Praise with caveats

It’s a bit rich – and not very tactically savvy – to be putting the boot into Chris Bowen.

By Gary Scarrabelotti

Chris Bowen, Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, has copped a lot of flak this last week.

Led by his Opposition shadow, Scott Morrison, people have been saying — or sometimes not too discretely implying — that Bowen is guilty of “breathtaking hypocrisy”.

Bowen’s sin was to have introduced legislation into Parliament on October 31 “to excise the Australian mainland from the migration zone.”

That’s legal jargon for denying unauthorised arrivals on our shores the right to apply for a visa and to appeal to an Australian court.


The move is being made now — on the advice of the Houston committee, delivered in August this year — to shore up Labor’s belatedly adopted policy of processing illegal refugees offshore.  By “excising the mainland”, refugees who make a run for mainland and set foot here will not be able to claim a right for their refugee status to be assessed onshore.

ABC Lateline’s Tony Jones seemed to be in the Scott Morrison camp when he interviewed Bowen on October 31. Much to Jones’ irritation, he just could not get Bowen to admit that John Howard, who tried to introduce the same measure in 2006, “had been right all along.”  Funny about that – though, of course, Jones believes that Howard was wrong all along and that Labor now has betrayed the path of righteousness.

Anyway, forget Tony Jones and the ABC agenda.  I think it’s a bit rich — and not very tactically savvy — for Coalition spokesmen to be putting the boot into a Minister who is doing a good job and who has just re-introduced and developed the kind of national interest approach to vetting refugees that is long overdue.

In fact, if I were Scott Morrison — or Tony Abbott — I’d be praising Bowen, even if such praise must be hedged with caveats.  It would be neat way to begin shifting the Coalition from its now outworn posture of rigorist opposition to one of cultivating the demeanor of a government-in-waiting.   The challenge for Abbott is how to translate his recent statesmanlike dealings with Indonesia into domestic political language.  Putting an ungracious boot into Bowen just now is not the way to do it.

National interest

So, let’s forget about the fact that Bowen is a late convert to national interest thinking on refugee policy.  Let’s overlook, too, his reluctance to speak the language of national interest and to justify his policy in terms of saving lives. It’s neither his lateness in the day that matters, nor the rhetoric in which he chooses to clothe the policy.   It’s the substance.  The fact is that Bowen has gone over to the side of policy wisdom and has dragged his party, and his policy-dumb Leader, mentally exhausted after him.   It is Bowen – and not, importantly, Julia Gillard – who is responsible for implementing a policy on processing illegal refugees that, in certain respects, is an advance on what the Howard government achieved.

Bowen has gone over to the side of policy wisdom and has dragged his party, and his policy-dumb Leader,  mentally exhausted  after him.

Of course, sound policy measures have been taken only after destroying the Howard régime and, in the meantime, compromising our borders and national sovereignty.   But that, alas, is all too often the way.  It is part of the human condition that our advances are built upon a history of folly and failure.  Labor has now tacitly admitted its mistakes and, under Bowen’s leadership, has begun to repair the damage and to improve upon the system it inherited.

We should be grateful for that.

Tougher yet

A fully developed national interest refugee policy would be, by the way, even tougher than that which Bowen is now delivering.  As we have argued on this blog before, illegal arrivals should automatically forfeit the right to assessment and recognition by Australia as refugees. That means that illegal refugees would be interned, as a matter of course, in off-shore facilities with a view to their swiftest possible return to their country of origin.

That’s probably a bridge too far for a political class which has developed an over-sensitive respect for rights of entry into Australia that foreigners simply do not have. But we could ratchet up a notch the new toughness in our refugee policy by inserting in it a shrewdly designed act of grace for illegals.

Those that arrive without their passports, and other identifying documents, should be refused outright any consideration as refugees.  But those who arrive in our waters obligingly armed with the fullest array of identity documents could at least hope for a speedy offshore hearing and the shortest possible detention.

Next steps, Messrs Bowen and Abbott.

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