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Deterring the ‘Boat People’: Explaining the Australian Government's People Swap Response to Asylum Seekers



This article examines why Australia has taken a tough stance on ‘boat people’, through an analysis of the Malaysian People Swap response. The findings support the view that Australia’s asylum seeker policy agenda is driven by populism, wedge politics and a culture of control. The article further argues that these political pressures, in sum, hold numerous negative implications for the tone of Australia’s political debate, the quality of policy formulation, as well as for asylum seekers and refugees themselves.
Deterring the boat people: Explaining the
Australian governments People Swap response
to asylum seekers
University of Melbourne
University of Oxford
This article examines why Australia has taken a tough stance on boat people,
through an analysis of the Malaysian People Swap response. The ndings
support the view that populism, wedge politics and a culture of control drive
Australias asylum-seeker policy agenda. The article further argues that these
political pressures hold numerous negative implications for the tone of
Australias political debate and the quality of policy formulation, as well as for
asylum seekers and refugees themselves.
Keywords: asylum seekers; Australia; People Swap
Over the last two decades, the Australian government has taken an increasingly rm
stance towards asylum seekers who attempt to reach Australia by boat. One of the
most aggressive government responses to the increase in asylum seekers in recent
years was the Malaysian People Swap, formed through a bilateral agreement
signed on 25 July 2011 by Australia and Malaysia. Under this arrangement, the
rst 800 asylum seekers to arrive in Australia by boat were to be transferred to
Malaysia, in return for Australia accepting 4000 refugees from Malaysia. The
People Swap faced many obstacles. In August 2011, the High Court of Australia
declared the policy unlawful in a successful challenge launched on behalf of two
asylum seekers facing deportation under the arrangement on the basis that Malaysia
was not legally bound to provide the asylum seeker the protections required under
Australian law.
In response, Julia Gillards Labor government twice attempted to
pass legislative amendments in September 2011, and in June 2012 to circumvent
Jaffa McKenzie is based in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne.
Reza Hasmath is a Lecturer in the School of Interdisciplinary Area Studies, University of Oxford.
Plaintiff M70/2011 v Minister for Immigration and Citizenship;Plaintiff M106 of 2011 v Minister for
Immigration and Citizenship. (2011). HCA 32.
Australian Journal of Political Science, 2013
Vol. 48, No. 4, 417430,
© 2013 Australian Political Studies Association
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the High Court ruling, and allow for the implementation of the People Swap. Despite
the concerted efforts of the government, on both occasions it was unsuccessful.
To contextualise the People Swap response, we can trace four waves of boat
people(or irregular maritime arrivals, as they are formally known). The rst
waveof arrivals, from 1976 to 1981, was a relatively small cohort who came
mainly from Vietnam. The Australian public initially received this wave with
empathy, but a negative public reaction to the small numbers of boat peoplesoon
began to grow. As the number of arrivals increased from 1989 to 1998, a greater fre-
quency of detention over longer periods accompanied the second wave.
The issue of
boat arrivals heightened even further during the third wave (19992001), which saw a
signicant increase in asylum seekers and was met with a stronger government
response, characterised by the Tampa affair and the subsequent Pacic Solution
(Betts 2001; Phillips and Spinks 2013).
The Tampa affair began in August 2001 when the Howard government refused the
Norwegian-registered MV Tampa permission to dock on the Australian territory of
Christmas Island after it rescued a sinking boat of asylum seekers at Australias
request. A standoff ensued over the following days, until the government
implemented a policy commonly known as the Pacic Solution. The Pacic Sol-
ution encompassed three key features.
First, the government excised certain territories notably Christmas Island, Cocos
Island and Ashmore Reef from Australias migration zone, so that asylum seekers
landing on these islands could not apply to Australia for refugee status. Second, the
government granted the navy to interdict asylum seekers heading to Australia by
boat. Third, it agreed with Nauru and Papua New Guinea (PNG) to establish deten-
tion centres for the processing of asylum seekers, thus establishing Australias system
of offshore processing. Furthermore, this period witnessed the introduction of tem-
porary protection visas (TPVs), granting up to three years for those unauthorised
asylum seekers who were found to be genuine refugees. After 2001, the number of
asylum seekers arriving by boat dropped dramatically, with one person arriving in
2002, and an average of 57 people each year until Kevin Rudds Labor government
was elected in 2007.
In 2008, the Rudd government honoured its election promise to take a more
humane approach to asylum seekers and dismantle the Pacic Solution and TPVs.
Another spike in asylum seekers followed, and the fourth wave (2009 to the
present) of arrivals commenced: 2726 people arrived on 60 boats in 2009, a record
6555 came on 134 boats in 2010 and 4565 arrived on 69 boats in 2011 (Phillips
and Spinks 2013).
This period provoked a clear toughening of Labor Party policy and political
discourse on asylum seekers, a shift on which this article focuses. Addressing
the relative rise in boat arrivals on Australias shores soon became a policy
imperative for parties on both sides of Australias politics, Labor as well as the
Under the Migration Amendment Act 1992 the Keating Labor government introduced mandatory immi-
gration detention for asylum seekers arriving by boat. Prior to this, unauthorised boat arrivals were held
in detention on a discretionary basis (Phillips and Spinks 2013: 12).
There is a correlation between the asylum-seeker boat arrivals and Australian government policy, but
the question of causation remains unclear. The debate over whether pushor pullfactors have driven
the number of asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat is beyond the scope of this article.
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In particular, deterring the boat peoplefeatured heavily in the 2010 elec-
tion, which was preceded by the ousting of Kevin Rudd as prime minister, delivered a
hung parliament and resulted in Julia Gillard leading a Labor minority government. In
a speech at the Lowy Institute, Gillard urged voters to discuss the factson asylum
seekers, yet she also reassured the public that it is wrong to label people who have
concerns about unauthorised arrivals as rednecks”’, because expressing a desire for
a clear and rm policy to deal with a very difcult problem does not make you a
racist(Gillard 2010). Mimicking the Pacic Solution, Gillard announced plans to
open a regional processing centrein East Timor,
providing the justication that
East Timor was signatory to the Refugee Convention (Gillard 2010). As
Megalogenis states, Labor governed by the conservative populist manual, [ ]
was cowed by Howard, and captured by the polls(2010: 42).
