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An Agenda of Politicisation: Australian Migration Policy Developments

Updated on August 31, 2017
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Lawyer, research/writer and social activist, working alongside many Australian and international non-profit third sector society orgs.

Public Perception

The past seventeen years of Australian immigration policy leaves a trail of turning points that have shaped our national position from conservative protectionism to wanton disregard for human life, circumvention of law and political fear-mongering inspired cruelty. A 2016 Lowy Institute poll found that Australian public support for ‘turn back the boats’ policies remains staggeringly high at 63 per cent.

Blatant politicization of immigration issues, both foreign and domestic, have done nothing for beneficial development of measures to handle symptomatic issues of mass migration and have only benefited officials in acquiring gains at the polls.



Aptly coined ‘the boat that started it all’, the 2001 Tampa affair instigated widespread international backlash, yet gained huge support from the Australian public.

Following abysmal voter approval ratings due to political issues prior to 2001, then Howard Government’s approach to Tampa single-handedly won the Coalition the upcoming election, with polling support skyrocketing to 90 per cent.

Prominent Australian barrister and human rights advocate Julian Burnside AO QC described the government’s attempt to capitalize on the mood of the time following 9/11, the Bali bombings and Tampa, by sending terror ‘care packages’ to every single Australian household. The care package contained a fridge magnet - nice touch - and a letter from the Coalition reinforcing their commitment to ‘national security’.

Oh, the rhetoric

The unashamed fear mongering continued by Howard himself during a campaign speech in Sydney shortly after Tampa, leveraging off unsettled public sentiments following 9/11 and rallying further public support for tightened policies restricting immigration.

Similarities were observed more recently in 2015. In the wake of the Paris terror attacks journalist and The Australian’s foreign editor Greg Sheridan, along with mainstream media, flouted the sentiment that Paris signaled a threat from the Muslim community against the entire Western civilization.

Despite the commentary’s far-reaching implications this message was publicly internalized. 2015 was also the year of the Australian Border Force’s failed ‘terror deterrence’ Operation Fortitude. Fortunately, the public realized this unwarranted, discriminatory practice and protested for its closure.


Rhetoric continued

Again the same was seen in 2017 following the London terror attacks in July. Both Foreign Minister Bishop and Prime Minister Turnbull labeled the incident akin to Paris, once again lumping the entire Muslim community in association with extremism, warning that Australia should be fearful, as our risk of terrorism “has never been greater.”

The last weekend of July’s suspected foiled terror plot at Sydney airport has fanned political flames more. Official reports from both ASIO and the NSW Crime Commission investigation into the incident are yet to be revealed in full detail. However, divisive public attitudes have already risen to fever temperature with calls for the deportation of Muslims, continued support for restrictive immigration policies and racially motivated commentary makings its rounds.

Although quick to speak when playing the good cop, the government has much less to say, officially, when they’ve been put on notice for their questionable policies and practices.

Check, Raise, Call

The Australian government, whether Liberal or Labor, have received consistent international admonishment from various bodies such as the UNHCR for being in breach of the 1951 Refugee Convention, 1967 Refugee Convention Protocol and other relevant treaty’s. Diplomatic tensions with several sovereign nations have also risen, as others pull above their weight of refugee intake, anchored in principles of international burden sharing obligations, as Australia passes our share off on developing countries.

Domestic institutions have also spotlighted the government for years. Most emphatically by the Australian Human Rights Commission and High Court, ruling on the illegality of the failed Pacific Solution under Howard, Pacific Solution reform under Rudd, Malaysian Solution under Gillard, Cambodia Solution under Abbott and now the U.S/Australia refugee swap deal under Turnbull.

The latter also blatantly misrepresented as a ‘one-off’ agreement with the U.S, ensuring Australia’s compliance pending the closure of Nauru detention camps, despite a very similar agreement being struck back in 2007.

Politicking: Howard 2001 Election Campaign - "We Will Decide Who Comes"


Whether these failed attempts at resolving symptomatic issues of immigration do accurately reflect the Australian majority’s position on the issue or not, the cause and effect ramifications of what we’re doing remains severely uncomfortable.

It is very difficult to justify the atrocities resulting from: lack legal and medical assistance, abusive and exploitative environments of off-shore detention centers, creation of situations that incite hundreds of deaths at sea, irregular deaths in detention, self-immolation, forced return to the original country of persecution and thousands left living a life in limbo in Australia and elsewhere.

The pattern of our political history has made apparent that if we’re going to comprehensively re-adjust Australia’s immigration policies, it will require large public support and a shift in perspectives regarding the issues. Starting with acknowledging the fact that immigration is an election winning or losing ticket and any political rhetoric concerning such comprises agenda’s that have much less to do with ‘national security’ than is proclaimed.


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