30/04/2016 6:36 AM AEST | Updated 15/07/2016 12:52 PM AEST

Detention Deja Vu: Why Refugees Are Once Again A Major Election Issue

Fairfax Media

It's election season in Australia, and with that comes a set of tried and true traditions -- candidates kissing babies and shaking hands in shopping centres, election day sausage sizzles, and immigration policy. For almost every election since 2001, the year where the word 'refugee' blazed itself into the Australian mainstream with the Tampa incident, immigration and asylum seekers have been a headline election issue; and so it is again in 2016.

A string of events has occurred in recent days, throwing major spanners in Australia's controversial and stained history of offshore detention. Australia's detention centre on Manus Island was ruled illegal by the Papua New Guinea Supreme Court, while a chain of suicide attempts on Nauru -- culminating in the tragic and horrific death of a 23-year-old Iranian refugee, who had set himself alight -- cast doubt on the suitability of that island as a stop-gap replacement measure. Such a confluence of ugly and politically damaging events is rare, and should have had the Labor opposition jumping for joy.

They weren't. Because, of course, Labor is as much to blame for Australia's marred detention policy as the Coalition government is. Opposition immigration spokesman Richard Marles and Immigration Minister Peter Dutton have been sparring publicly and strangely in a tit-for-tat press release war, each accusing the other of being the softest on immigration. All the while, refugees and asylum seekers on Nauru allegedly swallowed razor blades and washing powder, and the men on Manus were left in limbo as to what their future would be.

This election will be a race about who is the toughest on immigration. Influential commentators Phillip Coorey and Waleed Aly have already noticed (here and here). Both Liberal and Labor have been posturing and chest-beating, naming their respective policies the toughest and their opponents' the weakest. Expect this to continue. The Greens have been preaching compassion, for the asylum seekers to be brought to Australia and processed on-shore. Both major parties have all but ignored the Greens' ideas. Expect that to continue, too.

Aly called it the "monstrous failure of our bipartisan asylum seeker policy".

For as far back as 2001, the Coalition locked itself into a "tough on boats" policy. John Howard famously told us that "we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come". Tony Abbott wouldn't stop telling us about how he "stopped the boats." It locked Labor into espousing similar policies, lest they be seen as weak on borders, and -- as the Coalition has, and will continue to, hammer home -- by extension, weak on national security.


2001 was about the Tampa and children overboard. Since then, "boats" and "boat people" have been the boogeymen that politicians have tried to scare us with. Most elections since then, respective leaders have outlined their plans to change that policy or close this detention centre or open that swap deal with that country.

"Whatever decision the Australian Government takes, it must not risk sending a green light to people smugglers that they can revive their deadly trade," Marles said in a release.

"The reality is Labor will talk tough before an election and cave-in in government bringing a return of the people smugglers’ boats and the illegal maritime arrivals. Labor will never keep the boats stopped," Dutton shot back.

But while the major parties cater their messages to the (not small) crowd who don't want "boat people" arriving in Australia, neither are looking at the other end of the spectrum -- the large, and growing, part of society who recoil in horror as a man sets himself on fire on Nauru, who are alarmed at others swallowing washing powder and razor blades, who are disgusted at vulnerable women being raped and being denied abortions in detention centres, who think there must be some middle ground between stopping people smugglers while avoiding placing people fleeing from some of the world's most dangerous conflict zones in tents in far-flung foreign islands they've barely heard of.

This issue won't be going away any time soon. But as the entire framework of offshore detention seems to be teetering after the Manus decision, this election represents an opportunity for the public to vote with their feet on how the issue of asylum seekers should be addressed in Australia.