How Mur­doch got the kids off Nauru

Be­hind the snap de­ci­sion to re­move all asy­lum­seeker chil­dren from Nauru was a care­fully or­ches­trated cam­paign to har­ness the power of the News Corp tabloids. Mike Sec­combe re­ports.

The Saturday Paper - - Front Page -

We can’t be sure pre­cisely when Aus­tralia’s ma­jor po­lit­i­cal par­ties lost the pub­lic on the is­sue of off­shore de­ten­tion, but the morn­ing of Au­gust 20 con­firmed it.

It was day one of a planned three­month Kids Off Nauru cam­paign, ini­ti­ated by World Vi­sion, and it be­gan with

Rupert Mur­doch’s con­ser­va­tive tabloid news­pa­pers firmly on the band­wagon.

That morn­ing, Syd­ney’s Daily Tele­graph ran a heart­warm­ing pic­ture of a young child, born into de­ten­tion on Nauru, on its front page.

In­side, across two pages, there were more pic­tures, along with an emo­tive ac­count of the lives of the “state­less ba­bies” and the other “un­seen chil­dren” liv­ing in mouldy tents, shar­ing dirty bath­rooms, play­ing with do­nated toys on the “rocky rem­nants of a phos­phate mine and star­ing through the wire fences of the camp”.

The same piece ran on the front of the Adelaide Ad­ver­tiser and, in­side, in Mel­bourne’s Her­ald Sun and Bris­bane’s Courier-Mail.

This was a big de­vel­op­ment, though not so much be­cause it in­di­cated the Mur­doch em­pire was set­ting out to shift pub­lic opin­ion on the in­def­i­nite de­ten­tion of chil­dren. The piece amounted to an ac­knowl­edg­ment that pu­bic opin­ion al­ready had de­ci­sively shifted.

As a Mur­doch news­pa­per source told The Satur­day Pa­per this week: “What­ever else you might say about News Corp, we can see which way the wind is blow­ing.”

In the months be­fore that story ran, the source said, ed­i­to­rial de­ci­sion-mak­ers at News Corp had di­vined that pop­u­lar opin­ion was rapidly shift­ing on off­shore de­ten­tion, and that they should start shift­ing with it – for busi­ness as much as for hu­man­i­tar­ian rea­sons. Like po­lit­i­cal par­ties, pop­ulist me­dia is poll-driven.

And so, when World Vi­sion came to them, of­fer­ing an on-their-own story about the chil­dren on Nauru, News Corp ran with it.

The story car­ried an “ex­clu­sive” tag and the by­line of Jen­nifer Sex­ton, who was hand­picked by Ruth Lam­perd, news ed­i­tor at World Vi­sion, be­cause she was “a good, straight re­porter”. Lam­perd and her team had done a lot of leg­work to pull the story to­gether, calling in favours from its net­work of con­tacts de­vel­oped over the past five years on Nauru.

World Vi­sion had been plan­ning for that day – the launch of the Kids

Off Nauru cam­paign – for two months. Pic­tures and video of the kids on Nauru were taken “by a per­son who won’t

be named and can’t be known”. They or­gan­ised for the fam­i­lies of the chil­dren to give their in­formed con­sent for the use of the im­ages. They pro­vided the quotes from the fam­i­lies about the kids’ men­tal and phys­i­cal health con­cerns.

And they dropped it to The Daily Tele­graph, specif­i­cally, be­cause it is a pop­ulist pub­li­ca­tion with a con­ser­va­tive read­er­ship who may not be reached by other me­dia that’s been cov­er­ing Nauru closely over the past few years.

“The off­shore is­sue has been dealt with in a very com­pre­hen­sive way by var­i­ous se­ri­ous me­dia,” Lam­perd says, “but it be­comes a bit of a cir­cle, where the peo­ple who are read­ing about it are the peo­ple who al­ready care about it.”

The rea­son­ing be­hind giv­ing the ex­clu­sive to The Tele­graph was not just that it would bring the is­sue to a dif­fer­ent au­di­ence, but that it would send to the gov­ern­ment – and also to the Op­po­si­tion – a clear mes­sage. If even the right-wing press were on board with the move to get chil­dren off Nauru, the sit­u­a­tion had be­come po­lit­i­cally un­ten­able.

