It was a total kick in the guts.  I spoke about it later with my mentor whose attitude was to read the news to know what was going to be upsetting the government, but to ignore it when you needed a factual basis upon which to develop policy.  The motivation behind journalism is to produce stories, not uncover truths.  Journalists are incentivised to attract readers; the relationship between the story and facts is entirely secondary.

But it also speaks to an unhelpful — but common — intuition about politics: if there’s a serious issue of public policy, commonsense and a good hard reckon is all it takes to find a solution.

This week, the Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea declared that the detention of asylum seekers en route to Australia is unconstitutional.  There is a lot that’s weird about the decision — from the way the PNG government handled the case, through to the Supreme Court declaring that legislation was ‘rushed’, and that a person isn’t entering PNG if they actually want to enter Australia.  Ultimately, this case demonstrates why we shouldn’t have entrenched rights in constitutions.  Political issues should be resolved through democratic parliamentary debate and not by unelected judges.

In the rush and tumble of contemporary politics, people were called upon to have answers immediately to hand.  What would Peter Dutton do now that PNG’s Supreme Court declared Australia’s offshore detention facility unconstitutional?  Asylum seeker advocates had answers ready to go: the decision meant that Australia had no choice but to implement their preferred policy framework.  Except it wasn’t true.  While that is an option, it’s not mandated by the decision — which Peter Dutton rather clunkily tried to explain several times.  And Richard Marles tried to enter the fray: if he were Minister, he’d drive straight to PNG to tell them to keep the detention centre open.  Which sounds dopey.  What he probably meant was: ‘I would speak with the PNG government about legal options for keeping immigration detention in view of the decision.’  And there are legal options, but do they suit the PNG government?

The ABC was the probably the worst offender for commentary.  It was a conga line of advocates, many of whom didn’t appear to have even read the decision, all opining that our offshore detention policy was shameful and needed to be closed down because it breached human rights.  But this isn’t accurate.  Two morally perfect people can disagree about how best to set up an asylum seeker policy.  The UNHCR has indicated support for regional processing.  I’ve written in the past about how to engage with the question about detention facility standards and why Australia should care for asylum seekers in the region by improving the healthcare of everybody living in the region.

But the worst comment of the week came from Richard Ackland writing in The Guardian.  He’d had a good hard think and he reckons that the humane solution to asylum seeker migration flows is to take more asylum seekers from Indonesia.

The sheer arrogance that motivated writing the piece is breathtaking, but not inconsistent with Ackland’s body of work.  His policy, if implemented, would result in hundreds of thousands of people migrating to Indonesia, resulting in the same complaints that Indonesia made when the Pacific Solution was dismantled.  Indonesia wants Australia to reduce the migration flow along the pipeline, and argues that there are too many incentives for asylum seekers to use clandestine irregular migration channels.  The closer you get to Australia before you’re detected, the better off you are.  This is the same reason why resettling in New Zealand is not a good policy outcome: a person who is detected in the waters between Indonesia and Australia increases the likelihood of being resettled in New Zealand, while a person detected in Indonesia has practically no chance of being resettled in New Zealand.

This is the puzzle that good asylum seeker policy is trying to solve: how do you create the right incentive so that an asylum seeker makes themselves known to authorities earlier rather than later?  The ideal mechanism is that a person only has to cross one border in order to get their refugee status determined, and then they’re resettled somewhere in the world.  That ‘one border’ thing is due to a flaw in the Refugees Convention which says that a refugee is a person outside of their country: a better solution would cover internally displaced people, but we’re never, ever going to be able to renegotiate the Convention.

But the system doesn’t work.  A person who can’t afford a people smuggler will wait on average more than 15 years for resettlement.  A person who can will wait about 5 years.  Onshore processing is manifestly broken.

Ackland doesn’t care because he doesn’t understand the problem.  Nor do the people who make references to ‘gulags’ and ‘prisons’, as if this is a helpful contribution to debate.  And when an asylum seeker set himself alight this week, again the same voices were heard about the need to end offshore detention, not realising that this is actually really common even with onshore processing and bridging visas for asylum seekers.  One refugee set himself alight because he didn’t want to be charged for sending death threats to a woman who rejected his advances.  It’s the lack of context that makes things seem more dramatic than they are and distorts what the policy response should be.

(The correct answer to this is more mental health services throughout the region funded through IOM and UNHCR, but we never have that debate because there is no political pressure to improve health services across the region).

‘But what about Vietnamese refugees?!’ I hear you cry, referencing a policy solution that worked in the late 1970s as if the entire region was frozen in time and the policy issues are identical.  It is incredible that this has been retconned as a glorious victory when, at the time, it was thoroughly miserable: Vietnamese refugees were asked to return to Vietnam before they’d be resettled around the world, and the public reaction was so bad that it became a criminal offense to enter Australia without a visa, and then led to mandatory detention.  One journalist even asserted to me that no boats arrived under this policy, conveniently forgetting the many boats that arrived.

Why The Guardian published such an unhelpful contribution to the public discussion is beyond me.  Is public discussion of these issues really so poor that we must be subjected to the chaotic bellyfeel of the ignorant and opinionated?  Is this what passes as expert opinion?

We need public intellectuals to help us form the language around what we want to achieve through public policy, but it’s the policy experts who will tell us what options are available for achieving what we want.  At the moment, we are hearing from neither.  And the politicians who are supposed to be leading the policy discussion appear to be thoroughly incapable of doing so.

Reading back over what I’ve written, I have been unfair in focusing on the reaction of the Left.  One of the problems with public debate is that there isn’t a constructive conservative (or, at least, anti-progressive) narrative.  The PNG decision could have been an opportunity to generate a real discussion between those who advocate for offshore processing and those who advocate for onshore processing.  But we don’t have that in Australia: we have mainstream conservatives whose entire schtick is telling ghost stories about the Greens-ALP alliance.  So, sure.  When the best that my side has to offer is ‘Eiw, brown people’, it makes sense that advocates would fill the vacuum with noise and static.

So what fixes it?  There’s no public appetite for onshore processing; there’s no political pressure to improve offshore processing.  The public doesn’t have enough information to form views about options on the table, and political parties (even the Greens) benefit more from an ignorant electorate than an informed one.

I’m biased.  I think the problem stems from a fundamental devaluing of policy analysis as a specialist skill.  It seems like there’s a general mood that, for any political problem, all you need is a sheet of butchers paper, a Deepak Chopra quote, and a bunch of colourful textas in order to come up with a solution based on the latest sob story.  We see this attitude in so many areas of policy: rhetoric about the Budget that suggests a nation should balance cost and expenditure like a household budget; rhetoric about how a tax on carbon is a tax on mum and dad’s lamb roast; rhetoric about how asylum seeker policy is about preventing deaths at sea and that we need deterrents to turn back the leaky boats.  And journalists interviewing journalists about gossip and rumour.  All of it adds up to a political culture that does not value expertise.

But for that whinging paragraph of ‘Boohoo, nobody respects the experts, it’s so unfair’, it doesn’t get us closer to a solution.  Why is public deliberation not working?

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