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Costly, cruel, futile: the price of Scott Morrison holding 157 asylum seekers on floating prison

Let's, for a moment, put to one side the ordeal that the Abbott government inflicted on 157 asylum seekers whose boat was intercepted off Christmas Island, just outside Australia's migration zone late last month.

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Asylum seekers coming to mainland

More than 157 asylum seekers will be transported to the Australian mainland. The first time any asylum seekers have done so this year.

Let's ignore the impact on the children, including the babies, of being detained in windowless rooms for almost a month, perhaps in the clothes they were wearing, and separated from their fathers after already being at sea for more than a fortnight on a boat that broke down.

Let's just reflect on the cost of keeping them on the high seas on the Ocean Protector for a month, including the overtime paid to the crew; and the cost of defending a case in the High Court; and of sending officials to meet them in the Cocos Islands; and flying them to detention in Perth.

Let's also consider the message the government sent by arguing in the High Court that it had no obligation to even ask the asylum seekers what they seeking and asserting that it could take them wherever it wished.

And, for good measure, let's factor in the political capital expended on trying to convince the Indian government to accede to the boat being turned back to the port it departed.


Now answer the question: what more has the government achieved than if it had opted in the first instance for what Morrison calls the “backstop measure” of taking the asylum seekers to Christmas Island before consigning them to indefinite detention on Nauru or Manus Island? Would the deterrent have been any less?

What drove this insanity is not difficult to fathom because Scott Morrison kept reminding us of it in the final week of Parliament, even as he taunted Labor for being “too weak” to stop the boats.

“The Australian people can now know that we will exhaust any and every option to ensure that people-smuggling ventures are not successful into this country,” he declared.

Well, they did exhaust every option and the asylum seekers will arrive, however temporarily, in Australia on Saturday - but with a host of new legal questions unresolved, including the legality of what took place on the high seas.

Mr Morrison was just as unequivocal in the face of a High Court decision last month that the device he used to deny a permanent visa to a refugee teenager was illegal. “The Coalition government will not be providing permanent visas to illegal boat arrivals," he declared, before defining a new national interest test that would be used to deny the boy a visa.

Only when the legality of that response was challenged did he relent, sending the boy's lawyers a letter this week informing them that a permanent visa had been approved, but giving no reason for the change of heart.

Scott Morrison's message was that the resolve of the government was as strong as ever, which suggests he has learnt nothing from this sorrowful episode.

The minister was similarly unforthcoming on many questions on Friday, when he announced that the 157 asylum seekers would be taken to Australia, where Indian High Commission officials would be given access, in the expectation that India would accept the return of any of its citizens, and possibly others from Sri Lanka.

He knows how many say they are Sri Lankans because we know this, along with their name, was the only question they were asked during their ordeal at sea, but he declined to tell the Australian people.

Rather, his message was that the resolve of the government was as strong as ever, which suggests he has learnt nothing from this sorrowful episode.

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