Against this backdrop, and using qualitative and quantitative content analysis
, this
article analyses the main explanatory variables that inuenced the formation of the
People Swap policy. We do so by categorising primary-source data into relevant emer-
gent themes or statements in order to identify explanations or themes that account for
government action. Where appropriate, we count words and concepts as a method to
identify patterns and trends. We gathered data until saturation was achieved, and we
used four primary sources: media releases, press conferences, House of Representa-
tives legislative debates and Question Time from 7 May 2011, when the People
Swap was rst announced, until 28 June 2012, with the governmentsnal attempt
to legislate the policy. The primary-source data include the transcripts of four govern-
ment media releases, 10 press conferences, 2 parliamentary debates (each lasting over
ve hours) and 102 questions and responses relating to asylum seekers during Question
Time. In preview, we suggest that three factors inuenced the formation of the People
Swap response: populist appeal; wedge politics and a culture of control.
Populist appeal
Populism is an elusive idea that has proved notoriously difcult to dene, but at its
core populism involves vague appeals to the peopleand an anti-elitistsentiment
(Canovan 1981: 294). For Hindess and Sawer, populist public discourse in Australia
is constructed through a binary usand themframework, where opposition to
elites (them) often goes together with a claim to speak for ordinary people (us)
(2004: 1). As Johnson highlights (2004: 13033), the Coalitions 2001 election
catch-cry was indicative of this usand themconstruction: we will decide who
comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come(Howard 2001).
The Coalition is a formal alliance between the Liberal Party of Australia and National Party of Austra-
lia. In this alliance, Liberal members have a numerical majority.
This policy was not implemented as it did not have East Timors support. The Australian government
discussed the proposal with East Timors president, but the Timorese parliament subsequently rejected
the plan (Allard and Coorey 2010).
We acknowledge that there are limitations in using this form of analysis to fully explain drivers of
policy, political decisions and motives. Details of such strategies are seldom given accurately or detailed
publicly(Wilson and Turnbull 2001: 385), but we viewed content analysis as the most effective tech-
nique to scrutinise the governments justication for the policy and, in turn, to shed light on potential
factors inuencing the policy. Furthermore, there is strong precedent in using this methodology. For
instance, McKay, Thomas, and Kneebone (2011) use thematic discourse analysis to better understand
why the Australian public may hold particular views on asylum seekers.
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For the Coalition, anti-elitism has proved a powerful rhetorical source. The clearest
illustration of this was under John Howard, who sought to engage the non-elites who
were characterised as ordinary Australiansand Howards battlers(Cahill 2004:
91). Cleavages were constructed, with the elites rejected as something outside of
the mainstream, while the fears, resentments and insecuritiesof ordinary Austra-
lians were nurtured (Sawer 2004: 41). As Clyne states, the elites were perceived as
demanding unfairly generous treatment for the unworthy(2005: 190). With the
public suffering compassion fatigue, Howards politics fostered a popular backlash
against boat people, who were accused of trying to exploit our compassion and gen-
erosity(Hage 2003:78).
In much of the literature, national anxiety drives the populist backlash against boat
people. Some have argued that national concern over Australian identity and a fear of
invasion, grounded in the historical threat of being swampedby Australias Asian
northern neighbours, shaped the Howard governments policies (Grewcock 2007:
178; McMaster 2001:3839; Papastergiadis 2006). Building on this theme,
McKay, Thomas, and Kneebone (2011) argue that public opinion towards asylum
seekers has been inuenced by the perceived threat they pose to the Australian
way of life, as well as the view that asylum seekers exploit Australias systems
and processes. For Burke, the Howard governments rhetoric about protecting the
sovereignty and territorial integrity of Australia in the face of boat people represents
an image of an insecure, vulnerable Australian subject under perpetual threat(2001:
324). McNevin, who argues that the governments tough policies are a counter-
balance to Australias neo-liberal trend towards economic openness in recent
decades, arrives at a similar conclusion: a performance of political closure(2007:
622) aimed to address national anxieties over porous national borders.
Our ndings suggest a continued prevalence of populist rhetoric through the
Gillard governments discourse on asylum seekers, although it was less overt than
the language of the Howard era. Under Gillard the people smugglers, rather than
asylum seekers, were demonised. People smuggling was not only framed by the gov-
ernment as being criminal, it was an evilbusiness, with its perpetrators depicted as
predators, who prot,tradeand preyon human misery, and the desperation of
others. In order to deal with such evil, Gillard and the then-Immigration Minister
Chris Bowen adopted aggressive language. The most common phrases were to
smashor breakthe people smugglers trade, with terms such as eliminate,
tackleand combatalso being popular. The government used this terminology in
media releases and press conferences during the reference period, but such language
was largely absent from parliamentary debates. This indicates the public was the
potential audience to which the demonisation of people smugglers was directed.
Interestingly, not only did the government use simplistic language in these forums,
it avoided the more elitist language associated with human rights and international
obligations. Gillard was not perceived as being as in touch with the views of ordinary
people as Howard, but her populist rhetoric may have been intended to align Gillard
with the prevailing public mood.
It is signicant that the Gillard government had replaced asylum seekers with
people smugglers as the overtly demonised subject. This appears to have allowed
the government to channel negative sentiment towards boat arrivals, yet distinguish
Labors rhetoric from that of the Coalition. This was most evident in Gillards
language following the High Courts circumvention of the People Swap. She was
careful to frame boatsas the problem, rather than the asylum seekers:
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I believe it is very important, if we do see more boats, to separate in the commu-
nitys mind, in all of our minds, the problem of seeing more boats from the
people who are on those boats. It is not in my mind a question of blaming the
people who are on those boats. (Gillard and Bowen 2011e)
Gillard, however, also attempted to appeal to mainstream Australia: we are at a real
risk of seeing more boats, and I understand that will cause community anxiety
(Gillard and Bowen 2011e). Statements such as this offer support to the view that
a national anxietydrives Australias negative response to boat people. Despite
Gillards qualication that the boats, not the people on the boats, were the
problem her choice to appeal to potential community anxietyserved to legitimise
the view that boat arrivals were a threat or cause for fear.
