How Malcolm Turnbull’s political demise prompted a change in asylum seekers’ fortunes
It ultimately took Malcolm Turnbull’s resignation for the momentum on asylum-seeker children to change. (Refugee Rights Action Network: Victoria Martin-Iverson)
Few could have predicted that the demise of Malcolm Turnbull, the man conservatives in his own party had long denounced as being too moderate, would prompt the likely removal of all asylum-seeker children from Nauru.
It’s not that Mr Turnbull’s removal from the prime ministership brought with it an end to the Federal Government’s stance on asylum seekers.
But it did create a political vacuum that ultimately changed the political landscape and fate of these children.
This debate isn’t new, so why is it changing now?
Campaigners, the Greens and some on the Government’s backbench have spoken for years for the children to be removed from Nauru.
If anything, Scott Morrison’s ascent to Liberal leader and prime minister had many expecting a more hardline approach to asylum seekers, particularly given he’s long touted his role in “stopping the boats” while immigration minister.
Instead, a confluence of unique circumstances has brought the Morrison Government within grasp of having no asylum-seeker children left in offshore detention.
Incoming independent MP Kerryn Phelps, centre, joins her new crossbench colleagues to declare removing children from Nauru as her top priority. (ABC News: Nick Haggarty)
Why does Malcolm Turnbull’s departure matter?
Mr Turnbull’s ousting from the prime ministership led to two vacancies: the first in his Wentworth electorate; the second in the influence of the moderate small-l liberal wing of the Liberal Party.
The Sydney Harbour seat of Wentworth is socially liberal, rather than being a conservative stronghold for the Liberal Party.
Social issues are as important to the electorate’s well-heeled voters as economic ones.
Climate change and asylum seekers were issues the voters wanted addressed, as did the Liberal Party’s main challenger, and the by-election’s eventual victor, independent Kerryn Phelps.
A by-election contest between Labor and Liberal would not have brought about a debate on the issue, but the injection of a high-profile independent with a different view from the official policies of the two major parties did just that.
Given what was at stake — the Coalition’s parliamentary majority — a local contest for a single seat had a national audience, and it dragged the issue of asylum seekers back onto the national agenda with it.
How does the change of PM change the Liberal Party room?
Mr Turnbull’s departure also caused a vacancy for the small-l liberals in the Liberal Party.
One-half of the so-called “broad church” lost its best advocate for policy moderation against more hardline conservatives in the party.
So moderate backbenchers began to use their voices to ensure their views weren’t lost.
Victorian backbencher Russel Broadbent and NSW conservative Craig Kelly made it known they wanted to see children removed from Nauru.
Victorian MP Julia Banks — bullied and departing with nothing to lose — went further, taking to the floor of parliament to say the government she was a part of needed to get kids off Nauru.
Ms Banks gave her statement with Victorian crossbench independent Cathy McGowan sitting over her shoulder in the camera’s view.
Just days earlier, Ms McGowan and her crossbench colleagues had joined with Ms Phelps for a press conference calling for all asylum seeker children to be removed from Nauru.
They signalled that when Ms Phelps is sworn in later this month, this issue will be their top priority as a united force.
Her comments came just days before a News Limited-commissioned poll found 80 per cent of Australians wanted the Federal Government to accept an offer from New Zealand to resettle refugees in detention in Nauru.
What was happening in the courts?
It would be wrong to think the politics of Canberra are the sole driving force.
Concerted civic and legal campaigns, running for years, have now reached critical points.
Refugee advocates have long spoken out, and long been ignored. But the intervention of the medical community has added authority to their campaign.
Legal activism, refined over years, has led to court orders compelling the Federal Government to transfer some children off Nauru for medical treatment.
The Government has been losing more of these cases, and the threat of more to come, which lawyers have made clear they are preparing, means the Coalition knows momentum is working against it.
How will external pressure shape the Government’s actions?
The cumulative effect of incremental change has also brought the prospect of getting all asylum-seeker children off Nauru within grasp.
Since taking over government from Labor in 2013, the Coalition has gradually processed asylum seekers and closed detention and processing centres on mainland Australia.
Families and children were removed from the camps on Manus Island, leaving just those on Nauru.
Resettlement in third countries, returning to country of origin and transfers for medical treatment are some of the ways the number of children has fallen from hundreds, to dozens.
The last few weeks have seen the asylum seeker issue get national attention, with the Federal Government’s position challenged on the national stage in a local campaign in Wentworth.
Backbenchers have been emboldened, doctors have spoken out, and lawyers have won more cases.
None of these things alone would bring the prospect of all children being removed from Nauru closer, but combined, they have.