The cam­paign ex­erted pres­sure in other strate­gic ways, too. On

Septem­ber 20, for ex­am­ple, the Chris­tian hu­man­i­tar­ian or­gan­i­sa­tion Micah sent a del­e­ga­tion of women lead­ers to Can­berra to lobby. They rep­re­sented a range of faiths – Angli­can, Bap­tist, Sal­va­tion Army – and most no­tably sev­eral rep­re­sen­ta­tives of big Pen­te­costal churches. They met with var­i­ous politi­cians of pro­fessed faith, from both ma­jor par­ties, and had a 40-minute meet­ing with Home Af­fairs Min­is­ter Peter Dut­ton, the pub­lic face of the gov­ern­ment’s hard­line asy­lum seeker pol­icy.

Again, the sig­nif­i­cance was not just in the mes­sage, but in the peo­ple de­liv­er­ing it – re­li­gious con­ser­va­tives, the kind of peo­ple the Lib­eral Party’s re­li­gious right is wont to de­scribe as “the base”.

It took a few months for the re­al­ity to sink in with the politi­cians. Then, this week, the Mor­ri­son gov­ern­ment ca­pit­u­lated to the Kids Off Nauru cam­paign. On Thurs­day morn­ing, Si­mon Ben­son of The Aus­tralian came with the ex­clu­sive an­nounce­ment: “The Mor­ri­son gov­ern­ment plans to have all chil­dren of asy­lum-seek­ers still on Nauru re­lo­cated to Aus­tralia by the end of the year.”

On the face of it, things seem to have moved very quickly. In some ways, they have. Sev­eral hun­dred or­gan­i­sa­tions – not just the usual refugee ac­tivist groups but a large num­ber of churches and even an ar­ray of cor­po­rate en­ti­ties – signed up to the Kids Off Nauru cam­paign al­most im­me­di­ately. Ac­cord­ing to refugee ad­vo­cates, there were 119 chil­dren on Nauru on Au­gust 20, when the cam­paign started. It is un­der­stood that 135 peo­ple, in­clud­ing 47 chil­dren, have come to Aus­tralia since Oc­to­ber 15 – many on med­i­cal grounds, and al­most al­ways af­ter le­gal ac­tion. The Aus­tralian re­ported that only 40 chil­dren re­mained.

It’s a tes­ta­ment to the im­pact of

The Tele­graph’s cov­er­age that the Kids cam­paign, which had been planned to run for three months up to Univer­sal Chil­dren’s Day on Novem­ber 20, was able to achieve its goal three weeks early.

Ac­cord­ing to the or­gan­is­ers, though, the re­moval of chil­dren from off­shore de­ten­tion is just its first step. As the cam­paign’s web­site says: “Our po­si­tion is that no-one should be held in­def­i­nitely and an en­dur­ing so­lu­tion must be found for ev­ery­one.”

The Rev­erend Tim Costello, chief ad­vo­cate for World Vi­sion and chief ex­ec­u­tive of Micah, says the key to the Kids Off Nauru cam­paign lay in the sep­a­ra­tion of two re­lated prob­lems – the is­sue of how Aus­tralia se­cures its borders against a fur­ther in­flux of asy­lum seek­ers and the other is­sue of how we deal with those who have come, and been de­tained, al­ready.

“The first thing we had to do was sim­plify the mes­sage,” he says.

“But the problem was, the refugee ac­tivist com­mu­nity was split be­tween prag­ma­tism and prin­ci­ple.”

Prin­ci­ple holds that boat turn­backs is just as are wrong in law as in­def­i­nite off­shore de­ten­tion.

As a pol­icy brief by the Kal­dor

Cen­tre for In­ter­na­tional Refugee Law sum­marised last year, the mil­i­tary-led bor­der se­cu­rity op­er­a­tions of Aus­tralia – and those more re­cently adopted by Euro­pean na­tions – do not ac­cord with the United Na­tions Con­ven­tion on the Law of the Sea, the Con­ven­tion on Mar­itime Search and Res­cue, the Safety of Life at Sea Con­ven­tion, the Refugee Con­ven­tion or the core in­ter­na­tional hu­man rights treaties.

Un­for­tu­nately for prin­ci­ple, though, the turn­back pol­icy re­mains pop­u­lar with the pub­lic.

“That,” says Costello, “is why peo­ple like Robert Manne, John Me­nadue,

Frank Bren­nan and I started ar­gu­ing and writ­ing pieces say­ing that what­ever we think about the turn­back pol­icy, it needs to be un­hinged from off­shore de­ten­tion.”

