Why The Senate Just Passed Scott Morrison’s Awful Asylum Seeker Bill (When It Didn’t Even Want To)

Crossbench Senators faced the hardest choice of their lives yesterday, and they didn't even need to.

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Last night the Senate narrowly passed the Migration and Maritime Powers Legislation Amendment (Resolving the Asylum Legacy Caseload) Bill 2014. Its passage into law came with very little fanfare; the bill was passed late at night, by which time several hundred of the nation’s top journalists were several drinks into their post-Walkleys celebrations, and it slipped in near to the end of the Parliamentary sitting year, in between MPs wishing each other a Merry Christmas in end-of-year speeches.

That’s unfortunate, because if you had to pick a single piece of legislation that deserves a vigorous examination, it was this one. The new law gives Immigration Minister Scott Morrison unheard-of powers over the fates of asylum seekers and refugees, allowing him to turn back boats with impunity, return asylum seekers to their home countries even if they face torture, and removes all references to the 1951 Refugee Convention, the defining document for nation-states dealing with refugees which Australia helped write, from Australian law. With regards to asylum seekers and refugees, Australia now effectively operates entirely outside international law.

I’ll leave the broader ramifications of what this bill will mean for asylum seekers, both in detention and those who are turned away in the future, to others; the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, which works to help resettle refugees in the community, said yesterday that Senators voting for the bill would be “condemning children to a life of uncertainty and allowing others to rot in offshore detention”. In an excellent piece for the Guardian, Ben Doherty says the law makes Morrison “the most powerful person in the Australian government”.

What’s really interesting is why most of the crossbench eventually decided to vote for the bill. The prospect of having hundreds of children released of detention seems to have been the deciding factor that secured the support of enough senators to push the bill over the line, and it’s this that needs to come under greater scrutiny.

Kill Them With Kindness: The Crossbench And Scott Morrison

Speaking for the Palmer United Party last night, Senator Glenn Lazarus said: “Australia’s reputation across the world is being damaged. We are being viewed by the world as a country that locks up innocent and defensive children, subjecting them to jail-like conditions without hope, compassion or any sense of a future. The sad truth is that we are a country that locks up defenceless children who have been washed up in our waters, children who have been dragged onto boats as innocent victims by their parents or others at the hands of unscrupulous people smugglers.”

Clearly Lazarus wants to see children out of detention and asylum seekers dealt with in a more compassionate and humane manner than they’ve been subjected to in recent years; Palmer United Party policy says as much. Still, Lazarus and fellow PUP Senator Dio Wang voted to pass the bill, which seems at odds with their policy and personal sentiments — until you learn that in exchange for their support (with several PUP amendments), Morrison promised to release around 1,500 asylum seekers on Christmas Island in time for Christmas, including 460 children. Lazarus explicitly stated in his speech that seeing “the 460 children in detention on Christmas Island, including the 32 unaccompanied children…be removed from Christmas Island by Christmas this year” was a major deciding factor in PUP’s support of the bill.

Thing is, Morrison has had the power to release those people from detention all along; a fact pointed out last night by independent Senator Jacqui Lambie. “First of all, my concern is that this government has now been in for 15 months. These kids have been sitting there for 15 months, and you want a pat on the back? You have got to be kidding,” Lambie said. “These kids could have been out 15 months ago. Secondly, I would like to know whether the good senator over there [Liberal Senator and Assistant Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Michaelia Cash], if all these kids are not out by Christmas Day, is prepared to put her Senate seat on it and resign”.

Lambie did not end up voting for the bill, but the government found the numbers elsewhere on the crossbench; despite having reservations about granting Scott Morrison more powers, the extremely understandable temptation of releasing kids from detention overrode their concerns. Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young described Morrison’s tactics as like using children “as bargaining chips, as pawns in his political play, to get legislation that he wanted through this place which previously had no support in this chamber…Minister Morrison is a sociopath who has held children as hostages in order to grab the power he wants in this place tonight”.

Between A Rock And A Hard Place: Senator Ricky Muir

As the deadline on the vote loomed, it became apparent that the bill’s chances of success came down entirely to Australian Motoring Party Enthusiast Senator Ricky Muir; with Labor, the Greens and independent Senator John Madigan all opposing it, and the Palmer United Party senators announcing their intention to vote for the bill yesterday afternoon, Muir held the one vote that would either pass or sink the bill.

Muir gave a heartfelt and at times emotional speech in the Senate last night, outlining his desire to see children freed from detention and saying that “coming to a decision on this bill has been, without a doubt, one of the hardest decisions I have had to face”.

Muir expressed serious reservations about the bill — “in its initial form, I could not vote for this bill. What the government is proposing is not ideal. There are parts of the bill that I am not comfortable with” — but said he would support it because “the government has said that, if this bill does not pass, the 30,000 people currently awaiting processing will continue to be left in limbo. The government has said that, if this bill does not pass, the 1,550 people who arrived between 19 July 2013 and the election would be sent to Nauru. The minister has said that, if this bill does not pass, he would be unable to use statutory processes to assess refugee claims and would need to go through an administrative process. He has publicly stated, ‘What it means for those 30,000 people is they will just wait longer and longer and longer.'”

That claim by Morrison is patently untrue; he has always possessed the power to free people from detention, and his not doing so is a personal choice.

Muir went on:

“Tonight I have also spoken with people who have worked closely with detainees on Christmas Island. They told me that this bill is not completely fair, but that the detainees are tired. They told me that the detainees have had enough and that they want out. They are desperate. She told me that they have watched the news and they know it is down to one vote, and that vote is mine.

“While I was speaking to these people and they were informing me, they started to break down and cry as they were speaking about children who have been in detention since they were born who are two years old. They speak about the word ‘out’. To them ‘out’ means going to church on occasion, and that is it. When they hear the word ‘out’, they cannot begin to associate it with freedom.

“They told the people in detention that they rang the office of the man whose decision it was to decide whether they would be out of detention before Christmas. That man wasn’t the Minister for Immigration; it was me. It should not be like this but it is. The crossbench should not have been put in this position, but it has.”

Going by that statement, it seems pretty clear that last night Ricky Muir spoke directly with Christmas Island staff members and case workers by phone, all of whom urged him to pass the government’s bill. If what Muir said is true, those case workers were also relaying messages from asylum seekers, whose mental and emotional states were nearing breaking point, directly to the Senator.

Senator Hanson-Young went a step further, claiming that “children on Christmas Island” were “being handed the phone number of Senator Muir, and they were asked to call that number and beg that senator to let them out”. (Junkee has sent Senators Muir, Lambie and Lazarus a series of questions asking them to clarify whether they spoke to asylum seekers, including children, prior to voting on the bill yesterday. All three Senators are yet to reply.)

It seems as though a large number of crossbench senators genuinely wish to alleviate the suffering of people in detention. It also seems as though the Immigration Minister has exploited that very human impulse in order to garner more power for himself and his department, using the lives and suffering of children in his power as collateral to obtain it. It is a frightening prospect: that a man willing to keep children behind razor wire until they are of use to his political ends has just been granted further power.