The ndings highlight some noteworthy distinctions between the characterisations
of asylum seekers during the Howard era and those under Gillard. The Labor govern-
ments rhetoric in relation to asylum seekers was, in part, more positive than a decade
prior. Asylum seekers were no longer presented as a threat to family values and the
Australian way of life, as Slattery (2003: 95) detected in her analysis of the children
overboardscandal. Rather, asylum seekers were commonly framed in a more sym-
pathetic light, as people who were desperateand the victimsof people smugglers.
While no longer overtly demonised, asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat
nonetheless remained delegitimised through judgements made of their deservingness;
they were implicitly framed as a problem.
In all the primary sources we analysed, the Gillard government did not use the
derogatory term queue jumperseven once, but it often alluded to there being an
orderly queue that asylum seekers should join. Indeed, a trumpeted benet of the
People Swap was that it sent the message: if you arrive in Australian waters and
are taken to Malaysia you will go to the back of the queue(Gillard and Bowen
2011a). They would also take their place alongside 90,000 asylum seekers and
they will wait their turn(Gillard 2011).
Despite there being no orderly queue, the governments rhetoric resonated with
notions of fairness and, in turn, implied that asylum seekers who arrive by boat
were less deserving of protection or even concern. In contrast, those refugees
waiting in the queuewere depicted as deserving. Unlike boat people, those refu-
gees in Malaysia had waited often for many years to get a chance at a new life and a
new start in a country like Australia(Gillard and Bowen 2011d). Appealing to the
Australian ethos of a fair go, the governments suggestion that refugees were
jumping the queueresonated with, and may have fed, populist resentment. This
is noteworthy as it demonstrated a continuation of the populist disapproval of boat
people that was evident under the Howard government.
The juxtaposition of the terms genuine refugeesand irregular arrivalsappeared
to further delegitimise asylum seekers who arrived by boat. Those arriving by boat
were termed irregular, but refugees waiting offshore were described as
This contrast depicted asylum seekers arriving by boat as less worthy,
which in turn may have encouraged populist antipathy to their cause.
We do not dispute that genuine refugeesis a correct description of the 4000 people who would be
resettled in Australia under the People Swap; rather, the suggestion that asylum seekers who arrive
by boat are not genuine refugees is problematic.
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In our data set of press conferences, media releases and Question Time, the phrase
genuine refugeeswas mentioned 21 times during the reference period. These refer-
ences were in relation to the 4000 refugees to be transferred from Malaysia. Those
800 asylum seekers to be sent to Malaysia, however, were not once described as refu-
gees, let alone genuineones. They were instead labelled irregular, a striking
The arrangement provides for the transfer from Australia to Malaysia of up to 800
irregular maritime arrivals and formalises Australias commitment to accept 1,000
additional genuine refugees from Malaysia every year for the next four years.
(Gillard and Bowen 2011b)
It is debatable whether these terms were used to bolster support for increasing the
humanitarian intake (by emphasising that refugees chosen from Malaysia are
genuineand therefore deserving), or to justify sending 800 asylum seekers to
Malaysia, or perhaps both. Gillards implicit judgement that boat people were less
deserving of Australias compassion potentially represented an attempt to separate
herself from those elites who [demand] unfairly generous treatment for the
unworthy(Clyne 2005: 190). As under Howard, populism continued to inuence
the asylum-policy agenda.
Finally, it is important to note that the Gillard governments populist direction on
asylum-seeker policy positioned Labor at odds with its previous stance on the issue.
Indeed, the Malaysian People Swap was the manifestation of two policy backips:
rst, on pursuing a policy of offshore processing and, second, doing so in a
country not signatory to the Refugee Convention.
The Coalition did not miss this point, as was evident throughout the legislative
debates we analysed.
Liberal MPs recalled how the introduction of the Pacic Sol-
ution and subsequent 2001 election drew accusations of race baiting, that we were
rednecks [ ] that we were without hearts, that we were dog whistling and that
we were xenophobes or were playing xenophobic politics(Hansard 2011:
11208). Ridiculing the government, Liberal MPs reminded Bowen of his previously
stated view, that asylum seekers should be treated the same regardless of how they
land(Hansard 2011: 11022). Similarly, former Immigration Minister Chris Evans
was reminded of when he described the day the Pacic Solution was formally dis-
mantled as his proudest day in politics(Hansard 2011: 11188).
This is particularly signicant since it demonstrates the extent to which Labor shifted
its stance on asylum seekers under Gillards leadership. The consequence of this was
the convergence of Labors approach to boat peoplewith that of the Coalition. For
the Australian government, deterrence seemingly became paramount regardless of
which party was in power.
Wedge politics
Wedge politics is a calculated political tactic aimed at using divisive social issues to
gain political support, weaken opponents and strengthen control over the political
During the Offshore Processing Bill debate, the opposition emphasised Labors backip on offshore
processing; during the Bali Process Bill debate, the focus shifted to Labors backip on the Refugee
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agenda(Wilson and Turnbull 2001: 386). In doing so, wedge politics takes advan-
tage of issues or policies that undermine the support base of a political opponent
(Wilson and Turnbull 2001: 386, emphasis in original). Two key tactical advantages
arise from the strategy. First, by tapping into populist sentiment over a divisive social
issue, a political party can attract support from its opponent. Second, the wedged
party is consequently forced to either distance itself from unpopular causes or
face political marginalisation(Wilson and Turnbull 2001: 386).
