The signing of the new refugee resettlement contract between Australia and Cambodia last week had all the makings of a political farce. Before the gathered dignitaries were able to toast the new arrangements, a full tray of champagne flutes crashed to the floor. Morrison and Cambodia’s Interior Minister Sar Kheng clinked lonely glasses amid growing heckling from a disgruntled media, frustrated at the diplomats’ refusal to answer questions about the MOU or its implications for the future of Australia’s refugee resettlement program.
Morrison’s late arrival to the ceremony and subsequent stony silence about the arrangements belies the seriousness of the deal. $40 million is reported to be changing hands for, at the moment, only a handful of ‘voluntary’ resettlements. For a government that insists upon austerity and fiscal responsibility, it’s a remarkable outlay for what is effectively a pilot program. But then, the federal government’s anti-refugee agenda has never been hampered by questions of cost. Reports from the National Commission of Audit show that annual expenditure on asylum seeker arrivals by boat alone between 2009-10 and 2013-14 has increased from $118.4 million to $3.3 billion: a growth of 129% per year. It costs $400,000 a year to hold an asylum seeker in offshore detention, $239,000 to hold them onshore, and less than $100,000 if they live in community detention. By way of comparison, an asylum seeker living in the community on a bridging visa while their claim is processed costs approximately $40,000.
The financial issues alone should make the program untenable, not to mention the horrendous human rights abuses inherent in it, were the architects of the program not driven by a greater fear: loss of power. There is a great irony in the fact that the man who used to be the head of Tourism Australia — an institution entirely devoted to the influx and investment of foreigners in Australian cultural products and the Australian economy — is now responsible for the indefinite detention and persecution of those who arrive without being asked. But then, perhaps these are simply two manifestations of the same ugly philosophy, articulated so clearly by Morrison’s mentor, former PM John Howard: “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.”
It’s perhaps not irrelevant that Morrison represents the federal division of Cook in Sydney, an electorate encompassing Caringbah, Miranda, Sylvania and Cronulla — the latter of which became a byword for racism and Islamophobia in the aftermath of the 2005 beach riots. In 2011, Morrison was revealed to have been encouraging the Liberal party to pursue an electoral strategy which capitalise on the anti-Muslim sentiment in Australia. Now, after allegations of repeated claims of sexual abuse of children in detention, Morrison has called for an inquiry — into whether or not the aid workers who reported such incidents were making them up. It’s an extraordinarily cynical act of state-sanctioned victim blaming, and it should provoke no end of outrage.
But the terrifying truth is that Morrison isn’t fazed by outrage. In fact, his political standing depends upon it. Once you have established yourself as the go-to guy in any crisis, real or manufactured; once your public persona has been cemented as he who will not compromise, he who makes the hard decisions, he who will deal with the ‘undesirables’, he who unashamedly never apologises, you can find yourself in a remarkably powerful position — particularly if your party has the ear of a media mogul and the backing of a worldwide network of tabloid newspapers. Short of being punished for his unpopular decisions, Morrison looks set for a promotion, a testament to the fact a politician who isn’t afraid of the wrath of the public is not simply anti-democratic, but dangerous.