The Politics    Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Holding patterns

By Rachel Withers

Image of Immigration Minister Alex Hawke. Image via ABC News

Immigration Minister Alex Hawke. Image via ABC News

The Coalition hopes its cruel halfway measure will be enough to make us forget about the Biloela family

The Biloela family is set to be reunited on the mainland, after Immigration Minister Alex Hawke this morning announced that the family would be moved to community detention in Perth, following a long weekend of intense debate and protest. Hope that the keenly awaited announcement might contain a longer-term solution for the Murugappan family was quickly dashed, with Hawke’s press release making clear that the move would “not create a pathway to a visa”, with their immigration status remaining unchanged. Throughout the day, Hawke and his Coalition colleagues were eager to quash any remaining hope of a return to Biloela, even as friends, lawyers, protesters and public commentators continued to appeal to their better natures. In an interview on Sky News, Hawke continued to trot out the government talking points about disincentivising people smugglers, claiming that granting the family of four a permanent visa would “absolutely” start a flood of boats, while Agriculture Minister David Littleproud told the ABC that community detention was a “fair decision”, adding that no one was “above the law”. In a brief pre-Question Time presser, Hawke said the government “makes clear” that it would not weaken its resolve on borders, returning to some of the Coalition’s harsher rhetoric around “IMAs” (“illegal marine arrivals”) and the people smugglers who “trade in human misery”. Contrary to Hawke’s claim, the government’s halfway measure – taking the family off Christmas Island, while ramping up alarmist language about resettling them – makes very little clear, but one thing is certain: the government wants this issue off the table, and thinks community detention might be the way to make it disappear, at least for now.

The plight of the family dominated both major party rooms in Canberra today, as MPs returned for a two-week sitting period with the prime minister still out of the country. In Labor’s caucus meeting, leader Anthony Albanese labelled the government’s decision to release the family into community detention a “pathetic announcement”, saying it was possible to be “strong on borders without being weak on humanity”. But over in the Coalition’s meeting, MPs were busy convincing themselves the stopgap solution was the right one. Only one Coalition MP called on Hawke to go further by granting an exemption to the family, despite a number of “moderate” MPs having spoken out on their behalf over the weekend. Many more spoke in favour of strong border policies, talking up the need to be firm on “maritime arrivals”, and reinforcing their own spin. Treasurer Josh Frydenberg commended Hawke on the decision, saying the government needed to “hold the line”, while Hawke told colleagues that “it was important that we strike the right balance”. Apparently “balance” means finally allowing the family out of the outrageously cruel facility where they have been kept for two years, only to increase the scaremongering surrounding resettling them – with some swipes at Labor for good measure. Albanese’s Question Time opener, unsurprisingly, was “Why won’t the government let this family go home to Bilo?” To which Acting PM Michael McCormack replied that he would “not be lectured” by Labor, which had put “more beds in detention centres than they ever did in hospitals” (expect to hear this one again).

Ultimately, today’s announcements have only delayed the government’s Biloela problem, not solved it, with a final decision still required from the immigration minister, by court order, on whether to “lift the bar” on now four-year-old Tharnicaa applying for a visa. The government will surely be hoping today’s news temporarily takes some of the heat off the situation, showing just enough “compassion” to assuage the concerns of sympathetic Coalition voters but plenty more strength to keep its tough-on-borders machismo intact. But who is that show of strength really for? In many ways it’s for the voters, with their preference for strong anti-boat policies. But it’s also for Labor, with that voter preference, as Hawke noted in his press conference, having been “tested at several elections”.

Of course, it’s also for other potential asylum seekers and those who might assist them, with the Coalition keen to take this opportunity to warn them off coming to Australia. If anything, however, loudly and repeatedly declaring that to let this poor family stay would encourage more boats is creating an incentive for those who “trade in misery” to pay more attention to this case, when the government could have just quietly let them stay. The government that didn’t want to make an example of the Biloela family by letting them stay is turning them into a bigger and bigger example by the day. Australians, it’s clear, aren’t going to forget about this family. Thanks to the Coalition, neither will the people it seeks to ward off.

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“Health and aged-care services need to store, track and monitor staff immunisation and negative COVID test status.”

A ministerial briefing note from compliance company OnePassport, which had warned the federal government several times over the past 15 months that it needed a COVID-19 vaccine tracking system for aged-care staff, and had offered to help create one. Its approaches were ignored.

“As far as I know, no evidence was put forward in that program which links the prime minister to QAnon … I didn’t watch the report. Frankly, I’ve got better things to do, as I suspect most Australians did.”

Liberal senator and chair of the joint parliamentary security committee James Paterson rubbishes last night’s episode of Four Corners, the most-watched episode of the year.

The Biloela family speaks out
Speaking from a hospital in Perth, Priya Murugappan details her daughter’s sickness and her family’s struggle in detention. More than three years after they were taken from their home in Biloela, the Tamil family just want to be settled.

The percentage of voters who think Scott Morrison is doing a good job, down five points, amid concerns over the vaccine rollout. The Coalition has lost its edge on health and aged care, with more voters now naming Labor the best party to handle those issues.

“Scott Morrison and Boris Johnson have agreed to sign an in-principle agreement towards a free trade deal later today, as the Nationals expressed concerns the deal would exacerbate Australia’s shortage of farm labour by another 10,000 workers.”


Details of the free-trade agreement with the UK have not yet been released, but it’s expected to include changes to the working holiday visa, with the UK insisting Australia remove the requirement that Brits work in agriculture before extending their 12-month visa. It’s believed to also make it easier for Australians to live and work in the UK once borders reopen.

The list

“It was once practically unheard of for people of any gender to get into the sport if woodchopping was not ‘in the blood’, as Beams puts it. But that’s all changing. In part, the newfound interest comes from the strongman community. Strongman, which became codified as a sport in the late 1970s, sees competitors lift ‘atlas stones’ and logs, carry refrigerators, flip tyres and pull trucks. It’s a more rough-and-ready, egalitarian sport than most, one which has separate gender categories and has seen a sharp rise in female athletes in recent years as strength and bulk becomes more covetable.”

“My observations here will no doubt be seized upon with glee by Bolt, O’Brien and co as further proof of their accusations against Pascoe. It may even be seized upon by those instinctively defending Pascoe’s reputation as evidence that I’ve gone to the dark side. None of these reactions would be helpful, though they would reflect the way we conduct public debate now: ‘facts’ matter much less than ‘values’ and the identities they both draw from and support.”

“The fact that NSW vaccinated over-50s with Pfizer should be a big story, Moy says. But actually, it is just part of a bigger story. Australia no longer has a national vaccine rollout plan, in any meaningful sense of the word. It has become a free-for-all.”

Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.


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