The populist nature of the asylum-seeker debate has allowed wedge politics to
ourish. A likely corollary of this was the People Swap. The debate surrounding
the People Swap demonstrated not only how wedge politics could be used as an effec-
tive political strategy in this instance by the Coalition but also the impact that this
could have on the policies of the wedged political opponent, in this case the Gillard
government. The ndings that provide some support to this contention are twofold.
First, analysis of the Coalitions rhetoric and policies
suggests that wedge politics
may have been used against the government for political advantage. Second, the gov-
ernments reaction to the asylum debate may also support this view.
With the Gillard governments political base divided over the issue, it seems the
People Swap was an attempt to balance the competing interests of its mainstream
and elitist constituencies. In the words of Rudd (2010), the People Swap was a mani-
festation of Laborslurch to the righton the issue of asylum seekers, in a bid to rein
in its suburban working-class voters. The most persuasive evidence of this is found in
Labors two major policy backips that surfaced during this period: rst by introdu-
cing an offshore processing policy at all, then by doing so in a nation not signatory to
the Refugee Convention. Considering that this shift made Labor vulnerable to losing
its elitist progressive voters to the left’–notably to parties such as the Greens
Labors concurrent emphasis on the People Swaps humanitarian benets may indi-
cate a desire to appease such liberal voters.
Our ndings suggest that the Coalition may have used the divisive issue of asylum
seekers to drive a wedgethrough Labors political support base. Deciphering pol-
itical intent is problematic and open to conjecture, but the oppositions rhetoric and
contradictions suggest that the Coalition may have exploited the asylum-seeker
debate for political advantage. Wilson and Turnbull note that resentments and antip-
athies towards minorities(2001: 386), in this case asylum seekers, do not form in a
vacuum. Accordingly, the wedge politics at play over the People Swap should be
understood as a continuation of the political climate established under Howard.
Two key patterns emerge from the empirical evidence to support this claim. First,
Coalition MPs tended to criticise the People Swap for being a ve-for-one deal.
Using a simplistic metaphor with populist overtones, Liberal MP Don Randall illus-
trated why offering protection to more refugees was a bad idea:
Walk through your shopping centres and ask anyone if they think the ve-for-one
swap is a good deal. The government then said to Malaysia: have we got a deal for
you. Well take 4,000 of yours at great expense, and at a great expense well give
you 800 of ours and well pay for the lot. Guess what? We think thats a good deal.
(Hansard 2011: 11202)
We limit our analysis of the Coalitions rhetoric and policies to the discourses encompassed in the par-
liamentary debates and Question Time; the Coalitions political strategies are beyond the scope of this
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Abbott argued that swapping 800 people for 4000 was a bad dealand a dud deal,
as no serious, self-respecting country would allow itself to be a dumping ground for
other countriesproblems(Hansard 2011: 11165). Such rhetoric ts with Wilson
and Turnbulls observations that wedge politics involves linking political
opponentswith the unpopular or stigmatised social issues or groups; in this
case, linking Labor with the elitist fashionof refugee protection (Wilson and
Turnbull 2001: 385).
A discernible shift occurred partway through the reference period. The ve-for-
one dealline of attack was common among Coalition MPs in the months following
the initial policy announcement, but towards the end of the reference period they scar-
cely mentioned it.
Instead, the Coalition began to reject the People Swap for betray-
ing refugee rights, with the debate transforming into one where offshore processing
policies were contested on humanitarian grounds. Not only did these criticisms
expose the rift in Labors political base, the conicting nature of the Coalitions
objections suggests that they were the product of political tactics, rather than
Second, wedge politics was seemingly at play due to the use of the Refugee Con-
vention in political discourse. The question of whether offshore processing should be
permitted in nations that were signatory to the Refugee Convention was one that has
featured heavily across our sources. For instance, the Refugee Convention was men-
tioned 97 times during the Offshore Processing Bill debate, 102 times during the Bali
Process Bill debate and 89 times across the entire Question Time reference period.
Long before it signed the Refugee Convention, Nauru was a proud feature of the
Coalitions Pacic Solution (Flynn and LaForgia 2002; Mathew 2002). As Abbott
boasted: We invented offshore processing. We have the patent on offshore proces-
sing(Hansard 2011: 11165). When Nauru acceded to the Refugee Convention in
June 2011, however, the terms of the asylum debate shifted dramatically
(Needham 2011; Packham 2011). The political debate could then be divided along
the lines of whether to send asylum seekers to a nation signatory to the Refugee Con-
vention, such as Nauru, or a nation that was not, such as Malaysia. In fact, both
amendments the Coalition proposed to the Offshore Processing Bill in 2011 and
Bali Process Bill in 2012 ensured that asylum seekers were sent to nations signatory
to the Refugee Convention (Hansard 2011,2012).
The Coalitions seemingly delayed enthusiasm for the international treaty is impor-
tant to note because it suggests that political opportunism may have driven the oppo-
sitions approach. Moreover, the Coalitions other asylum policies indicate that the
opposition was not entirely motivated by sending refugees to non-signatory
nations. This was most pronounced with Abbotts policy of turn back the boats,
which would involve the navy forcing boats to return to their port of origin in
most cases, Indonesia (Wilson and Vasek 2012). As Labor MP Laurie Ferguson
said: there are some in this House who say it is okay to send boats to Indonesia
with no protections negotiated, but it is not okay to send planes to Malaysia with pro-
tections negotiated(Hansard 2011: 11248).
The Coalitions full intent cannot be afrmed, but we argue that it may have used
the Refugee Convention to exacerbate the rift between the toughening of Labor
In the rst two months after the policy announcement, the Coalition devoted almost a quarter of its
allotted questions during Question Time to dismissing the People Swap for being a ve-for-one
deal, but Coalition MPs used this phrase just once in their 81 questions after this point.
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policy, as encompassed in the People Swap, and the humanitarian concerns of
Labors liberal-left constituency. This, we posit, is theoretically interesting for the
understanding of wedge politics. It diverges from the common use of the political
tactic, where populist issues are used to gain political support by attracting votes
from an opponentsbase(Ward2002:2932; Wilson and Turnbull 2001: 386).
