HE WAS the man who shut Nauru and ended temporary protection visas. He signed the papers that freed the final 90 detainees there – many of whom he was advised had been assessed as refugees but left on their island prison anyway – to let them begin new lives in Australia.
”I have no regrets about taking those decisions,” former immigration minister Chris Evans told The Sunday Age. ”They reflected the values that Australia wanted to see in its asylum policy. The changes were about restoring humanity to the system and reflecting Australian values of compassion that were not represented by the punitive Howard regime.”
It’s an analysis rejected by the Coalition, which argues Labor erred in removing the toughest elements of its policy from the Howard years.
After a week of emotive debate on asylum policy, ending in parliamentary gridlock, Senator Evans conceded he had concluded in recent years – with the rise in asylum seekers risking their lives at sea – that stronger deterrence was necessary. Last week, four people are believed to have died and 130 been saved after another boat sank on the way to Australia. ”There is a tension – and it’s a really difficult tension – between humane treatment and deterrence and we are all grappling with that,” Senator Evans said.
Senator Evans’ shift in thinking is shared by many from the broad left, who for years have vehemently opposed offshore processing. It has been an issue central to the ideological divide in Australia for more than a decade. Whether the shifting positions will be enough to yield formal compromise remains unclear. But the angst of those wrestling with their consciences, particularly on the left, is palpable.
”The reason that the issue is shifting for those on the liberal left is that the debate has been reframed,” says Paul Strangio, a senior politics lecturer at Monash University. ”Originally it was very much framed on issues of border protection and the liberal left has a lot of repugnance at the way John Howard and the Coalition framed that.
”But in recent times there exists an even more compelling issue: that is, the drowning of asylum seekers. The liberal left regarded the treatment of asylum seekers and offshore processing and mandatory detention as inhumane, but now this is an even more compelling question: it’s almost, which is the lesser of two evils?”
Chief among those calling for a resolution – and for some form of offshore processing – are the human rights activists George Newhouse and Julian Burnside. The former, who wants the Gillard government’s so-called Malaysia solution to be given a go, if temporarily, says he can no longer ”stomach the loss of life”; the latter proposes the processing of boat people claims in Indonesia, but with greater surety for people’s ultimate goal of settling in Australia.
While Tony Abbott and the Greens remain poles apart, the fluidity is touching Liberal and Labor political figures in the centre, and some who are recanting previous tougher lines.
Senator Evans argues Labor’s plan to send 800 asylum seekers who arrived by boat to Malaysia in return for settling 4000 genuine refugees is preferable to the opposition’s policy of reopening Nauru and keeping people indefinitely on temporary visas.
”People forget, but there was indefinite detention. There were TPVs. There was detention debts – where people were charged for their own detention so they had tens of thousands of dollars to pay off when they were finally made permanent residents. People were made to suffer for between three to five years,” he said.
When the Rudd government proposed its changes, Senator Evans said it was not advised that the number of people risking their lives at sea to seek asylum would increase dramatically. At the time, Labor was criticised by the left for continuing offshore processing by opening Christmas Island.
Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison scoffs at the analysis: ”Labor’s decision to turn the Coalition’s success on our borders into the unending nightmare of chaos, cost and tragedy that has marked their stewardship, was the product of their moral hubris, political incompetence and political denial on a grand scale.”
There is also angst among some on the Liberal side. The former Liberal MP Bruce Baird insisted last week it was time to take action, setting aside his previous opposition to the Malaysia refugee swap. With ”so many people dying in the water between Indonesia and Australia”, he added, ”I think it’s time that we said, ‘Well, look, let’s give this a trial and see what the result is’.”
Having himself issued a mea culpa of sorts in regard to the left’s intransigence on the boats issue, commentator Robert Manne has bowed to an imperfect solution. ”The idea of offshore processing for people who are genuinely sympathetic towards asylum seekers and refugees is very hard to swallow. It’s what I call the ‘least bad’ option.”
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