Reestablishing the White Australia Policy: Shoebridge on Albanese’s Racist Refugee Bill

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White Australia Policy

The Senate is set to vote upon a third tranche of Labor migration laws relating to refugees and asylum seekers that is so divisive many are astounded that the traditional party of the left has placed them on the table, with even the Liberals questioning how low the other major has gone.

The reason the Albanese government is conducting this crackdown is due to the High Court having ruled indefinite detention illegal, which resulted in 150 immigration detainees being released into the community, and a court decision this week could see another 150-odd released from facilities.

The laws in the Migration Amendment (Removal and Other Measures) Bill 2024, which made it through the lower house in late March, would see asylum seekers not assisting the government with their return to potential harms in their country of origin, imprisoned for at least a year.

The legislation also proposes to establish a ban on issuing visas to nationals from nations that refuse to accept voluntary returnees, with Iran, Iraq, South Sudan and Russia all having been raised as potential examples.

And Greens Senator David Shoebridge has pointed out that some are warning this travel ban is a backdoor means of reestablishing the White Australia Policy.

Laws worthy of rejection

The senator is well aware of the implications of the Removal Bill, as he was one of the members of the Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs that recently assessed and greenlighted Labor’s legislation. However, the Australian Greens provided a dissenting report.

The Greens consider the bill should be rejected in full, as it “fundamentally undermines social cohesion in Australia and stokes racism”. And the party made clear that it’s no outlier on this, as of the 120-odd submissions to the inquiry, all rejected the bill, except for a Home Affairs document.

The dissenting remarks also refer to a provision within the legislation that provides the immigration minister, currently Andrew Giles, with the ability “to overturn the visa of refugees who have already been provided protection”.

“Using this power, a mother and her children who fled a country like Iran – and went through an unfair refugee system in Australia – could have the protection finding overturned by the minister,” the document explains.

“A race to the bottom”

The raising of the White Australia Policy as a guidepost to understand the implications of the current legislation provides insight into just how far the Albanese government is sailing down the Fortress Australia canal, which the Liberal Nationals went to great pains to engineer.

And with overseas conflicts impacting locally in a manner that the political class is doing its best to subdue, and the climate crisis quietly escalating as the mass killing of Palestinians understandably takes centre stage, there are plenty of reasons for a callous government to crack down on refugees.

Sydney Criminal Lawyers spoke to Greens Senator David Shoebridge about what sort of implications the review process turned up on these divisive laws, that their scope captures many more people than Labor has openly admitted and the fact that their path in the Senate is not guaranteed.

Following the High Court ruling late last year that the indefinite detention of asylum seekers is unlawful, which resulted in 150 immigration detainees being released into the community, a crackdown on refugees wasn’t unexpected, but the scope of the new laws was.

In late March, the Albanese government introduced the Removal and Other Measures Bill, which will see refugees who don’t assist in their removal imprisoned and a refusal to provide visas to nationals from countries that won’t repatriate voluntary returns.

David, you were involved in the recent parliamentary review of this legislation. So, how have you considered the bill after that?

This was a remarkable process. We had the Albanese Labor government trying to ram through legislation that was literally warm from the photocopier.

They wanted the legislation to be voted on by both houses in less than two days of it being introduced. And they made a case of desperate urgency that they needed this cruel legislation.

Thankfully, we persuaded the majority in the Senate to agree to a Greens motion to refer it to inquiry.

And I have never seen an inquiry such as this one, where every single submission opposed the bill, except for the submission made by people who were in the pay of the Commonwealth.

I have never seen that before. It gives you some indication of what a gross attack this bill is.

The bill provides godlike powers to the immigration minister to force people to either return to face persecution in the country that they fled or go to gaol for a minimum of one year.

And a Trump-like immigration ban is proposed on entire countries, severing the connection between diaspora communities here and their families and communities in their country of origin.

I have never yet been on a parliamentary inquiry, where the government, with all its resources and connections, cannot find a single friend to support its agenda. But this is it.

You’ve just pointed out that the legislation proposes our nation should stop providing citizens from countries who refuse to repatriate their own nationals with visas to enter Australia and described it as a travel ban on certain countries.

So, what does it mean for federal Labor to be toying with such a law?

We’ve had a series of engaged stakeholders who have said that this is Labor reintroducing powers that can effectively reestablish the White Australia Policy.

No one should be under the misapprehension about where these travel bans are intended to apply. They are intended to apply in countries such as Iran, Iraq and South Sudan. These are countries with significant Muslim populations or just people who have brown skin.

