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SMH - PM can't airbrush away asylum seeker damage 18 May 2016

Election 2016: No, Prime Minister, you can't airbrush away the damage done on Nauru and Manus
May 17, 2016

Michael Gordon
Political editor, The Age
View more articles from Michael Gordon

It's not yet day 10 of the campaign, and Malcolm Turnbull has played the asylum-seeker card with all the deftness and subtlety of a Tony Abbott shirtfront.

Until now, Mr Turnbull has been content to let Peter Dutton do the dirty work, serving up his daily tally of the number of Labor MPs who have ever expressed the slightest discomfort with any elements of Coalition (or Labor) border protection policy.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull after he visited Border Force onboard the Cape Jervis patrol boat with local member ...
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull after he visited Border Force onboard the Cape Jervis patrol boat with local member Natasha Griggs in Darwin on Tuesday. Photo: Andrew Meares
Now, with a Border Force patrol boat to provide the photo opportunity, Mr Turnbull has stepped up to declare that Labor doesn't have the courage, or the will, or the conviction to stop the boats.

But, no, Prime Minister, the 25 Labor MPs you say are only the "tip of the iceberg" are not in open mutiny over Bill Shorten's (and Labor's) commitment to turning back the boats and offshore processing (notwithstanding the breathless headlines in the Herald Sun).

Many have done nothing more than express similar sentiments to you, like when you told Fran Kelly you "sympathise with, and grieve for" the "mental anguish" that so many on Nauru and Manus Island have had inflicted on them.

Most of them simply share the concerns you said you had for those on Nauru and Manus in your very first televised interview after becoming PM, before the bureaucrats and Mr Dutton pulled you up.

Many of them believe the United Nations refugee agency when it asserts, after visiting both places with health professionals, that refugees and asylum seekers should be removed "immediately".

The agency described both arrangements as "completely untenable", despite the best efforts of Nauru and Papua New Guinea,saying prolonged detention had proved "immensely harmful" for the around 2000 people on Nauru and Manus Island.

That was after a shocking spike in self-harm on Nauru and the decision by PNG's highest court that the denial of liberty to those on Manus violated that country's constitution – and countless reports chronicling instances of abuse and sky-rocking levels of mental illness.

Yet, in the story Mr Dutton and now you are trying to project, these and other problems are airbrushed away and anyone with a scintilla of empathy is disqualified from office. It's unbecoming.

But it isn't turnbacks, or even offshore processing per se, that is causing most angst among the "Labor dissidents" (and several on your own side); it's the miserable failure, year after year, to find any enduring solution for those who have been found to have a legitimate fear of persecution if they return to their home countries.

After almost three years in office, you have only come up with one third-country option, Cambodia: one of the poorest and most corrupt countries on Earth. Tens of millions has been spent and fewer than a handful resettled (unsuccessfully).

This is the policy failure Labor says it would rectify, though neither Mr Shorten nor his immigration spokesman, Richard Marles, have nominated their preferred resettlement countries.

It is the policy failure you are banking on the electorate being content to ignore.

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