When a moral issue also becomes an economic one, does anything happen?

I’m confused. The Coalition is currently focussed on making savings in the budget, but they’re missing a major area for cutting costs and Labor hasn’t questioned them on it at all. I’m talking about how Australia currently treats asylum seekers. I’d seen information before on the economic folly of the complex and lengthy system of offshore processing we have, but this engaging article from Julian Burnside AO QC really sets the issue straight with a few figures I hadn’t seen before, as well as addressing the moral side of things better than I ever will (so go read the article).

Typically, most discussion about how we treat asylum seekers has been focussed on the moral aspects of the issue. Of course it has – our response to the plight of asylum seekers has gotten progressively less empathetic over the last decade and a bit. For context, the children overboard affair was in 2001, which is when the Howard government enacted stricter border protection measures to prevent ‘unauthorised’ arrivals from reaching Australia by boat, and things started to go downhill.

However, when the current policy doesn’t make sense financially as well as morally, you have to wonder why things aren’t changing. It’s also curious that Labor aren’t using this as an excuse to attack the coalition. The savings that could be made, from Burnside:

Let us make some bold assumptions. Let’s assume that the spike in arrivals that we saw in 2012 became the new norm (highly unlikely); and let’s assume that every asylum seeker remained on Centrelink benefits (also highly unlikely: they are highly motivated). It would cost us about $500 million a year. We would save $4.5 billion a year by treating them decently. And the $500 million would be spent in the struggling economies of regional towns and cities.

$4.5 billion. You could do a lot of things with $4.5 billion: fund schools; fund hospitals; really boost up Operation Sovereign Borders…wait. Don’t do that last one.

Burnside got to those figures with the following system:

If I could re-design the system, it would look something like this:

  • Boat-arrivals would be detained initially for one month, for preliminary health and security checks, subject to extension if a court was persuaded that a particular individual should be detained longer;
  • After initial detention, they would be released into the community, with the right to work, Centrelink and Medicare benefits;
  • They would be released into the community on terms calculated to make sure they remained available for the balance of their visa processing;
  • During the time their visa applications were being processed, they would be required to live in specified regional cities. Any government benefits they received would thus work for the benefit of the regional economy. There are plenty of towns around the country that would welcome an increase in their population.

So why is there such a vested and continued interest in stopping refugees settling in Australia? It demonstrably doesn’t make sense financially, and our current methods are morally repugnant. Obviously the moral argument doesn’t deter our two major parties, but one would think the economic one would have them seeing ‘free’ money to be made.

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