The hot seat
Chris Bowen and the Malaysian Solution
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The pizza and gelato stands loaded, the chestnut-roasting demonstration poised, Western Sydney’s monster Marconi Club was putting its best foot forward for Italian Republic Day. Chris Bowen, the federal minister for immigration and citizenship, at home in his electorate, was inspecting the outdoor stalls. At the same time, under the stilled mirror balls of the club’s function room, a priest was proclaiming one of the great mysteries of Catholic faith. Holding up a wafer, then a cup of wine, he declared them to be the cibo e bevanda di salvezza, the food and drink of salvation – that is, the body and blood of Christ the Redeemer. It would take a deeply rooted irrationality to believe such hocus-pocus was sacred truth. Our secular genuflection to the empirical forbids us, of course, to believe any such thing. But could it still be true? The altar was cleared and soon the minister was conferring the Gillard government’s blessings on the Italian republic from the stage, where transubstantiation had been proclaimed just minutes before. As he looked down on his audience, Bowen might well have examined his own improbable articles of faith.
The Malaysian Solution, a project he claims largely as his own (“Courageous, minister”, I hear Sir Humphrey Appleby snorting), holds out one of the few prospects of redemption in the government’s valley of tears. With unshakeable faith, Bowen believes the scheme will work – that his planned dispatch to Malaysia of 800 Australian boat arrivals, in return for five times as many proven refugees, will reduce or even halt the numbers of asylum-seeking boats heading for Australia. As a result, the confidence of Australians in the government’s management of the country’s immigration program will be restored. This is the best of all possible worlds and Bowen, Candide-like, could see it clearly, just over the rainbow, during the week in late May I spent with him in Canberra. Soon, very soon, he pledged, the agreement would be signed, sealed and revealed. By the end of the first week in June, the solution was taking shape as a new and bedevilling problem.
That carriage of a matter with such political import should have fallen to the perky boyish Bowen is a crown of thorns laid on without warning. Julia Gillard’s decision to install him in the immigration portfolio after removing his predecessor, Chris Evans, hit Bowen “like a truck”, according to one of his confidantes. As the minister for financial services and assistant treasurer, Bowen had acquitted himself well. He could reasonably have expected to remain within the comparatively safe zone of finance, for which his University of Sydney economics degree might have been said to equip him. Dismal mutterings from his supporters suggest the prime minister’s move cannily provided a potential aspirant to her job with plenty to occupy his time. But this overlooks the certainty that Gillard’s government will be judged on Bowen’s success or failure.
In the demonology of the Left, there was no more odious a target, just a few years ago, than Philip Ruddock, the Coalition’s former satyr for immigration and Pacific solutions. Yet by now, through the Left’s teary eyes, Bowen had pulled ahead of Ruddock in heartlessness. A procession of the Left’s stalwarts had recanted, voting the Pacific Solution a goer, after all. If the minister was hoping for cover on the Right, there he found indignation at the loss of control of the nation’s borders evidenced by incoming boats and burning detention centres. Nor was the Right ashamed to lie down with the Left to denounce his brutality. Asylum seekers may be unwanted queue jumpers, said the Right, but they were our unwanted queue jumpers, cruelly cast adrift by Bowen.
The minister materialised in an adviser’s office, jaunty in a crisp white shirt and humming a swinging tune. It was Monday and a well of optimism was a useful accessory when a whole week of combat lay ahead. The song, by the way, was ‘All of Me’, a handy lyric summary of what is required of the minister. Later, padding down the corridors of the Parliament’s ministerial wing, Bowen tells me casually that immigration is an election-losing issue. Although the caucus was giving Bowen the benefit of the doubt, compliantly quiescent on the Malaysian Solution, a descent into friendless hell was assured if his best-laid plan went awry. He set to work. “I enjoyed thinking, ‘Well, how are we going to solve this problem? How about a transfer agreement?’ Then getting [together with] seasoned diplomats, people who’ve been dealing with this for years, and saying, ‘Well, how are we going to do this, guys?’ and then going to Malaysia and engaging in diplomacy.” Just how much diplomacy is permitted without the involvement of the hyperkinetic foreign minister Kevin Rudd (for whom Bowen had counted numbers against Kim Beazley in 2006) is a point of some interest. Bowen says he discussed the Malaysian plan with Rudd, but given Bowen’s own relationship with the Malaysian minister for home affairs, Hishammuddin Hussein, it was “mine to take carriage of and mine to negotiate”.
