Is Australia blowing its chance at greatness?

Below is a speech delivered to Australian MPs and policy makers, Canberra, November 2011.Australia’s refugee policy: a mix of policy and sticks needed.

Australia’s refugee policy: a mix of policy and sticks needed.

Subtitle: is refugee policy the last of Gillard’s negative?

Before I begin my presentation tonight I must make one thing clear. Whilst I am the CEO of the Committee for Melbourne, I speak tonight not so much in that capacity.

Rather, I speak in a personal capacity based on both my background as an international lawyer and of having worked for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and other agencies in some of the world’s most atrocious of circumstances.

Two of the greatest threats we have in this country today are ignorance and fear. Ignorance of change that will naturally happen, and fear of that very same change. Globalisation, population, demographic changes and continued multiculturalism a visible components in this ongoing change.

Fear of this change can manifest itself in many ways with some of the fear manifested in our refugee debate.

Conversely the greatest opportunities for Australia derive from us being informed and hopeful. Informed about the opportunities the future brings, and hopeful about the change that will result.

If I were PM I would want Australians ‘informed and hopeful’ even more than ‘relaxed and comfortable’. I would certainly want them to be ‘informed and hopeful’ rather than ‘ignorant and fearful’.

Surely this is the great challenge for leadership in this country – to lead on hope, not lead on fear? It is a sad truism in politics that it is easier to preach fear, hatred and intolerance, on one hand, than it is to preach compassion understanding and tolerance on the other.

Our leaders’ challenge is to break that truism and the challenge exists equally for PM, Opposition leader and minor parties. Whilst we have seen the PM’s narrative turn positive in many areas, although sadly not on asylum issues, the same change is yet to start in the camp of the Opposition Leader.

I want Australians to be informed and hopeful around all issues, but particularly around asylum seekers and refugees.

All here can mount an argument about the horrors faced by refugees and why Australia should do the right thing in accepting refugees. But it is an argument that sadly lacks traction in today’s Australia.

The argument for humanity lacks traction in Australia because we allowed some sectors of our community to take the fear I referred to, and turn it into hatred.

A little over ten years ago a former member of this place legitimised hatred by allowing the genie of fear to poke her head above the rim. Hanson’s maiden speech was that moment.

As a community, we failed to stop the genie leaving the bottle when we were tempted with the Tampa.

The time has come for us to fight the genie.

I wish the stories from my own background could sway the people of Australia away from the fear and hate that permeate some of the most extreme anti-refugee arguments.

I have seen the horrors of war. With every breath I take I smell the scent of death. In Ntarama prison south of Kigali in Rwanda I saw 5,500 rotting human corpses – all the victims of the genocide. The smell of that never leaves me. It is a scent so close to that of love with musky undertones yet the odour physically burns the back of your nostrils to tell you it is not love but death.

I have seen the worst from which people can run. I have seen what happens when people die.

I met a small girl named Maria, only 12 years old. She had fled Bosnia across the border into a small village named Sombor in northern Serbia. Whatever had happened to her during the conflict, whatever she had seen whilst her parents were killed it caused her to mentally close. She didn’t laugh, she didn’t cry, she didn’t speak.

One time, whilst visiting her orphanage, we had a summer camp. All the other children were dancing around the camp fires, playing, laughing, smiling. All except Maria. She sat under a tree eyes glaze over, thought to herself, and in no way communicating with any child. At that moment she stood up and walked over, sat next to me, per head on my shoulder and started to cry.

I have seen people after they run. I have seen the consequences when people do not die, but flee in fear.

I so wish that in mounting an argument based on the horrors faced by refugees I could and would convince the Australian population to be more sympathetic than we currently are. Sadly this is not the case.

That is why, somewhat reluctantly, tonight I’m going to mount an argument about why we should accept the refugees: not from the perspective of being the right thing to do, but from the perspective of it being in our own interests.

There may be someone from a small L liberal background, and even some from a large L Liberal background, who were uncomfortable with the notion that we should be looking to our interests, and not merely the right thing to do, as a reason for accepting refugees.

