Bill Shorten’s about-face on Wentworth MP Kerryn Phelp’s so-called ‘Medivac’ bill suggested that the penny had dropped and he had woken up to the importance of border protection to the Australian electorate.
He appeared to have realised it was electoral poison to show support for legislation that would restrict the immigration minister from denying entry to Australia to many convicted criminals simply on the say-so of a pair of doctors.
Shorten’s proposed amendments did not go far enough. But the Labor left was determined to overturn our border security arrangements — and shred the Opposition Leader’s credibility on border protection in the process.
Hence Shorten’s best hope of salvation now may be if the High Court agrees with Solicitor General’s advice that the bill is unconstitutional.
What the supporters of ‘Medivac’, which will hand doctors the power to transfer offshore-detained asylum seekers into Australia for medical reasons, are ignoring are mainstream attitudes to immigration and border security.
They are not only dangerously deluded about the politics of border protection, but also about weakening our current system.
Some see this attempt to soften our mandatory detention and offshore processing policies as reflecting the ‘progressive’ views of Phelp’s wealthy inner city electorate.
Or another alleged example of how divided so-called ‘elite’ and ordinary Australians are over border protection.
But the evidence shows there is strong support for border protection across the alleged divide, despite polarising rhetoric of the lobbying group for doctors which revealed its naked opposition to Australia’s offshore processing regime.
This was dramatically illustrated by the statements made on Monday by a member of the Australian Medical Association’s federal council, Dr Paul Bauert, who suggested that people in detention on Nauru are worse off than those who were destined for Nazi extermination camps in World War II.
But Centre for Independent Studies polling conducted late last year showed that a majority of Australians in both wealthy and poorer postcodes are not divided over this border protection.
The polling found 58 per cent of people who live in rich suburbs and 67 per cent who live in poor suburbs support maintaining the strong ‘boat-stopping’ border protection policies — regardless of whether the Coalition or Labor wins the next federal election.
By undermining Australia’s strong border protection regime, the Medivac arrangements threaten not to reduce the numbers of people held in offshore detention but to ultimately lead to more asylum seekers living in limbo on Manus Island and Nauru.
According to leaked advice provided by the Department of Home Affairs, this will create a powerful new incentive and quickly lead to the return of the boats.
Asylum seekers will be encouraged to hand over thousands of dollars to people smugglers in the belief that getting to Australia will only require a short stay in offshore detention until a medical transfer is arranged to the mainland. Once here, they can then take legal action to stay permanently.
But when the boats return, it is certain that the government will come under enormous political pressure to secure the border.
If the medical transfer loophole has then to be closed, asylum seekers who have already come by boat will be trapped indefinitely in detention.
This will repeat the tragic history of what happened after the 2007 election.
When Labor weakened the border protection measures put in place by the Howard Government, the people smuggling trade resumed.
This led to 1200 deaths at sea, saw the arrival of 50,000 people by boat, and the numbers of people detained offshore soared.
Australians remember the calamities that occurred once our borders were weakened during the Rudd-Gillard era, hence there is a strong desire in the community to avoid repeating those events.
The political fallout created by the loss of border control significantly contributed to Tony Abbott’s landslide victory in the 2013 election, and gave his government the mandate to launch the successful Operation Sovereign Borders initiative that solved the people smuggling problem.
What Medivac’s supporters simply don’t seem to understand, or accept, is the clear political message the Australian people have repeatedly sent to politicians about border protection.
Since the 2001 ‘Tampa’ election, that message has been that they want the government to control the border, and ensure that — in the famous words of John Howard — “we will decide who comes to this country, and the circumstances in which they come”.
The past 20 years has shown that responding to community attitudes to border protection is the key to building — and retaining public support for — a large, legal, non-discriminatory immigration intake and a generous and orderly humanitarian refugee program.
For as even former Wentworth MP and prime minister Malcolm Turnbull has acknowledged, public support for immigration has been predicated on the maintenance of border security.
Hence, the best way to ensure continued support for immigration would be for all politicians to uphold the strong border protection policies that are resoundingly supported by mainstream Australia.
Jeremy Sammut is a Senior Research Fellow, and Monica Wilkie is a Policy Analyst at The Centre for Independent Studies. Their report, Australians Attitude to Immigration: Coming Apart or Common Ground, was published last November.
29 March 2019 | Ideas@TheCentre
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