Stop using the public service as political tools


Government bureaucratic advice that more boat arrivals would cause social unrest similar to the UK riots is both wrong and unacceptable public service behaviour.

The political views of the ALP Government can be ill informed but asking or permitting senior public servants to brief politicians and the public along these lines moves well beyond their role of offering frank and fair advice. Interestingly Wayne Swan this morning on Radio National breakfast avoided endorsing this view! And now they seem to be denying it happened.

The level of cover the story received in the media suggests a range of unhealthy views throughout the various power players!! It raises issues of whether this issue be resolved fairly.


An assumption that higher numbers of on-shore processing of refugee/asylum seekers would make any contributions to public disturbances is an absurd and alarmist claim.

I have a dual basis for commenting on this issue. I am a sociologist with a particular interest in issues of social cohesion and put social capital as social glue onto the public agenda in Australia in my 1995 ABC Boyer Lectures on a Truly Civil Society, and I am an ex refugee.

I was able to migrate to Australia in 1948 because Arthur Caldwell and the Chifley Government ignored public opinion polls that clearly stated that Jewish displaced people were not welcome, as we would undermine Australian life. They offered political leadership and courage that is singularly lacking today.

The rhetoric has changed but residual public fears of some strangers are still there to be tapped. Instead of clearly racialised prejudice, the campaigns against those arriving by boat use terms like 'queue jumpers' and 'illegals' to feed the fears of the public.

The politics of both major parties are adding in a law-and-order focus on 'people smugglers' to earlier implication of alien terror and threat. This takes the focus off the actual asylum seeker and onto images of rejecting greed and money rather than desperate people.

The result has created divides in the community, as some groups keep the focus on compassion and rights while others play on greed, order and vague undefined prejudice and fears.

This toxic change of direction in the briefing the Opposition leader designed is to show the 'dangers' of his rejection of the Malaysian option. Riots in the street are ridiculous as we have over 150,000 thousands of new migrants who arrive each year. Why would a few thousand more create social disturbances?

Even if the government let out the thousands in detention and doubled their numbers, the communities would hardly notice them unless the government and opposition cynically continue to foment anti-asylum seeker feelings for political advantages.

It already costs us too much to detain people. It is economically irrational to spend $123,000 per asylum seeker each year in detention centres where we damage the physical and mental health of many who we later accept.

The Australian reports: 'The government's advice is that people-smugglers celebrated the High Court decision and are actively recruiting customers. It also suggests that a regime limited exclusively to onshore processing could lead to about 600 boat people arriving in Australian waters every month, and within a year the detention network would be overwhelmed. Asylum-seekers would inevitably end up in the community, and would most likely be treated as second-class citizens, triggering the possibility of Australia experiencing European-style disharmony.'

I agree with refugee advocate David Manne, who said last night there was no evidence to substantiate the claims in the advice to the government.

"They . . . are unsubstantiated and irresponsible claims which are only likely to demonise people and to fuel hostility in betrayal of this rich history in this country of helping people and welcoming people in humanitarian need," Mr Manne told ABC's Lateline.

There are many views on what is causing popular unrest and riots in the UK and elsewhere in Europe but no one claims it is the many more asylum seekers they have.

There are difficult economic conditions and social tension's being exploited by minority right wing parties is adding to nationalism and other forms of prejudice. However, in no other country are both the Government and the Opposition exacerbating the fears by running policies that imply non existent threats to social cohesion.

The solutions to the boat arrival's lie in providing alternative ways of processing those who are seeking a safe place to stay, where they can work and live normally. This strategy should however NOT involve swapping some types of arrivals for others as this reduces people to impersonal pawns in a bigger political game. It also ignores evidence that desperate people do not make rational business decisions, they will continue to risk death or rejection to pursue outside difficult possibilities.

Were the Australian government to work on a regional processing system that created real queues for those wanting to settle here, and doubled its numbers of refugee settlers, it would undermine the 'market' for boat passages.

Our public servant's could plan diverse solutions and not implement crude political prejudices for the poll advantages. For instance, by setting up Malaysia and Indonesia based immigration queues, we may fill other areas of labour needs.

How many asylum seekers and potential refugees also have skills as potential aged care workers and miners? The extra immigrants can create the benefits we gained from the many post-war arrivals that many did not want, including me!