Costello freely con­cedes that some refugee ad­vo­cates be­lieve them to have “sold out” be­cause their ar­gu­ment is es­sen­tially based on the premise that boat turn­backs have been so suc­cess­ful that Aus­tralia can af­ford to lighten up on de­ten­tion. The con­tin­u­a­tion of in­ter­dic­tion is the price of free­ing the peo­ple on Nauru and Manus.

How­ever, var­i­ous polls at­test to the re­al­ity that pub­lic opin­ion now en­dorses this util­i­tar­ian view. Only last week­end, a YouGov Gal­axy poll pub­lished in The Sun­day Tele­graph showed al­most 80 per cent of peo­ple wanted chil­dren and their fam­i­lies trans­ferred off Nauru. Again, it ran on page one. This time the head­line was “Free Nauru Kids: Vot­ers tell PM to take NZ of­fer.”

The Went­worth by­elec­tion was an­other clue to the big shift in pop­u­lar opin­ion, with the treat­ment of asy­lum seek­ers iden­ti­fied along­side cli­mate change and the dump­ing of Mal­colm Turn­bull as a ma­jor is­sue for vot­ers.

Ker­ryn Phelps, who took the seat, ran hard on the is­sue of kids in de­ten­tion. She is still run­ning hard on it. “The suf­fer­ing of those peo­ple held in off­shore de­ten­tion, par­tic­u­larly chil­dren, is some­thing the Aus­tralian peo­ple don’t want any longer to have on their con­science,” she tells The Satur­day Pa­per.

“Peo­ple know the re­al­i­ties now: one in four chil­dren sui­ci­dal, chil­dren with trau­matic with­drawal syn­drome.

I be­lieve it has be­come per­sonal. Peo­ple start to see their own chil­dren, their own grand­chil­dren, in these kids. It was, ‘No, not in our name.’ ”

Phelps cam­paigned on bring­ing them to Aus­tralia. But she did not op­pose boat turn­backs.

“I be­lieve we want strong bor­der pro­tec­tion poli­cies, but you can have them with­out hav­ing off­shore de­ten­tion,” she says.

“Cer­tainly, if we have off­shore pro­cess­ing, that should be rapid and have a quick res­o­lu­tion.”

It is an as­tute po­si­tion, as so­cial re­searcher Re­becca Hunt­ley can at­test. There is good ev­i­dence to sug­gest the Aus­tralian pub­lic now shares the view that the time has come to get ev­ery­one out of off­shore de­ten­tion.

By co­in­ci­dence, at the same time as the Kids Off Nauru cam­paign launched, Hunt­ley was work­ing with a series of fo­cus groups in Peter Dut­ton’s elec­torate of Dick­son, north of Bris­bane.

The five groups she spoke with were care­fully se­lected to in­clude peo­ple who had voted for Dut­ton at the last elec­tion and were con­sid­er­ing ei­ther not vot­ing for him at the up­com­ing elec­tion or were un­de­cided. The over­all mes­sage she got from the groups was that “it was look­ing grim for him. Re­ally grim.”

That’s hardly a ma­jor rev­e­la­tion, given the gen­eral un­pop­u­lar­ity of the gov­ern­ment and the 1.8 per cent mar­gin by which Dut­ton holds Dick­son.

More in­ter­est­ing was what the groups told her about asy­lum seek­ers. It un­der­lined the tac­ti­cal clev­er­ness of the Kids Off

Nauru cam­paign and also sug­gested even the gov­ern­ment’s new prom­ise to get the chil­dren off may not be enough.

“Those un­de­cided vot­ers were 100 per cent be­hind boat turn­backs, but re­ally did not like off­shore de­ten­tion at all,” Hunt­ley says.

“They and other groups I’ve worked with don’t see turn­backs as an in­ter­lock­ing pol­icy with off­shore de­ten­tion. Their view is, if you’re turn­ing back boats ef­fec­tively, you don’t need de­ten­tion. And they knew that most peo­ple were get­ting here by plane any­way.

“And it’s a larger thing than just the kids. There is a sense that the sys­tem is not work­ing. They called it a failed ex­per­i­ment. They want an or­derly and cer­tain process that doesn’t in­volve the de­ten­tion, par­tic­u­larly, of chil­dren. But not only of chil­dren.”

