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Why Are Shorten and Turnbull's Refugee Policies So Frustratingly Similar?

You might think it's because people are racist. You're right, but it's also because politicians are appealing to a handful of important swing seats—and those guys are really racist.
June 14, 2016, 12:00am

All illustrations by Ben Thomson and Ashley Goodall.

With more refugees in the world than at any time since World War II, Australia's treatment of asylum seekers and refugees—particularly our use of offshore processing centres on Nauru and Manus Island—has come under global condemnation. The New York Times recently labelled it a regime of "offshore cruelty."

Yet so much of what goes on inside these centres is unknown, shrouded in secrecy. Under the Australian Border Force Act, anyone who's been employed at these centres is unable to release "protected information" about what life is like inside. Speaking out is punishable by up to two years in prison.


What we do know is horrifying: This year alone two young people—21-year-old Hodan Yasin and 23-year-old Iranian Omid Masoumali—both doused themselves with fuel and set themselves alight on Nauru, only one week apart. Omid later died from self-immolation injuries after being airlifted to a Brisbane hospital.

As the federal election draws closer, neither Labor nor the Liberal Party has broken support for offshore detention. But while it's frustrating that we're unable to vote against it, what's fascinating is why politicians continued to see our policy as such a winner.

Popular understanding of Australia's offshore detention policy usually begins with the 2001 Tampa affair. This incident saw 438 asylum seekers rescued from a sinking fishing boat by the Norwegian ship MV Tampa. As VICE's Maddison Connaughton wrote earlier this year, "When the ship's captain Arne Rinnan pleaded for permission to dock, fearing for the health of the refugees on board, the government refused. They even went so far as to threaten to charge Rinnan as a people smuggler if he crossed into Australian waters."

The asylum seekers were eventually processed on the tiny island nation of Nauru, about an hour's flight north of Brisbane—a move that marked the beginning of the Pacific Solution.

Fittingly, the 2001 federal election was fuelled by anti-asylum seeker rhetoric. In an campaign climate fuelled by post-9/11 fear, Howard's unofficial campaign slogan became, "We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come."


But Australia's current approach to people seeking asylum actually goes back further. All the way back to the Labor Keating government where, before 1992, the detainment of boat arrivals wasn't mandatory. It was only after the arrival of "438 Vietnamese, Cambodian and Chinese 'boat people' to Australia's shores between November 1989 and January 1992" that Keating introduced mandatory detention—although at the time it was limited to a maximum of 273 days.

In 1994, after another influx of boat arrivals, this cap was removed entirely. This is why today, 24 years on, Australia's mandatory detention policy sees some people held for years in offshore camps, with no stipulation on when they'll be released or where they'll go.

Save for a brief window between 2008 and 2012, when Kevin Rudd dismantled the Pacific Solution, only for it to be reintroduced by Julia Gillard, the two major parties have been locked in step on offshore policy.

But still the question remains: why are both sides so keen on keeping asylum seekers in offshore camps?

WATCH: VICE breaks down Australia's offshore detention policy.

A big reason is marginal seats and this election in particular hinges on a number of tightly contested areas. More than a third of these swing seats are in NSW, specifically in Western Sydney and on the NSW north coast. Each of these seats are important to the two major parties, but some more so than others.


Let's zero in on Lindsay, which is a bellwether seat at the foot of the Blue Mountains—meaning that historically, the party that wins Lindsay almost always wins government. This electorate is so important that in 2010 the Labor party's then-national secretary, Karl Bitar, demanded that every proposed policy pass a "Lindsay test." If it doesn't resonate in Lindsay, it doesn't stick.

So how do we know that border protection is a big issue in Lindsay? Well, the parties are very guarded about their research in these marginals; however, those who've seen internal polling say it's very clear these policies are targeting ingrained economic anxiety and xenophobia in key seats.

This plays out in stunts like Julia Gillard dragging Lindsay's local MP David Bradbury on a bizarre 2010 "border protection tour" in Darwin. Not only were they 4,000 kilometres away from Bradbury's electorate, but Lindsay is also a completely landlocked seat.

However, it's taxpayer money from all Australians, not just those living in marginal seats that are paying to keep offshore centres open. And it's not cheap to run what is "the most restrictive immigration control regime in the world," according to costs unearthed by the Global Detention Project.

Each year, Australians are spending at least $1.1 billion a year to house just 1,373 refugees and asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island. It would actually be cheaper to get everybody in these camps their own room at a 5-star hotel in Sydney, complete with views of the Opera House.

But next time you're wondering why both major parties are so hung up on mistreating refugees, remember, you're probably not the type of voter for whom "stopping the boats" is a priority.

Politicians don't necessarily believe Australians are convinced by this rhetoric, but unfortunately elements of our political system mean that some votes—and in this case, votes from Australia's most xenophobic seats—are more important than others. And ultimately, it's seats like Lindsay that will decide the election.

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