Misinformation is now political currency, warned former independent MP for Wentworth Dr Kerryn Phelps AM as she launched the new book Refugee Rights and Policy Wrongs: A frank, up-to-date guide by experts (UNSW Press).
Written by two bestselling authors, UNSW Kaldor Centre Director Jane McAdam and Fiona Chong, the book provides voters with what Dr Phelps called their only defence – accurate, evidence-based information – in the “war on truth” over Australian asylum policies such as mandatory detention, offshore processing and boat turnbacks.
As one of its first priorities, the Morrison government is today moving to repeal Dr Phelps’s signature achievement in Parliament, the medevac legislation which enables seriously ill refugees to be transferred from Nauru and Manus Island for urgent treatment in Australia.
“This is a decision in search of an excuse,” Dr Phelps said of the repeal effort. “The [government’s] excuses range from the bizarre to the offensive,” such as senior officials denying there is a healthcare crisis on Manus and Nauru, defaming the refugees as criminals, spending $185 million to reopen and then close facilities on Christmas Island, and claiming the law would dismantle border protection.
'Indifference is perhaps most concerning of all, because if you don’t care, then it’s hard to be moved.'
“They all amount to a concerted campaign of misinformation, sadly and shamefully aided and abetted by elements of the mainstream media who have published these claims,” Dr Phelps said.
Refugee Rights and Policy Wrongs is a myth-busting book that brings facts to bear on this highly politicised debate. In a clear and measured way, the authors explain how Australia falls short of its international commitments, and outlines what a more humane protection system could look like.
Professor McAdam said misinformation peddled by political leaders and certain segments of the media was feeding public disquiet and insecurity about refugees and people seeking asylum.
Professor McAdam and Ms Chong said they were surprised that in the five years since they wrote their acclaimed Refugees: Why Seeking Asylum Is Legal and Australia’s Policies Are Not, the dehumanisation and ill-treatment of people had become so normalised.
“While some people have been deeply affected and mobilised by reports coming out of Nauru and Manus Island, many others remain indifferent to it,” Professor McAdam said. “And that indifference is perhaps most concerning of all, because if you don’t care, then it’s hard to be moved either way.”
Ms Chong said that “our policies may seem justified if the people seeking asylum on our shores are, in our minds, not really people, but rather the negative labels we’ve reduced them to – queue jumpers, illegals, security threats. As we explain in our book, these labels are based on assumptions about people seeking asylum which are simply not founded on evidence.”
Refugee Rights and Policy Wrongs argues that a radically different approach is possible – an approach that is evidence-based and consistent with Australia’s obligations under international law. As one of the world’s most harmonious, multicultural and socially mobile countries, Australia has the capacity to accommodate and celebrate diversity, and to be generous towards those who seek our protection.
Refugee Rights and Policy Wrongs will inform legal, political, media and public understanding, Dr Phelps told the nearly 200 people gathered at King & Wood Mallesons in Sydney on Tuesday evening. She added: “We must not simply accept that we live in a post-truth political world.”