Limits

The Houston Report advises re-opening Nauru and Manus Island as off-shore processing centres for asylum seekers. From my point of view, that sucks. I try to be all love-your-neighbour, yo, and shipping your neighbour off to a tiny island – where they are to stay for an unknown period of time – is not real loving. How did such a sucky thing come to pass?

There were three people on the panel that produced the report: Angus Houston, a retired air force man; Professor Michael L’Estrange, an academic and public servant with a rightish bent; and Paris Aristotle, a man with the most awesome name ever but also the Director of the Victorian Foundation for Survivors of Torture. Mr Aristotle’s schtick is supporting and advocating for refugees.

When asked about the possibility of trauma in the new Nauru processing centre, Mr Aristotle compares the potential trauma of prolonged presence on Nauru to that of losing relatives at sea. Given that the rate of boats being lost at sea en route to Christmas Island has increased recently, this issue of asylum seekers dying at sea is a real concern, and the trade-off is potentially justified.

Alas, alack, we can explain all this without considering the trade-off. The panel was assembled to answer a question, and that question takes the form of their Terms of Reference for the report. The question they were asked, Numero Uno, their raison d’être: “how best to prevent asylum seekers risking their lives by travelling to Australia by boat”. Or, as Tony Abbott would put it: “Stop the Boats”. There were other things they were asked to write about:

  • source, transit and destination country aspects of irregular migration
  • relevant international obligations
  • the development of an inter-related set of proposals in support of asylum seeker issues, given Australia’s right to maintain it’s borders
  • short, medium and long term approaches to assist in the development of an effective and sustainable approach to asylum seekers
  • the legislative requirements for implementation
  • the order of magnitude of costs of such policy options

None of these things are the physical or mental well-being of asylum seekers. None of these things are about respecting and caring for vulnerable people looking to us in a time of need. These questions were not asked.

They are kind of between the lines. Our “relevant international obligations” include some treaties that bind us to a certain minimal level of not being a dick. Imposing irreparable psychological damage probably isn’t a sustainable approach to asylum seekers. The well-being of asylum seekers might be considered an “asylum seeker issue” for proposals to be in support of. But this is all implicit stuff, it doesn’t rate a mention in the terms of inquiry.

Compare and contrast this with the lead entry, the Stop the Boats priority. This requirement can be read out of the “inter-related set of proposals” requirement, the “effective … approach to asylum seekers” terms, and maybe even the “destination country aspects”. But to leave it hidden away in there would be to allow the report to come up with any answer at all. The answer that might perhaps buy Tony Abbott’s silence on the issue is off-shore processing, and so the question must focus on deterrence. And thus we asked the panel not to advise us on how to humanely and effectively treat asylum seekers in Australia, but on how to stop them coming.

Paris Aristotle never had a choice. He can be as hard-headed as he wants; he is bound by the terms of reference to answer the wrong question. He is bound to give an answer focused on stopping the boats. He may also think it a justified trade-off in the present circumstances, I don’t know. But it doesn’t matter. His job was to answer the question he was asked. He could have affected the details, but the overall thrust of the report? He never had a choice.

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