Hunt­ley’s con­ver­sa­tions re­vealed that these vot­ers – swing­ing Lib­er­als – were con­cerned about the gov­ern­ment’s se­crecy, about the per­cep­tion that it had no longer term plan, and about the fact the sit­u­a­tion had be­come gen­er­ally “dis­or­derly”.

“Aus­tralians like or­der. We don’t like queue jumpers, we want the queue to pro­ceed in an or­derly fash­ion. The queue should be quick and chil­dren should not be tram­pled in the queue,” she says.

Then there was the mat­ter of cost. These peo­ple re­sented the fact that ev­ery case, ev­ery re­quest for the med­i­cal trans­fer of a phys­i­cally or men­tally dam­aged de­tainee, was ex­pen­sively fought in the courts. They also dis­liked that de­ten­tion saw money flow­ing to cor­rupt gov­ern­ments.

It’s hard to ar­gue with their per­cep­tion about cost. The off­shore de­ten­tion regime is ridicu­lously expensive, as the Kal­dor Cen­tre showed in a fact sheet re­leased in Au­gust, cit­ing of­fi­cial au­dit fig­ures. It costs $400,000 a year to hold an asy­lum seeker in off­shore de­ten­tion, com­pared with $239,000 to hold one in on­shore de­ten­tion. It costs about $40,000 for an asy­lum seeker to live in the com­mu­nity on a bridg­ing visa while their claim is pro­cessed.

The of­fi­cial line of the Home Af­fairs bu­reau­cracy, rigidly ad­hered to by the ma­jor po­lit­i­cal par­ties, is that if they were to al­low those asy­lum seek­ers to come here, it would cre­ate a pow­er­ful “pull fac­tor”. More boats would come, more peo­ple would die at sea. No doubt the view is sin­cerely held by many who re­mem­ber the num­ber of boat peo­ple that pre­ceded the de­ci­sion to im­ple­ment off­shore de­ten­tion, and who worry that a fickle pub­lic has for­got­ten.

Ear­lier this week – in­deed, on the day be­fore the gov­ern­ment’s an­nounce­ment that it would bring all the chil­dren to Aus­tralia – the head of the Home Af­fairs Depart­ment, Mike Pez­zullo, was asked by The Satur­day Pa­per for his view on why pub­lic sen­ti­ment had shifted on off­shore de­ten­tion. He replied sim­ply: “Am­ne­sia.”

When asked to elab­o­rate, he re­peated “am­ne­sia” and re­called that “when the boats were com­ing, and peo­ple were drown­ing, the im­per­a­tive was ‘Stop the boats’. Ab­so­lutely, the im­per­a­tive was ‘Stop the boats’…”

The next aim of the Kids cam­paign, ac­cord­ing to Tim Costello, is to re­solve Mor­ri­son’s is­sue with re­set­tle­ment to New Zealand. Dur­ing the Howard gov­ern­ment’s off­shore de­ten­tion regime, 401 refugees were re­set­tled there – with­out the pro­hi­bi­tions Mor­ri­son is de­mand­ing on fu­ture en­try to Aus­tralia.

“New Zealand is the good Sa­mar­i­tan in this para­ble,” says Costello. “And Aus­tralia is like the priest and the Levite, not pre­pared to help. In fact, we’re beat­ing up on the good Sa­mar­i­tan.”

Late on Thurs­day, Dut­ton de­nied the chil­dren were be­ing re­moved from Nauru out of hu­man­i­tar­ian con­cern. In­stead, he em­pha­sised the $1 bil­lion yearly cost of off­shore de­ten­tion.

He in­sisted none of the hun­dreds brought to Aus­tralia would be al­lowed to set­tle per­ma­nently, yet con­tin­ued to spurn the New Zealand of­fer for be­ing a pull fac­tor.

If Re­becca Hunt­ley’s fo­cus group re­search re­in­forces the view that it is no longer po­lit­i­cally use­ful to hold peo­ple in off­shore de­ten­tion, it is none­the­less clear the asy­lum seek­ers re­main hostage to

• pol­i­tics.


MIKE SEC­COMBE is The Satur­day Pa­per’s na­tional cor­re­spon­dent.

MIKE SEC­COMBE is The Satur­day Pa­per’s na­tional cor­re­spon­dent.

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