Australian Politics

The Political Game That Sustains Our Disastrous Offshore Detention Policy

Nicholas Cokis looks at the history of asylum seeker policy in Australia, and discusses the reasons behind both major parties supporting the current mandatory detention policy.

If you were to ask a group of young Australians about our current policy on asylum seekers, I’m sure at least a sizeable majority would make known their stark disapproval of our nation’s stand on this issue. Even most adults will admit it’s appalling that we enforce a policy of offshore mandatory detention for asylum seekers attempting to enter this country, as researcher Denis Muller found in 20164. The same collection of people, however, reluctantly gave their support to our current system of offshore detention.

Now why would the majority of Australians support offshore detention, a system which has drawn so many international condemnations that detainees are resorting to setting themselves on fire2 as a form of protest? Muller says that fundamentally—the Australian public accepts this policy because they simply have not been offered a better alternative. We want to prioritise national security and protect against terrorism, and so far, mandatory offshore detention is thought of as the only way to do this. I say, ‘thought of’, because among experts there are several potential solutions which would satisfy these conditions while not incurring excessive human rights abuses. Processing asylum seekers onshore with concurrent background checks is one of these solutions, as proposed by the Refugee Action Coalition6, amongst others.

In reality, it is the express fault of the Australian Labor Party and the Liberal-National Coalition that we have had little to no effective reform. A cowardly game of chicken between these two major parties has prevented any real change to asylum seeker policy. Both are willing to play with the lives of innocent war victims so that they can cash in on a political advantage. In order to understand how things have become this bad, we need to look at the history of mandatory detention in Australia.

Gough Whitlam famously lifted the white Australian policy in 1973, ushering a new wave of multicultural immigration into Australia. But 1999 saw a distinct rise in the number of asylum seekers coming to Australia by boat, and the then Howard Government made the fateful decision to adopt a hostile rhetoric to the new so called ‘boat people’. This played right into the government’s hand when, in 2001, the Norwegian Vessel Tampa rescued 433 Asylum seekers headed for Australia but was subsequently refused access to Australian ports. The Tampa Affair was only resolved by allowing some of the asylum seekers to be accepted by the New Zealand government, but forcing those remaining into detention on Nauru.

The immigration minister at the time, Philip Ruddock, went so far as to claim that asylum seekers were seen throwing children overboard in a bid to get them special treatment. This claim, which was later echoed by Prime Minister John Howard, was proven a flat out lie7—but the damage had already been done. Through a vitriolic and malevolent campaign to demonise asylum seekers, the Howard Government managed to gain a significant advantage in the 2001 election, contributing greatly8 to its re-election. By encouraging and drawing upon people’s fear in the wake of the 9/11 attacks the Australian public paid the price, setting a horrific precedent for the approach to asylum seekers that both party’s need to form government.

The Howard Government set up the so-called Pacific Solution in 2001, which formally forced asylum seekers to be sent to offshore detention centres on Nauru and elsewhere. A decline in the number of asylum seekers by 2007 led to the Rudd Government’s dismantling of the Pacific Solution—however the election of opposition leader Tony Abbott in 2009 saw him revitalise the Coalition’s rhetoric against asylum seekers. The Labor party was forced to make a meaningful stance on immigration, but instead of challenging the harsh policy of Tony Abbott, the 2013 election1 was the first to see both major parties outbid each other in their promises to mistreat boat people. This shameful bipartisan agreement has continued to restrain offshore detention policy every since, with neither party having the courage to show the electorate they can do better.

Part of the horror of offshore detention centres is undoubtedly intentional: with the appalling conditions an attempt to dissuade further attempts to seek asylum in Australia. Aside from the cruelty of inflicting this treatment on people who are desperately fleeing turmoil, there is also no evidence to suggest it works. The United Nations Refugee Agency has affirmed3 the lack of empirical evidence to show that being detained offshore deters regular immigration. If you aren’t convinced by ethics alone there is a significant economic argument to be had against mandatory offshore detention. So far, the program has cost Australia around $1 billion dollars a year, roughly $1 million dollars per detainee on Nauru or Manus Island. This is in stark contrast5 with the $12 000 that it would cost to process these claims on shore without detention, saving an enormous amount of money that I’m sure could actually go to making someone’s life better rather than worse.

In light of this, it really is unbelievable that both major parties have let this issue continue to the point it’s at today. While innocent asylum seekers are being brutalised far away from Canberra, our politicians are smiling and reaping the rewards of their political gain. Such callous neglect of fundamental human rights is perhaps one of the darkest stains on our nation, and this is one of the few issues which makes me feel overwhelmingly ashamed to be an Australian. Things need to change. I don’t doubt that looking back, future Australians will treat our current policy with the same contempt they will the white Australia policy.


1Burnside 2015, ‘What sort of country are we?’, The Conversation, 28 September

2Doherty & Davidson 2016, ‘Self-immolation: desperate protests against Australia’s detention regime’, The Guardian, 3 May.

3Mendadue 2011, ‘Ending costly mandatory detention for asylum seekers’, The Queensland Nurse, vol.30(5), pp.41

4Muller 2016, ‘immigration, asylum seekers and Australia’, Meanjin, vol.75(2), p.59-65.

5Refugee Action Coalition 2017, ‘Detention costs’, <http://www.refugeeaction.org.au/?page_id=3447&gt;

6Refugee Action Coalition 2018, ‘Manus and Nauru’ <http://www.refugeeaction.org.au/?page_id=4528&gt;

7The Age 2004 ‘Children overboard the most despicable of lies: Hawke’, 25 August

8The Age 2004, ‘Children overboard to dominate campaign’, 1 September

This article was originally published in the October 2018 print edition of State Magazine. Cover image from the ABC.

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