I also am uncomfortable. But today we need to change the dialogue into one that changes the framing of the debate from the sense of preventative negative, to one of opportunity and positive.

We all like to give gifts. I hope that everyone in this room gained some pleasure when seeing the smiles on other people’s faces after you’ve given them a gift they really wanted. It makes us all feel good. It is only human.

Allow me to play a short excerpt for a program on Radio National recently played. It tells the story of Dina and Zac, to refugees who fled Bosnia during the war, arriving many years later in Perth. The first voice you will hear is the daughter.

(Play excerpt from Dina and Zac, see starting at 32:55).

Listen to the emotion in Dina’s voice. Is it not in our interest to cause of that amount of pleasure for other people? Is it not enough that we have welcoming hearts because of the feeling that it will give us?

Sadly, I think not even that argument would win the day in Australia today.

So let me take another tack. Think of our recent beef export ban. Rather than Australia complaining about the way Indonesia kills its beasts, why don’t we expand our own Halal export industry? Australia already exports Halal beef to 40 neighbouring countries in trade worth over $600 million a year annually. Why don’t we work closer with Indonesia to maximise the great benefit we have from the Islamic community in Australia to expand our own Halal will export industry?

Wouldn’t this be a new thought in the Australian public dialogue?

Isn’t it a new thought if we begin to think of our multicultural population as an asset not a threat? Isn’t it a new thought to look at our Islamic community as an additional benefit for trade not just culture? Why is it that in Australia when we think of our multicultural population more often than not as the ‘Alan Jones threat’, not the ‘trade opportunity’?

In how many other ways is Australia not maximising the benefit from its multicultural population, seeing people from other cultures as an additional benefit not an additional burden?

You see, in Australia we have a great once in a multigenerational opportunity to be the hinge point between the Anglo-Saxon world on one hand, and the Asian/Islamic world on the other.

For the first time in our history a country is in the ideal future time zone. The first time in history our country is ideally geographically placed.

We all know this though. We speak about this now as if it is our birthright.

But have we thought that to maximise this opportunity we also need to be seen as the ideal cultural mix? Have we realised that to maximise this opportunity we need to be trusted by all in the region, all those in the old world and all those in the new?

And how are we marketing ourselves?

Let’s look at international education. So far in 2011 we have seen a drop of 23,000 international students in the Australian economy. We are predicted to lose up to 75,000 international students by 2015. International education is a bigger export earner to the Australian economy than wheat, beef, gold, or gas.

Education is so important to our economy that access economics estimates that for every two international students in our economy we at one additional Australian job. Losing 75,000 international students therefore is losing 37,500 Australian jobs.

When we look at the market surveys of major universities that are members of Committee for Melbourne we see the dollar has minimal impact on the downturn. We see that visa changes have made a small impact to the high quality education product and an appropriate large impact on the low quality education product. But a third and more depressing element has been a major contributor to the downturn.

It is our reputation. But it is not our reputation on violence, it is a reputation from our debate.

As Glenn Withers from Universities Australia has said “the way we are conducting the refugee population and immigration debate is creating an impression that we are unwelcoming to students and unwelcoming to visitors”.

I believe the impression that we are an unwelcoming country is wrong, but it is a perception that is real and people make their decisions based on perceptions.

I ask you this: if this impression that we are an unwelcoming country is being felt in the education sector would it not be naive to think that it is also not being felt in tourism?

Surely, regardless of whether you think Australia should accept more or less refugees, regardless of the method by which you think they should or should not be accepted, surely everyone in Australia can agree that if the way we are currently conducting the debate is causing us brand image harm, then we must urgently rectify that brand image harm.

Regardless of what we think about asylum seekers and refugees, we must create a dialogue of positivity, a dialogue of optimism, a choice of hope and an impression of Australia that we are an optimistic, forward-looking, partner for our regional future. For those of you in this room who are policymakers I beseech you to make this narrative positive.

I also ask you to create a framework around which the Australian people can judge alternative policies.

Asylum policy must be designed to enhance not detract from Australia’s reputation, and contain within it the carrots and sticks necessary for an orderly and humane treatment of asylum seekers.