Bowen is new to international diplomacy and his skills are open to question. The announcement of an agreement without first settling critical details would hogtie an Australian government in subsequent negotiations. But the story that the early announcement permitted Gillard to tell evidently proved too seductive to hold back. “Up until recently,” admitted Bowen, “there’s been this atmosphere, frankly, of ‘we’ve got this big problem’… but now there’s a spirit of ‘we do have a plan’… There’s a policy framework, and the government’s got a narrative now. We’ve got a message.” That message was open to interpretation.
“I’m not sure I even know what rattan is,” confessed one of Bowen’s advisers on the day Sydney’s Daily Telegraph helpfully published a double-page spread on Malaysia’s caning habit. The cruel switch of rattan on bare buttocks was pictured in the top circulation daily, alongside a picture of a baby in mittens behind wire fencing. In the media Bowen duly became the minister for caning. They will not be caned, he said, in another display of Yes Minister courage. “Malaysia’s said they won’t be caned.” And you believe them? I asked. “Yes, I believe them. Of course.”
The week of the cane had also been heralded as the dawn of transparency. At the minister’s instigation, the hard numbers of asylum seeker arrivals, rejections, acceptances and returns would be published online, updated quarterly, for all to see. But by midday Bowen’s office had set itself on fire by accidentally overstating the decline in refugee visa applications in a press release accompanying the (correct) statistics. A certain journalist would publish the story online as a “major drop”, a staffer warned Bowen, and it would be headlined as the minister attempting to sugarcoat the figures. (Verily, this came to pass.) And the day promised yet more joy. An independent investigation ordered by Bowen into accommodation and services for refugees in the Newcastle area had revealed squalid conditions and mistreatment by government contractors. Labor MPs from the affected electorates gathered in Bowen’s office where he broke the bad news and prepared to make a statement to the Parliament about setting the mess right. Oh, and the Congolese were on their way. After a discussion with staff about precisely which group of Congolese was en route, the minister headed to a meeting room. The room was empty and stayed that way for some time until an assistant advised that the Congolese, first-time visitors to Canberra, were lost.
The minister is a compact man with raisin-dark eyes recessed into pale chubby cheeks. His most striking feature is physical only in part: unbreachable composure. As the week would demonstrate, when all else burned around him, Bowen calmly assessed the height of the flames, calculated the volume of water required, and reserved his wrath. In the eventual meeting with the found Congolese, the minister apologised for the reduced time at his disposal and spoke authoritatively about the history of African migration to Australia – 50,000 Africans settled as part of the country’s humanitarian intake over the last decade, nearly a third of the total. The faces around the table looked to him in hope, each person in turn raising a separate area of concern. Their worries ranged across the Congolese struggle to fit in, the plight of unemployed Congolese (17% of all Congolese in Australia), the problems of unaccompanied minors, and funding for activities to strengthen the cohesion of the community. “And how can the process of medical examinations be sped up?” asked a doctor, keen to practise after five years treading water in his new country. Throughout, the minister wore a benign expression, listening unblinkingly, shifting slightly now and then to lay a hand on his face. Eventually he looked slightly worn, as if eroded by the pile of words. Every new community has these issues, he told them, but history shows us that it works, in time. The visitors wanted a photograph; the minister obliged, standing in the middle of the Congolese while the frustrated doctor squatted like a centre-half forward in a team photo.
