If refugees who arrive by boat are breaking the law, how come the minister for immigration is unable to tell us which one?
So why are we being so soft on them? Why is no one lifting a finger to prosecute the illegals in our midst? Instead of trips to the Pacific and temporary visas they should be hauled through the courts. Why Villawood? Why not Long Bay?
This week Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison took the rhetoric of opposition into government: from now on, asylum seekers who arrive by boat are to be deemed in all official correspondence “illegals”.
Australians have been tossing the word around ever since that first refugee boat appeared in Darwin Harbour in 1976. And it wasn’t plucked out of the air. The British in the 1930s called Jews trying to get into Palestine “illegals” and hunted them down.
So much of what we do now was pioneered them. There was a naval blockade of boats. Remember Exodus? And the British dumped Jewish refugees in camps offshore, not in Nauru of course but Cyprus. And they branded them “illegals”.
Let’s not reflect on the outcome of the strategy – not a British strategy alone – that trapped the Jews of Europe behind the lines in the war. It’s why we have the Refugee Conventions. They are the world’s way of apologising to the millions who died.
And every country that signs up pledges to let refugees in with or without formal authorisation. It’s the fundamental rule: visas and passports are not required.
Since Abbott revived the old Coalition habit of smearing asylum seekers as “illegals” – John Howard did, Kevin Rudd didn’t – attempts have been made to justify the rhetoric by appeals to Article 31 of the convention.
It isn’t hard to Google and isn’t hard to read. Article 31 takes the sting out of laws in countries that make the entry of refugees illegal. It says: if you are such a country with such laws, you will no longer “impose penalties” on refugees “on account of their illegal entry or presence”.
Australia doesn’t have such laws. Never has had. Politicians whipping up fear of refugees talk about Article 31. But Article 31 isn’t talking about us.
The minister for immigration, on the other hand, seems to be talking rubbish.
“People who have entered Australia illegally by boat have illegally entered by boat,” he declared the other day. “I've never said that it is illegal to claim asylum. That's not what the term refers to. It refers to their mode of entry.”
So what’s the law they break? I’ve asked Morrison’s office and had no reply. I’ve put the same question to the first law officer of the nation, the Attorney-General George Brandis. Again no reply.
And I’ve had no luck with the prime minister’s office either.
Yet laws are so easy to identify. There are lots of laws about refugees. The Migration Act is thicker than an old phone book. It runs to thousands of sections and subsections. So which one is the law boat people break?
Abbott and Morrison and Brandis aren’t in opposition now. They can lift the phone and have instant access to the finest legal minds in Australia. If between them they can't name the law, then this week’s decision to rebrand refugees as criminals begins to look obscene.
We’ve come a long way down the slippery slope of official rhetoric in the last 30 years. “Refugees” turned into “asylum seekers” long ago. They became SUNCs (suspected unauthorised non-citizens) under Howard and morphed into IMAs (irregular maritime arrivals) under Rudd.
Now under Abbott they become “illegals”.
Not that most Australians need persuading. Year after the year the splendid Scanlon Foundation surveys of Australian attitudes confirm: “The most common view of asylum seekers arriving by boat was that they are illegal immigrants.”
So let’s put it to the only test of illegality that matters in a lawful society. Let’s arrest the next boatload of refugees who arrive here after surviving corrupt officials and criminal people smugglers and treacherous seas and let’s take them before a magistrate.
The case would be thrown out of court.
Scott Morrison isn’t speaking the language of the law this week. It’s the language of fear and hate, the official language for now of Australian politics.