Whatever policy follows on from the recent parliamentary stalemate, it should have three objectives.

  • One, improve the conditions for asylum seekers – both those who arrive and those who are waiting in legitimate processing centres off-shore.
  • Two, satisfy the reasonable concerns around protection of Australian boarders.
  • Three, enhance not detract from Australia’s reputation.

I believe this to be a good framework to conduct public dialogue around policy alternatives in Australia. I believe Australians are a smart people. I believe they thirst for knowledge. I believe they are wise enough to be taken into a discussion about a very complicated issue.

The issues around asylum and refugees are complicated. They are too complicated to be summarised in soundbites.

It does Australian no good and gives no respect to the Australian people to simply say “stop the boats”.

But nor does it do any good and gives no respect to the Australian people, to simply say “let them land”.

Any policy that in any way encourages people to hop on leaky boats, risk a dangerous voyage, with a high likelihood of death, is a bad policy.

In addition, whilst I readily admit that there is no queue in Kabul, there is a legitimate queue in countries like Malaysia and Indonesia.

I firmly believe that any policy must have as its heart to make a regional solution on processing and resettlement work. If we create a genuine and realistic path to durable resettlement issues, then we have a ‘carrot’.

Only with a ‘carrot’ can we with some humanity create a policy ‘stick’ for those hopping on boats.

I believe both the labour and Liberal party policies do not satisfy bullet points number one and three. I do not think either of these political parties currently has a policy that thinks of either the best interests of asylum seekers nor of the reputation of Australia.

I believe that the policies of the Greens don’t satisfy bullet points one or two.

Those of you from the Greens may be surprised to hear that I don’t think the policy has the best interest of asylum seekers in mind, but I say it not because you do not intend to be humanitarian, but I do believe that your policies would encourage too high a number of people to take a chance on a risky voyage that has too high a likelihood of death.

Getting on boats is not the most humane way to come to Australia – in fact it is quite the opposite. We should not let asylum seekers land in Australia, not because of a fear, but because we would want them to come by a better route. We need to construct that better route, and we need to construct it with our regional partners.

The correct forum for the policy debate


The asylum issue is a regional issue and therefore must be solved regionally. Currently the regional burden is being handled mainly by Malaysia and Indonesia. Malaysia currently has over 200,000 refugees, asylum seekers and ‘persons of concern’ listed by UNHCR, Australia has only 25,000. Australia needs to step up to the plate, take a fair share and need to do so from a regional perspective.

The Bali Process, and the Regional Cooperation Framework it created, is a good start to regionally discuss the plethora of complicated issues from trafficking, to law enforcement and durable solutions for asylum seekers. The Australian government should be congratulated for positively engaging in that forum. This forum could be used more to search for lasting solutions on resettlement and those resettlement issues should be the main focus of Australia’s involvement, not location of processing.

The key driver of people smuggling


Currently in Indonesia and Malaysia, refugees assessed as genuine, who pass health and security checks still have to wait for many years for resettlement. If people have passed through health and security checks, and have been assessed as a genuine refugee, why should they wait?

This long wait causes a perception that there is no legitimate and genuine path to resettlement, hence people take the desperate act of getting on boats.

The deep flaw in the current asylum debate is that it is focussed on only one aspect: Processing. The location of processing – Australia, Malaysia or Nauru – is the wrong issue. The lack of rapid Refugee resettlement post processing in whatever location, not refugee processing itself, is the driver of the people smugglers trade. Speedy resettlement must therefore be the focus of regional response.

If there is a legitimate and speedy path to resettlement and stop the current long delays in resettlement post processing, we stop the market. If we stop the market, we stop the boats. If we stop the boats, we stop the deaths.

Policy Carrots and Sticks.



Giving a realistic route to resettlement is the key to stopping the boats. Policy drivers must stop people hopping on boats in the first place. Turning boats around is too late.

The alternative path:

A regional treaty should be negotiated that would define an asylum seeker as ‘arrived in the region’ when they land in the county of first arrival by whatever means, land sea or boat – most often Malaysia or Indonesia. Each regional country should agree to bear a fixed percentage of the burden of refugees, with this burden including:

  • a percentage of the cost share of processing
  • a cost share of repatriation of the non genuine, and
  • a fixed percentage of automatic acceptances and immediate resettlement of genuinely assessed refugees.