Instead, this form of wedge politics pursues policies that appeal to the more ideologi-
cally distant side of its opponents political base. This is unlikely to attract such voters
although it may be possible but rather exacerbates the wedge that has already been
established. Thus, it ts Wilson and Turnbullsdenition of the political strategy
insofar that it weaken[s] opponents and strengthen[s] control over the political
agenda(2001: 36). With the People Swap, Labor was cornered. Eager to take a
tough approach to asylum seekers, yet unwilling to adopt its conservative counterparts
exact policy of offshore processing on Nauru, Labor found itself continuing to pursue a
policy in spite of the High Court and Parliament rejecting it.
A Culture of control
We suggest that a culture of controlpartly drives Australian immigration policy,
and in turn, asylum-seeker policy. As Cronin (1993: 85) contends, Australia is
truly the lucky countryin terms of its ability to manage its borders. Girt by sea
and isolated in the southern corner of the world, Australias geography has bestowed
on the nation the ability to control who comes in and out of its territory, and under
what circumstances. Subsequently, Australians are uncomfortable with any [boat
people] arriving on their shores(Marr and Wilkinson 2003: 30). The idea of
control has become a xation of the electorate, where the government offers
control rhetoric and control solutions, while the opposition points to the govern-
mentscontrol failings(Cronin 1993: 87).
It was not until the late 1980s, in the second wave of arrivals, that the governments
ability to control borders came under threat, prompting sweeping changes to
Australias immigration policy.The objective of these changes was to establish effec-
tive legislative mechanisms for managing immigration, functioning to curtail the
increasing number of refugee claims and reduce judicial intervention.
On this point, Palmer (2008) has asked: why and to what purpose the quest for
control?Palmer highlighted the argument that maintaining a culture of control is
essential for nation building. As one minister argued:
I can understand people say there is a culture of control, but [ ] you can only
conduct good immigration policy and good refugee policy if you are able to
manage your borders. (quoted in Palmer 2008: 311)
More specically, as the number of asylum seekers arriving by boat increases, this
produces a negative outcome for immigration policy as a whole, as public support
for immigration of any kind is likely to fall(Palmer 2008: 311).
This article argues that a culture of control is most pertinent when considering the
paradox encompassed in the policy design: swapping 800 potential refugees for 4000
refugees. The lopsided nature of the People Swap suggests it is not so much the refu-
gees that are the issue, but rather the circumstances by which they reach Australia.
Unlike offshore refugees, onshore refugees enter Australia through the uncontrolled
door, where the government cannot control the type of refugees it accepts, or the
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number who arrive (Lopez 2003: 53). As Crock (1998: 67) highlights: asylum
seekers represent a direct threat to the orderly conduct of a migration programme
because they come uninvited and yet mandate consideration, as a result of Australia
ratifying the Refugee Convention. The People Swap was an attempt to remedy this.
By using deportation to Malaysia as a deterrent, controlcould be restored to the
Australian government.
Labor MP David Bradbury adopted this argument in his speech about the Offshore
Processing Bill. He was one of few Labor MPs who alluded to a culture of control,
but his words provide an interesting insight. Defending the People Swap, he framed
the policy as in harmony with Labor valuesand the partyshistory and tradition.
Consistent with the logic of the People Swap, Bradbury drew comparisons with
Labor governments that welcomed large groups of immigrants, yet opposed any
uncontrolled arrivals of asylum seekers by sea:
That is why Gough Whitlam would, on the one hand, resist Vietnamese boat arri-
vals but, on the other, dismantle Australias White Australia Policy. That is why
Bob Hawke embraced thousands of Chinese students post-Tiananmen Square but
resisted boat arrivals from Cambodia. That is why the Keating government could
champion multiculturalism like no other government before it but, at the same
time, introduce mandatory detention. (Hansard 2011: 11253)
Australia was prepared to embrace and welcome an extra 1000 refugees each year,
but Bradbury said this was contingent on whether the government could insist upon
the ability to exercise some control over the ow of people(Hansard 2011: 11254).
Interestingly, Bradbury argued that control was necessary for maintaining the success
of Australian multiculturalism. At rst glance, restricting certain groups of asylum
seekers from protection in Australia may seem to run counter to fostering multicul-
turalism. This logic, however, is consistent with that noted by Palmer (2008: 311),
who highlights a rationalisation as to why maintaining control is necessary if
numbers of asylum seekers increase, public support for any type of immigration is
expected to decrease.
The People Swap seemed to be an attempt by the Gillard government to offer
control solutionsto perceived control failings, but the use of control rhetoric
was less apparent in the primary sources. This may suggest a desire on the part of
the government to differentiate itself from the Coalitions talk of control, character-
ised by Howards(2001) election platform of we will decide who comes to this
country and the circumstances in which they come.
When the People Swap came under pressure following the High Court judgement,
however, the tone of the governments rhetoric shifted signicantly. In the rst ve
press conferences Gillard and Bowen delivered, border protection was mentioned
only once, with Gillard simply stating on 25 July 2011: this agreement will better
secure our borders.Inthenal three press conferences (on 1 and 12 September and
13 October 2011, at both ends of the High Court challenge), however, border
control featured more frequently. For example, on 1 September, Gillard assured the
public weve got more assets patrolling our border than weve ever had before,
and well continue to do everything that we do to patrol and protect Australias
borders. Gillard added that she was concerned about what [the High Court case]
means in terms of boats trying to make their way to Australia, before repeating
once more that the government will continue patrolling and protecting our borders
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(Gillard and Bowen 2011c). On 12 September, Gillard referred to the Keating govern-
ments formal introduction of mandatory detention in 1992, framing border protection
as part of Labors legacy:
We are a political party that has always been prepared to take the steps necessary to
have border protection and to ensure that we had an orderly migration system. I
refer you in that regard to the creation of mandatory detention by Minister Gerry
Hand [ ] That is our heritage, that is who we are. (Gillard and Bowen 2011d)
Furthermore, Gillard suggested that this is not about the politics, but rather, it was
about restoring the proper state of affairs: this is about Australia controlling our
immigration settings and particularly government controlling our immigration set-
tings(Gillard and Bowen 2011d).
