It was a crime of sorts, perpetuated against the international community with a brazen disregard that has come to mark the politics of the country. On Thursday, the bill that had been promised excising the Australian mainland for the purposes of refugee law was passed. It was a grotesque act, one that has become instinctive for the Gillard government.
Teasing out the implications of the decision is even more peculiar. Australia has, for the purposes of migration, destroyed its sovereign credentials. The government has rendered the country it represents a legal amputee – for the purposes of the “migration zone”, people arriving in Australia in a certain manner will be processed at offshore centres because they are not, strictly speaking, arriving in Australia. This is not the drivel of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party – this is Australian policy.
The migration zone, for the definitions of Australia’s own imaginative law makers, is the area where a person arrives without a valid visa (they are all paper-driven here) but can still make an application for one. This is all dandy – the Migration Act 1958 will then apply, and there won’t be any need to be carted off for processing in a detention centre on Manus Island or Nauru. Unfortunately, the act’s focus has dramatically narrowed.
In 2012, the Houston Panel on Asylum Seekers, a body commissioned by the Prime Minister, dressed up the language of brutality with the language of fairness, suggesting that “the Migration Act 1958 be amended so that arrival anywhere on Australia by irregular means will not provide individuals with a different lawful status than those who arrive in an excised offshore place.” This is the sentiment of a mean society, and on closer inspection, a vicious society.
What has effectively happened is that the vengeful, querulous pupils of the ‘left’ (let’s just abandon the term for Australia’s denuded Labor Party) have outdone their conservative masters. The individual to pioneer the application of offshore excisions – in that case, Christmas Island, Ashmore and Cartier Reefs, Cocos (Keeling) Islands and various other facilities – was Prime Minister John Howard, a Thatcherite in miniature who thought foreigners were people you just found elsewhere. In August 2001, with the asylum seeker issue red hot on the electoral radar, Howard decided to keep the Norwegian vessel the MV Tampa at sea, a legal suspension if ever there was one.
On board, 433 asylum seekers were treated as criminal cargo, insurgents at sea waiting to touch Australian land. With minimal dissent – which goes to show that Australia’s political classes are some of the most conformist in the democratic world – Christmas Island was “excised” and the Migration Act amended. If refugees reached Christmas Island, they were reaching something distinctly not Australia. In other words, they were not entering the “migration zone”.
Ironically, when he wished to take one step further – to excise the entire mainland – the ALP, then in opposition, rounded on him, condemning the measure as “racist” and “intolerant.” The measure failed. The road of a Pharisee is a long one indeed.
The Australian election in September will feature the hollow party, one of zombie functionaries indifferent to democracy, and the ignoble Liberal-National party, one intent on correcting the ballooning budget deficit and attacking an assortment of spending programs. The only thing to merit that position is that a Tony Abbot government will be convinced by what they want. We will have a new set of well-rehearsed idiots to replace the musty amoralists who have populated Canberra with fungal relish.
Hopefully, a set of independent parties, the creatures of difference, will eat away at the carnage, pick away at the morsels of the carcass that will be the Australian Labor Party. But against the monstrosity that is the Australian political scene, we can only hope that something can be salvaged. It won’t be in the form of a sounder refugee law, let alone one that involves reading the Refugee Convention. As far as Australia’s legal and political establishment is concerned, the Convention is better than deceased.
Broadly speaking, total excision of the Australian mainland for the purposes of refugee law continues that finely developed Australian policy of letting others do the work for its officials. If torture can be outsourced, it will be. Ask David Hicks. If legal presentation can be outsourced, it will be. Again, a Hicks’ special. If you want representation overseas, best ask another country, because the Australian mission will probably be closed. And if you are arriving by boat to flee countries where you are not welcome, pop into Manus Island or Nauru first.
In the meantime, may every single nation in the Asia Pacific and beyond invade this fetid thieving land and take their rightful conquistador’s share. After all, it is, for the purposes of migration (or invasion, if you are a politician), non-Australia, a state that has defined itself out of existence. It has ceased to be as a legal, law-abiding entity that respects its own borders. Never in modern times has a country shown so little respect not merely for the people it admits or refuses to, but its own concept of sovereign dignity. May it pay the ultimate price for that mockery.
Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org