Asylum seekers would be assessed in country of first arrival with health and security checks undertaken as part of refugee assessment overseen by UNHCR in the country of arrival. If accepted as genuine refugees these people should be resettled immediately to whichever of the regional countries is under-quota on refugee acceptances with appropriate visas to allow work, education and genuine resettlement.

Refugees would not choose which country they are resettled in. They would be resettled in whichever country is next in line to accept refugees according to the resettlement percentages.

  1. Sticks


Should an asylum seeker elect not to use the path above, and still seek to come to Australia by boat, they would be processed on shore, but only be entitled to limited TPV style limited visas. This would act as a deterrent.

The balance of carrots and sticks.


A genuine regional solution like the above, if agreed, would take away the market for people smugglers as it would give a genuine alternative path to resettlement with the removal of the delay in resettlement. It would stop the boats.

If agreed the above policy would allow Australia to take a genuine regional approach and allow Australia to take its fair share of genuine refugees in a controlled, humane and dignified manner.

The policy would also remove the fear of terrorism as refugees would have been assessed for  health and security.

This would not act as a ‘pull factor’ to Australia as refugees would be in a lottery for resettlement options, but would still be escaping the persecution that the refugee convention is designed to provide.

Conducting negotiations around resettlement would really break the people smugglers business model. Conducting negotiations around resettlement would allow us to frame a dialogue in Australia about what we believe is our “fair share”.

Most Australians agree that this country should accept its “fair share” of genuine refugees, without ever having had a genuine national dialogue about what we believe our fair share of the many millions of refugees and asylum seekers actually is.

That would make for a very interesting national dialogue don’t you think?

So for those of you in this room who are policymakers I would suggest three things:

  • We must urgently change our national narrative from one based on negative to one based on positive. I’m sure many here would agree that this applies not just to asylum and refugee policy, but to a whole raft of policies. Our current national debate does asked no good. Our current national debate is causing us brand image harm. Our current national debate is setting us up to be the future regional cringe not the future regional hinge.

We must urgently change this national dialogue if we are to grasp the opportunity that our nation is being offered for the first time in many generations, and an opportunity that will last for many generations for us to be that hinge point between the Anglo-Saxon world on one hand and the Asian and Islamic world on the other. But we can only do that if we are trusted by all sides, and as the education industry shows right now we are creating an impression that one side of that opportunity will not tolerate.

  • Secondly, we must change our dialogue on asylum from that of location of processing to how we handle resettlement regardless of where that processing takes place. Any discussion on resettlement must be handled regionally and the Bali process is a good place for that to start.
  • Thirdly, it is in my view no longer good enough policymakers to say “I am quietly raising these issues within my party room but I cannot speak out in public”. Because this issue is an issue that is move beyond that of boats, because it is an issue that has moved beyond that of even people, because it is an issue that has become one about the “content of our national character”, it is no longer good enough to quietly change things from the inside if they are yielding so painfully to change. You must speak out publicly.

Australia is a good country. It is a nation of well meaning people. It is a nation of people with a good heart. But it is a truism in a democracy that if you have the chance of preaching fear hatred and intolerance on one hand and compassion togetherness and understanding on the other, fear hatred and intolerance wins almost all the time. This is that reason that we believe people like Nelson Mandela are rare, precisely because they chose the difficult task of preaching compassion togetherness and understanding.

I believe for this country Tampa was a turning point. I believe Tampa was the time that we legitimised fear as a genuine political tactic in our country.

We urgently must work to put the genie back in the bottle, we must reverse our national psyche of negativity and create a dialogue of the positive for after all, that is what this country should be.

We have a lot of fear in our country, but what is not fear, is hope.

For those of you in this room who are policymakers it is up to you to determine the future for our country, it is up to you to determine whether we will or will not grasp this multigenerational opportunity of hope.

People like me will help but at the end of the day – it is up to you.

Your view is welcome. Please comment here.

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