The timing was signicant because it may have indicated that Gillard chose to
resort to border control rhetoric at a time when her governments policy was under
heightened pressure. That the government opted to offer control rhetoricand
persist with its control solution, the People Swap, in spite of the High Court
ruling, supports the view that a culture of control remains inuential on the direction
of asylum policy in Australia.
Discussion and conclusion
We argued that populism, wedge politics and a culture of control were all explanatory
factors behind the People Swap. The use of language shifted subtly when comparing
the Gillard era to that of Howard, but at its core the policy debate remained the same.
This has numerous, negative implications for the quality of Australias political
debate and policy formulation, as well as for asylum seekers and refugees themselves.
There is a nexus between populism, wedge politics and the increasing number of
asylum seekers coming to Australia. These three dimensions appear to be mutually
constitutive. As boatloads of asylum seekers increase, populist antipathy towards
asylum seekers expands, as well as resentment of the government. With populist sen-
timent ourishing, wedge politics comes into play. This left the Gillard government
politically weakened and lacking control over the political agenda in the case of the
People Swap.
The dominance of populism and shrewd wedge tactics have implications for the
quality of political debate in Australia. According to Wear, the pragmatic business
of staying in powerdebases political discourse, with politics portrayed as nothing
but grubby business(2008: 631). This was evident in relation to asylum seekers,
with both major parties guilty of hypocrisy in the People Swap case. Despite the cen-
trality of the Refugee Convention in parliamentary debates, it appeared to be nothing
but a political tool. Labor once treated the convention as a necessary condition, but
rejected the clause twice in Parliament. The Coalition only trumpeted the importance
of the Refugee Convention after Nauru became a signatory, an enthusiasm incompa-
tible with Abbottsturn back the boatspolicy. Indeed, it appears that the insidious
and pragmatic objective for both parties was electability, and in a populist climate this
This comment also relates to tensions between the executive and judiciary, a further dimension of the
culture of controlthesis.
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had consequences not only for the tenor of the debate, but also the quality of policies
The prevalence of populism and wedge politics has consequences for asylum-
seeker policy too. First, it pushes governments to create short-term and expedient
policy making(Wear 2008: 631). Such pursuit of a quick xwas patently clear
that neglected the more critical policy question of addressing the source of people
movements. Second, with Labor matching the Coalitions tough approach, Aus-
tralia has shifted to a trajectory where sending refugees offshore is the new
norm. Offshore processing in nations such as Nauru, PNG or East Timor, its
variant offshore dumping, and policies such as the People Swap or turning
boats back to Indonesia, raises the question of whether Australia is doing its
fair share to deal with what has become a global problem (Bailliet 2003;
Brennan 2007:1316; Mares 2002:4).
The culture of control may continue to inuence Australias response to asylum
seekers, which has implications for asylum policy. First, the pervasive culture of
control illustrates how control imperatives can trump economic and humanitarian con-
cerns. A false expectation has emerged that the government can, and should, control all
movements of people across Australias borders. It is here that links emerge between a
culture of control and populism in their inuence on asylum policy. Asylum seekers
challenge the view that the government controls exactly who may enter the nation,
and by arriving by boat they do so in a visible way that can fuel public debate over
the issue. An unfortunate consequence of this approach seems to have been the
People Swap, a knee-jerk short-term policy response which, in the governments
quest for control, pushed matters of refugee protection to the periphery.
Finally, in potentially inuencing policies such as the People Swap, the explana-
tory factors of populism, wedge politics and a culture of control have stark conse-
quences for asylum seekers and refugees themselves. There were substantial
humanitarian benets encompassed in the People Swap, notably that an additional
4000 refugees would be granted temporary protection. Yet what of those unlucky
800 would-be refugees sent to Malaysia to be an example? The Gillard government
maintained that its arrangement with Malaysia would ensure that basic human rights
standards were met, but the lack of any legal basis underpinning the deal detracted
from the governments ability to make such guarantees. Reports highlighting the
human rights abuses of non-citizens in Malaysia exacerbated this concern. Was
this proposed trade-off worthwhile? For those asylum seekers attempting to reach
Australia by boat, almost certainly the answer was no.
The rationale for this harsh trade-off for some politicians seems to have been their
electoral prospects. On this point, it is intriguing that on 6 July 2013, the newly
appointed immigration minister, Tony Burke, admitted that the People Swap was
not workable in its current form, and should be more comprehensive to cope with
the challenge of people smuggling(cited in ABC 2013a). On 19 July, newly
reinstated Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced his self-proclaimed hardline
deterrence policy. Under this arrangement, all asylum seekers who attempt to
arrive in Australia by boat would be sent to PNG for processing and, if found to
be a refugee, remain in PNG for resettlement; an effective bypassing of Australia
(ABC 2013b). In the current political climate, it is hoped that the human rights of
asylum seekers are not forsaken, notably on the eve of an election campaign.
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... Since 1980, Australia has provided one of the largest resettlement programmes in the world (Lutz andPortmann 2022: 2520). Recent discourse regarding "boat people", however, reflects the influence of domestic political "securitisation" as a driver for harsher treatment and more restricted border control (Maley 2016;Mckenzie and Hasmath 2013). ...
