A self-imposed trap

DR TOM VOSNER is a maritime archaeologist who lived and worked in the Middle East for decades. In this week’s THINKING ALLOWED he discusses the plight of refugees trying to enter Australia.

WITH their obfuscation, disingenuous, misleading statements and outright falsehoods, government and opposition have long misled Australians in regard to asylum seekers and refugees.

Ever since the Tampa debacle, when John Howard fomented anti-refugee sentiment to save his own political skin, successive governments have followed his paradigm.

Australian governments have branded boat people as ‘illegal maritime arrivals’, tainting them with criminality before they even arrive.

It is in fact perfectly legal to seek asylum and to arrive by whatever means. We have been encouraged to believe they could be terrorists, that they are certainly bludgers.

This deliberate misinformation surrounding asylum seekers dispensed by government and opposition is a direct assault on democracy.

It is axiomatic that Australians cannot make informed decisions if they are not informed, or if they are misinformed.

So long have successive governments demonized asylum seekers, it is little wonder that a majority of Australians believe our refugee policies are right. But it is not right to impose indefinite degrading detention on innocent people for any reason, let alone for the expressed purposes of discouraging others to come, or saving lives at sea, or putting people smugglers out of business.

There are other ways of accomplishing all of these without imposing deliberate cruelty on innocent people who have already suffered much.

Stripping social benefits, limiting legal assistance, withholding medical treatment, separating families, imposing indefinite detention, fostering uncertainty and despair are all official policies our government imposes on asylum seekers and refugees.

A bit of transparency regarding refugee conditions and policy could go a long way.

Why is it so difficult to obtain accurate, truthful information about conditions on Manus and Nauru? Why is the government so reluctant to disclose information about asylum seeker policy?

Why does a journalist have to pay $8000 for a visa for Nauru; non-refundable if refused?

Why did the government feel the need for a law threatening staff on Manus and Nauru with two years’ imprisonment for simply telling the truth?

Even doctors, bound to a duty of care by their Hippocratic Oath, and common human decency, were muzzled.

Yes, the refugee problem is complex, seemingly intractable.

But with their obfuscation and misleading information government and opposition have painted themselves into a corner, have constructed their own rhetorical prison, their own paralysis of policy. In an episode of Yes, Prime Minister, Jim Hacker declared “I am their leader, I must follow them.”

Both our major parties emulate this philosophy.

It is time that government and opposition demonstrate some political courage and inspiring leadership in regard to refugees and asylum seekers.

It is time they stop demonizing refugees, start re-educating Australians to the truth and provide themselves with freedom to craft new policies.

And it is time they started serious dialogue with regional neighbours to create a fair and workable system of receiving and processing asylum seekers in a timely and humane fashion.

Then let Australians decide.

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