Analysis: Government frees up its own hand and tries to force Labor’s

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Malcolm Turnbull and Immigration Minister Peter Dutton announce changes to refugee immigration. Photo: Michele MossopAnalysis
Nanjing Night Net

Malcolm Turnbull began Sunday’s press conference with a fairly unabridged account of Australia’s asylum seeker policy since 2008, strewn with a Halloween horror show of unauthorised arrivals, budget blowouts and deaths at sea.

The history lesson had a purpose. The draconian visa restrictions the PM was preparing to spruik were supposedly rooted in Kevin Rudd’s pre-election declaration that no asylum seeker who came by boat would ever settle in Australia.

But these proposed changes go much further than that. They mean that even a genuine refugee, resettled in New Zealand or the US or some other country, would be refused a holiday or business visa to Australia – even in 20 years’ time.

It is not a freshly cooked proposal. Immigration Minister Peter Dutton foreshadowed some sort of legal change back in August, telling 2GB: “Even if people are granted citizenship elsewhere, they’re not then coming to Australia.”

Why now? A cynic might suggest Turnbull finds himself in a politically tricky spot, besieged by bad polls, an active Tony Abbott and almost daily reminders that he governs with a precarious one-seat majority. “I think he’d be very worried at the moment, the PM,” says a senior Liberal source.

Acting tough on boats is rarely a bad idea. Especially when the strategy, as was conspicuously displayed on Sunday, is to wedge Labor and draw out dissenting voices who remain very uneasy about their party’s slippery slope on asylum seekers.

But there’s also a policy motive at play here. Papua New Guinea has ruled the Manus Island centre must close, and the government is under pressure to find a resettlement solution for the 1200 people in limbo offshore.

Dutton has argued that a developed country such as New Zealand, which has been willing to lend a hand, would be too enticing and could mean refugees end up in Australia anyway, thus giving people smugglers a product to sell.

A blanket ban on any visas – tourist, partner or otherwise – means they won’t even get a foot in the door. It would free up the government’s hand to sign a deal with an affluent ally while insisting nobody will eventually be able to sneak in.

So on Sunday, we didn’t get the usual warnings about NZ as a paradise or gateway. Instead, Dutton said no country had been ruled out and discussions were underway with several.

If the government does strike such a deal, it can kill a few birds with one stone. It will have cleared the decks on Manus and Nauru without giving an inch to those trapped in the legacy caseload, and while holding the line on boat turn-backs.

And with no other options on the table, even refugee advocates would be hard-pressed to counsel against a US or NZ lifeline, unpalatable though they might find the whole exercise.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.