“Alright, where are they going to come at me?” Bowen asked his staff, whose task it is to steel him for parliamentary Question Time. The erroneous press release is still uppermost in calculations. The prime minister needs to know that she may be asked about the matter. Also, an inquiry into the detention system sponsored by the Coalition looms. Will the Opposition go for a censure motion today? The minister rehearses some lines and makes off. When he rises to answer a question at the dispatch box, he finds an unexpected voice, more urgent and driven than his usual one; the mild-mannered minister accelerates like a toy whose worn-down batteries have been replaced. Combat becomes Bowen, even with the slightly hectoring tone that creeps into his attack. He’s up for it.
Bowen could hardly be otherwise since over half of the minister’s relatively short life has been spent soaking up Labor. His rise from grassroots and council politics – Bowen was mayor of Sydney’s Fairfield, overseeing a budget of $100 million at 25 – is straight from modern Labor’s copybook. A spawn of the NSW Right and one-time staffer of the former NSW minister Carl Scully, he emphatically defends the regulation Labor path to power. “Just because you’ve worked for a union or you’ve been a staffer [doesn’t mean] you can’t be a well-rounded individual … staffers build up good policy skills. They do. I’m not saying that everybody should be a staffer, but I’m saying staffers shouldn’t be castigated for caring about politics and policy.”
Bowen heard the call early, signing up to the party at 15 and acquiring a taste, which he retains, for political history: “I’m a political animal. I study politics. I read politics.” His home bookshelf is heavy with the stuff, substantial real estate given over to Winston Churchill. Despite the burden of his portfolio, Bowen tries to keep up. To demonstrate the point he pulls two new books from his bag: one is titled Churchill’s Bunker; the second is a biography of William Pitt the Younger – who, I note, became a British prime minister at 24, nearly the same age as Bowen when he slipped on the mayoral robes in Fairfield. Bowen’s relative youth – at 38 he is the youngest member of Cabinet – gives him flexibility for what he hopes will be a long political tenure, perhaps ten or 15 years, and enough time for a second career. He is coy about prime ministerial aspirations – it doesn’t pay to be otherwise – without ruling out the possibility “if the planets all aligned”. His three-year-old son, Max, and six-year-old daughter, Grace, have never known a time when their dad, who entered Parliament in 2004, was not going to work by plane.
Australia was number 176 of the 192 states on Navi Pillay’s to-do list. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights was in the country to check on the state of the nation from the heights of the UN’s policing perch. She had already declared her displeasure with Bowen’s Malaysian plan, so when she and her entourage swept into Bowen’s office, in the hushed blue-carpet zone of Parliament House, there was a whiff of cordite already in the air. The high commissioner unfurled a combination of sticks, carrots and commendations. In the latter category, Australia presented a “positive model of multiculturalism when such policies were challenged in the world”. On the other hand, asylum seeker detention times were unacceptable and she had formed the view that detainees did not have sufficient access to legal recourse. In the carrot department, she would publicly commend Australia, she said, when Bowen progressed his target of releasing the majority of children from detention by midyear.
The minister responded with a wide-ranging summary of Australia’s refugee and detention system explaining, among other things, that the scope of legal options available to asylum seekers often served to prolong their detention. He described the Malaysian Solution as “a kind of turning around [of] the boats, a virtual turnaround, but with protections in place”. Pillay was heartened by the protections, she said, and seemed quite unaware that another arm of the UN’s apparatus, namely its refugee agency, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, had agreed to participate with Bowen in the establishment of an arrangement with Malaysia. UNHCR officials had been able to meet with a Malaysian cabinet minister for the very first time, Bowen told her, as a result of his own efforts. Nevertheless Pillay ended with a warning: “We’ll be watching how you implement your good intentions.”
