October 4, 2023


Advocacy. Mediation. Success.

will Labor government do the right thing by asylum seekers

There’s the right thing to do, then there’s the politic thing, and one can be excused for sometimes wondering whether they are ever the same.

On Friday, a much-dangled promise was fulfilled when interim Home Affairs Minister Jim Chalmers announced that he was exercising his power under the Migration Act to “intervene in the case of the Murugappan family. The effect of my intervention enables the family to return to Biloela, where they can reside lawfully in the community on bridging visas while they work towards the resolution of their immigration status, in accordance with Australian law”.

Well, hooray, sincerely, that this benighted family will finally be returned to where they were taken more than 1000 days ago. The new Labor government deserves credit for ending their torture to that extent.

But also, come on. The torture is not at an end. The family are on bridging visas, and thus remain in immigration limbo. 

Let’s take the new government at its word: it is saying that there is still a legal process to be completed for “the resolution of [the family’s] immigration status”. What is that process? It is not a court process. The parents were ruled a long time ago to not be refugees. Whether or not one agrees with that assessment, it’s a done deal and there are no appeals left.

The only issue still in legal suspense is the status of the couple’s youngest child — the Federal Court found that the minister had failed to properly consider her position, and ruled that he had to do it over. That hasn’t happened. There is no pending court case or judgment on which everything is hanging.

All that remains is one question: will the family be allowed to remain in Australia permanently, or not? If so, they should get visas for permanent residency.

That is a decision, like the decision to grant temporary bridging visas, completely in the discretionary hands of the minister. The Migration Act is designed to give the minister unfettered power to grant visas to anyone (French au pairs, even) at their whim. It takes, literally, the flick of a pen.

It is disingenuous of the new government to suggest that we all need to wait for some unstated process to unfold. It doesn’t exist.

That’s the legal position. The moral position is equally clear. This family has been used for political purposes ever since Peter Dutton ordered the midnight raid on their Biloela home. They have been hostages to politics ever since, dragged through the courts as they fought to stay in Australia — at one point their lawyers managed to get a Federal Court injunction just in time to stop a plane mid-flight, forcing it to land in Darwin, after the government tried to secretly fly them back to Sri Lanka by force.

Then they were sent to Christmas Island, the sole inhabitants of the detention centre for many months, at an astronomical cost to taxpayers, purely to display them as props in the Morrison government’s pantomime of mindless cruelty.

The fact is that this family has been tortured at length, by our government, and that is on all of us. We owe them. The government, new or old, is the government, and it is morally obliged to make this horror good. In all our names and for all our sakes.

Finally, there are the politics. Give the government a break, I’m told, small steps! Perhaps Chalmers doesn’t have enough power as interim minister. Maybe they’re being careful so as to avoid being jumped on by Murdoch and the opposition as soft on borders.

I don’t know what the government’s motivation is. I do know that Peter Dutton has already announced that the family’s return to Biloela will immediately restart the people-smuggling business, so what difference giving them permanent residency would make I don’t know.

I also know that new governments who are elected on the back of the nationwide rejection of their predecessor have a narrow window of political goodwill, during which they can afford to be brave. If they dog it, as Kevin Rudd did with climate policy, it doesn’t come back.

However, politics are for politicians to worry about. The saga of the Murugappan family is a sad and demeaning one; it has diminished our country. It can have only one acceptable ending: permanent residency and an apology. That can be done later, which will be too late, or it can be done now.

All that is required is a pen and a choice: to do the right thing.