Securing higher education rights for refugees is critical not only for refugees’ selfempowerment but also for the peaceful development of communities. Qualifications recognition is a major barrier when refugees attempt to apply for work or higher education, due to missing documents or unavailability of issuing institutions in their home countries. This issue led to the 2019 Global Convention as the first global treaty on higher education. However, South Korea, a rising power with a normative policy focus, has little addressed qualifications recognition for refugees. Therefore, this research examines the extent to which South Korea, has internalised international norms regarding the provision of education for non-North Korean refugees. Then, by benchmarking the policies of Western normative middle powers, Canada, Norway, and Australia, the research analyses the strengths and limitations of existing qualifications recognition policies for refugees. The paper also refers to the existing policy for access to higher education for North Korean refugees in South Korea. It argues that South Korea should not only welcome more refugees but also develop an effective measure for the recognition of qualifications for refugees to integrate them as productive members of the society in fulfilment of its international humanitarian obligations, but also in accordance with its national interest. Lastly, this research concludes with policy recommendations for establishing a fair and effective recognition system for qualifications of refugees in South Korea, modelled on existing policies for North Korean refugees.
... In the Australian context, control is reflected in the increasing executive power and the extra-legal nature of immigration detention, particularly in offshore centres (Australian Parliamentary Select Committee, 2015). Themes of control have been present in political rhetoric and debates for decades (McKenzie & Hasmath, 2013). As Cronin (1993, p. 87) notes, the government frequently offers "control rhetoric" while the opposition highlights "control failings". ...
In this chapter I will consider whether whistleblowing by healthcare professionals can be justified in response to Australian immigration detention. To do this I will first outline what I mean by whistleblowing, discussing its key features and significance. I will then consider a number of examples of whistleblowing from healthcare professionals who formerly worked in Australian immigration detention centres, outlining their disclosures, the impact they had and the repercussions that came as a result of their whistleblowing. I will then consider some major justificatory theories of whistleblowing and apply these to Australian immigration detention. I argue that with some constraints on how whistleblowing is carried out along with careful consideration about the risks in taking such action, whistleblowing in response to Australian immigration detention is otherwise justified.
... In the Australian context, control is reflected in the increasing executive power and the extra-legal nature of immigration detention, particularly in offshore centres (Australian Parliamentary Select Committee, 2015). Themes of control have been present in political rhetoric and debates for decades (McKenzie & Hasmath, 2013). As Cronin (1993, p. 87) notes, the government frequently offers "control rhetoric" while the opposition highlights "control failings". ...
Australia’s policy of mandatory immigration detention has been one of the most contentious contemporary political issues for almost three decades. In this chapter, I will provide a brief outline of the history and consequences of these policies, providing a context for many of the issues I will discuss throughout this book. First, I will briefly discuss the global and regional context in which Australian immigration detention operates, I will then outline a brief history of Australian immigration detention. I go on to argue that to fully appreciate the consequences of these policies, they should be seen first and foremost as a deterrent to others that would otherwise seek asylum in Australia. I will then go on to quantify the impact of these policies, focusing on the impact that these policies have had on the health and human rights of asylum seekers in Australia.
... In the Australian context, control is reflected in the increasing executive power and the extra-legal nature of immigration detention, particularly in offshore centres (Australian Parliamentary Select Committee, 2015). Themes of control have been present in political rhetoric and debates for decades (McKenzie & Hasmath, 2013). As Cronin (1993, p. 87) notes, the government frequently offers "control rhetoric" while the opposition highlights "control failings". ...
In this chapter I will consider whether principled disobedience can be justified in response to Australian immigration detention. While there is a degree of overlap, one of the major differences between principled disobedience and the action discussed in previous chapters is that principled disobedience deliberately seeks to break the law. I will start by defining principled disobedience. I go on to consider examples of principled disobedience in response to Australian immigration detention. I will then consider justifications that have been offered for principled disobedience and consider whether such action taken in response to Australian immigration detention could be justified. Unlike strike action and whistleblowing, it is somewhat difficult to be as specific with principled disobedience as it could take a number of forms. In saying this, however, I conclude that there is a prima facie justification for healthcare professionals to take such action in response to Australian immigration detention.
Australia, the United States, and the European Union enact bordering mechanisms to armor themselves against people who seek asylum transferring the burden of enforcement and containment to countries from the Global South. This configuration reinscribes a regime of limited mobility for certain subjects that reproduces a neocolonial order. The measures developed by these regions to keep people who seek asylum away from their territories thicken the border by effectively creating an overarching transnational sovereign zone that is not country-specific but rather an assemblage of Western countries’ buffer zones. Although the result is a fairly monolithic barrier for refugees, this assemblage is not homogeneous in structure but is instead composed of differently balanced, dyadic relations between countries, heterogeneous dehumanizing narratives prevalent among domestic publics, externalization measures, confinement practices, and other deterrence mechanisms, with different degrees of reach and success. Using a transnational feminist lens and a Critical Border Studies framework, this article shows how the border externalization measures that uphold this assembly rely on public-private partnerships that governments establish with private corporations; and agreements with third countries. The privatization of sovereignty then become the necessary conditions to exercise transnational sovereignty.
Once we become aware of the pervasiveness of discourses that construct asylum seekers as an uncontrollable and unwelcome threat to Australian national identity and security, it is easy to understand where (and how) immense fear and hostility toward new arrivals originates. As discussed in Chap. 5, examinations of Australian press coverage and political statements about asylum seekers over the past four decades reveal countless examples of a ‘language of war’ (Hodge, 2015) amid framings of new arrivals as an ‘out of control’ threat (Martin & Fozdar, 2021). Much of this coverage positions asylum seekers as a growing ‘problem’ that the Australian government must ‘battle against’—a discourse exemplified in an article published on 7 October 1999 in The Australian, headlined ‘$124M Thrown into Fight Against Illegals’ (authored by Steve Creedy). The article describes a multi-million-dollar plan to implement advanced surveillance measures within the Royal Australian Navy to improve the detection of boats attempting to transport asylum seekers to Australia, a policy the article referred to as “Australia’s defence against the rising and increasingly sophisticated tide of illegal immigration”.