To witness a meeting of departmental heads in the immigration minister’s office is not just to glimpse the department’s reach but to comprehend how much there is to go disastrously wrong. Immigration is one of only two operational federal portfolios – that is, only immigration and defence implement policy directly without state involvement. Bowen chairs the meeting comprising four departmental heads and four of his own staff. The discussion takes in the continuing effort to release children from detention, the search for private rental property or church premises – convents and manses – to house the children. On the agenda, too, are the difficulties of accommodating large refugee families, and the growing problem of dealing with angry asylum seekers whose applications for visas are denied (more than half in the first quarter of this year). How to manage households with numbers of asylum seekers only some of whom will receive good news, while their friends face removal? The most striking feature of the discussion is that it is predicated on the success of the ‘solution’. The collective seems to be looking ahead to a not-so-distant time when it will be able to pack up all its cares and woes. Bowen does nothing to temper this. He is calm in the midst of an avalanche of detail, processing it with an occasional “hock-ay”. He tells me: “In this department there’s this huge working-parts bureaucracy, which sometimes will work, and sometimes won’t. When things go wrong, it’s my responsibility – whether it’s what we saw in Newcastle, or crises in detention centres.” Assessing himself as potential collateral damage, he concludes, “Yes, it can end ministerial careers.”
Bowen’s ease with assuming responsibility has allowed him to wield his special powers of ministerial discretion with equanimity. Those powers require him to decide, God-like, on the many last ditch appeals for consideration – the ones that have exhausted all other avenues – to stay in Australia. With methodical calm, he wades through them, more than 1800 decided upon in six months. One former Labor immigration minister reputedly laid such applications end-to-end in piles around his office, stricken by the burden of making life-changing, even life-destroying decisions. Bowen admits to some sleepless nights but is wary of overstating the pressure. His Canberra flatmate and best man Labor MP Ed Husic says he and fellow MP Jason Clare, the other occupant of Bowen’s Canberra digs, “deliberately try and make sure that the environment is lighthearted”. He jokes that “we call it the Frat House, where we’re putting screwdrivers through cans of lemonade.” He says Bowen often ends his days around 11 pm and is gone again by 5 am, his schedule being “a lot heavier when he was negotiating the deal with Malaysia”.
Then the leak. Bowen told me he regarded the leaking of documents, which purported to show the UNHCR livid with the Malaysian government’s attitude to human rights, as a “cowardly” attempt to disrupt the negotiations. “They won’t succeed,” he said quietly. In the course of a TV interview, he explained that the documents were out of date and restated a point he had made before: that unaccompanied children would not be exempt from removal to Malaysia. Saying anything else would seem to be an invitation for children to be put on leaky boats. However, Bowen thereafter became the minister for the deportation of children. He was then forced to admit that vulnerable children would be given special consideration.
At the time of writing nearly 300 people had arrived on six boats since the government’s May announcement of an agreement with Malaysia. In a country where it no longer seemed possible to persuade citizens that boat arrivals could be managed effectively on Australian soil, the people waited for word from the minister now in charge of their lives. Where they would be sent was unclear. “Has there ever been a policy fiasco this bad?” asked one headline. The Labor caucus was stirring. Bowen, who in the past had often been described as one of the more competent ministers in the benighted Gillard government, was increasingly written off as “hapless”. By mid June, it was the minister’s own bare buttocks being caned in a cartoon titled ‘Painful negotiations’.
One day in Bowen’s office someone was heard to say, “the problem we have is it’s not a simple argument.” Indeed, minister. Chris Bowen, christened a Methodist, but today without religious conviction, clung instead to the pillars of his own faith: the boats would stop and Australia would increase its intake of genuine refugees desperate to come from Malaysia, where there were 92,000 of them.
At home with his family in Sydney’s Smithfield, an area where Greeks and Macedonians, Serbs and Croats, Vietnamese and Chinese, Syrians and Iranians had settled, the Australian minister of English–Welsh–Irish–German Jewish origins persisted: the Malaysian Solution would work. Could it be true?