That is unquestionably what this travel ban is focused on. And people are right to consider this a backdoor attempt at reintroducing the White Australia Policy.

It is extraordinary that this is being guided by the Labor Party in 2024.

Many of the asylum-seeking individuals caught up in the deportation drive have been living in the Australian community for over a decade. So, while they obviously don’t pose any real risk, they’re now at grave risk of being sent back.

Surely, after many of these people have been here for so long it would be a lot less expensive to just let them stay. So, why is the government so keen to go to all this trouble to deport them?

In their shambolic rush to introduce the legislation, the government said it was aimed at people who were on a removal pathway.

In the course of the inquiry, when we pressed the department to give us numbers on how many people this legislation would impact in its initial stages, it was clear that there were more than four and a half thousand people who are potentially covered by these new deportation powers.

Thousands of those people have had their asylum claims rejected by the deeply unfair fast-track process that even Labor acknowledges is brutal and unfair and is seeking to abolish with legislative amendments.

One thing is clear in this whole mess, and that is Labor can’t be trusted to tell us the truth about where they want to use these powers, or the intended reach of the powers, because it is vastly greater than they said when they tried to race this legislation through in 36 hours.

So, they’ve said we had to release 150 people into the community last November, so now we’re going to kick out thousands to make up for it.

The Albanese Labor government said these powers were focused upon people who have been subject to last year’s High Court decision, 150 people, and people who may be released if the High Court rules against the Commonwealth government this coming Friday.

That is maybe 300 people all together. But when the bill in the inquiry was interrogated, it was clear these deportation laws go well beyond that – to anybody on any form of bridging visa – and indeed, there is a further statutory power to extend these deportation powers to anybody who is not a citizen.

So, what Labor has said, and what they were doing, were so far apart, it was either gross incompetence or deliberate untruths, with neither version being attractive.

Last week there was news of a brutal bashing of an elderly woman during a home invasion in Perth, with one of the three men involved being a detainee who was released after the High Court decision last year.

The rather disturbing photo of the woman after being bashed was all over the media. Reporting on the story raised questions about whether the indefinite detainees should have ever been released now that this incident has occurred.

When someone presents an incident like this as reason to support such a draconian crackdown on multiple individuals as we’re discussing here, how do you respond?

We have a criminal justice system, which is designed to deal with appalling incidents like this. It’s effective. It is universal. And that is the appropriate avenue to deal with instances of crime like this.

That event was an appalling instance of violence, and it has quite appropriately been dealt with harshly through the criminal justice system.

The idea that you would unfairly punish thousands and thousands of otherwise innocent people because of an incident like that, is offensive to any concept of justice.

But that is where Labor is trying to drag our politics to their eternal shame.

And lastly, David, whilst Dutton is giving Albanese a hard time on refugees, it’s common knowledge that for the most part the majors are usually running a bipartisan project as they outdo each other on laws that crackdown on some of the most vulnerable people on the planet.

So, is there any chance that this further crackdown won’t sail through the Senate? And as this is the third tranche of recent migration laws, do you expect that this is the beginning of a new wave?

This is not a done deal for the Albanese Labour government, as much as they’d like these cruel laws to be waved through the Senate.

These laws were so ill-thought-out, so aggressive, that even the Coalition has been offended by them. And that takes some doing for Labor to be outflanking the Coalition to the right.

But this is a race, of course, that in the long-term the Labor Party can’t win because however appalling they choose to be, Peter Dutton and the Coalition always reserve the right to be worse.

So, remarkably, in this senate inquiry, we have the Labor majority backing in these appalling laws, and we have a Coalition contribution that’s seeking to put in a series of additional protections for children, for diaspora communities, and to put some limits on these excessive ministerial powers.

The Coalition has left open the option of not supporting the laws because of the incredibly incompetent and ill-thought-out nature of Labor’s bill.

That is the world that the Albanese government is seeking to create: one where Labor is even more offensive when it comes to the rights of people seeking asylum and the protection of multicultural Australia than the Coalition.

And that is a frightening concept.

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Paul Gregoire

Paul Gregoire is a Sydney-based journalist and writer. He's the winner of the 2021 NSW Council for Civil Liberties Award For Excellence In Civil Liberties Journalism. Prior to Sydney Criminal Lawyers®, Paul wrote for VICE and was the news editor at Sydney’s City Hub.

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