Full-text available
Ben Eltham’s The Pacific Solution (2013) critiques the Howard government’s hard-line policy with Asylum seekers and its amendment of the migration act, known as “the Pacific Solution”, which eliminates offshore islands from Australia’s migration zone to destabilise refugees’ opportunities to find a home in Australia. Moreover, Eltham’s play deals with several issues such as racism, stereotyping of Muslims, nationalism and dysfunctional models of representing refugees in mainstream media. This is depicted dramatically on stage through the reactions of three white Australian housemates to the arrival at their front door of an Iraqi refugee to apply for asylum. The play portrays how those three Anglo-Australians, who are employed in the play to comment on three major Liberal politicians, align Australian nationalism with their strong nationalist sentiment. Drawing on the Above, we read Eltham’s play as critiquing their notion of Australian nationalism, which is inexorably intertwined with the process of othering, that perceive minority groups and the Opposition parties as posing threat to Australia and its people.
Much research has focused on the damaging impact of Australian asylum seeker policies, and numerous studies have analysed the hostile discourses that have accompanied them. However, there has been very limited research that has offered a comprehensive analysis of the impact of these asylum seeker discourses upon individual refugees and asylum seekers. This article draws on the narrative analysis of in-depth interviews with Cambodian and Hazara refugees to explore how these discourses influence their storytelling about the refugee experience. The concept of the ‘good refugee’ emerged as a prominent theme. The participants mostly tell stories that comply with this concept to overcome their demonization in asylum seeker discourses and to find acceptance and belonging in Australia. The concept of the ‘good refugee’ is evident in the participants’ self-representation, their reluctance to use their political voice, and in the gaps and silences in their stories. Continued efforts are needed to challenge the concept of the ‘good refugee’ as it silences refugees and asylum seekers and undermines belonging.
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Australia as one of the countries that signed the Convention of Refugee 1951 has an obligation to apply principle of non-refoulement in the handling of refugees and asylum seekers entering its territory. However, the issue of national security and domestic turmoil caused Australia to continue use restrictive policies in dealing with refugees and asylum seekers, especially those who came by the sea (boat people) and did not have official documents. They are called Illegal Maritime Arrivals (IMA). Giving the term “illegal” causes no distinction between IMA and smuggling/trafficking criminals. This paper aims to explain the existence of dilemma in the management of refugees especially in Australia in handling IMA. This research uses qualitative methods with secondary data sources from books, journals, articles and other sources related to the problem being studied. By using the concept of securitization approach in the paradigm of constructivism, this paper argue that the restrictive policies adopted by Australia as a form of protection of national interests. Australia experiences a dilemma in applying the principle of non-refoulement and protecting its national interests. This is challenge in the management of global refugees.
In this chapter I will outline the change that the healthcare community should demand from the Australian government, the constraints on achieving said change and some fundamental reasons why present approaches to healthcare are not enough to challenge these constraints. First, I will outline an alternate vision for future policy. In doing this I propose what I see to be the minimum reform needed to address and protect the health, wellbeing and rights of asylum seekers in Australia. I will then consider the constraints on achieving reform. To do this I will discuss a range of historical, social and political factors which explain why Australia persists with these policies and has resisted demands for change. Finally, I want to discuss some fundamental reasons why present approaches to healthcare are not enough to overcome these constraints.
(E)ach person has a unique dignity which the law respects and which it will protect. Human dignity is a value common to our municipal law and to international instruments relating to human rights. The law will protect equally the dignity of the hale and hearty and the dignity of the weak and the lame …(Marion's Case) China's birth control program has earned a worldwide reputation as the most draconian since King Herod's slaughter of the innocents.
Australia's humanitarian programme contributes to UNHCR's global resettlement programme and enhances Australia's international humanitarian reputation. However, as the recent tragedy on Christmas Island has shown, the arrival of asylum seekers by boat continues to stimulate debate, discussion and reaction from the Australian public and the Australian media. In this study, we used a mixed methods community survey to understand community perceptions and attitudes relating to asylum seekers. We found that while personal contact with asylum seekers was important when forming opinions about this group of immigrants, for the majority of respondents, attitudes and opinions towards asylum seekers were more influenced by the interplay between traditional Australian values and norms, the way that these norms appeared to be threatened by asylum seekers, and the way that these threats were reinforced both in media and political rhetoric.
This article argues that populism was a permanent feature of John Howard's government and that populism and the associated tactic of wedging were adopted to secure the government's position and to eliminate populist rivals such as One Nation. Margaret Canovan describes the use of populist techniques by mainstream politicians as politicians' populism. She also suggests that democracy has both redemptive and pragmatic faces and that when too great a gap opens between democracy's two faces, populism is likely to emerge. The experience of four terms of the Howard government indicates that when politicians knowingly use populism they can successfully eliminate populist alternatives such as One Nation. The costs for democracy, however, are high, and in the case of the Howard government included neglect of minority rights, the growth of distrust in the institutions of representative democracy, increased community cynicism, the reluctance of the Opposition to speak out on a number of human rights issues for fear of losing support, and opportunistic policy making.
This article interprets the politics of asylum in Australia in light of what James Hollifield calls ‘the liberal paradox’; that is, the trend amongst contemporary states towards greater transnational open-ness in the economic arena alongside growing pressure for domestic political closure. It begins with an outline of Australia's recent history of economic reform and of the discourse of globalisation that has been employed to legitimise the changes wrought by this transition. Focusing on the period from the late 1990s to the early 2000s, the article provides an account of anxieties associated with these changes and an analysis of government strategies to secure the support of disaffected sections of the electorate. Asylum policy is analysed in this context. The article shows how the policing of asylum seekers constitutes performances of political closure designed to assuage those made vulnerable by Australia's neoliberal economic trajectory. It argues that these politics of asylum are indicative of the tensions between transnational engagement and territorial closure faced by neoliberal states more generally.
This article reviews the Tampa case in order to highlight the lack of clear standards for rescue at sea of asylum seekers. In response to current initiatives to assess the gaps and inconsistencies within the applicable legal framework, the author recommends the elaboration of a burden sharing mechanism based on a protection continuum addressing the following phases: rescue, non-refoulement, disembarkation, and resettlement.