I’ve just listened to Professor Gillian Triggs, the President of the Australian Human Rights Commission, speaking on the ABC’s The World Today (Wed 10 August 2016) about a leak of over 2,000 case documents alleging sexual and physical abuse and self-harm in Australia’s immigration detention centre on Nauru.
Just last week, my MBA syndicate group submitted an essay for our Systems Thinking class that touches upon this very topic. We were tasked to identify a mainstream government policy and to analyse it from an apolitical, systems thinking perspective.
Our decision to tackle one of the most controversial and emotive government policies is something that we would probably reconsider if we had our time over again.
We certainly don’t hold it out as being a perfect piece (group essays rarely are), but it might provide some food for thought about the problem. Remember the paper’s principal intent is to enable us to ‘pass’ the course – the views therein are not necessarily the exact personal views of the individuals within the syndicate.
Acknowledgements to my syndicate buddies, Natalie, Satyen and Timothy.
Australia’s mandatory detention of unlawful non-citizens in offshore processing centres, and in particular those who arrive by unauthorised boat, remains one of the country’s most hotly debated and controversial government policies.
The recent 2016 Federal Election reaffirmed this policy as one of Australia’s key political battlefields, placing it once again at the forefront of the nation’s consciousness. During the election campaign, the Coalition trumpeted the success of its recent measures to ‘stop the boats’ and held this out as a key plank in its re-election bid. The Coalition also used nation-wide television advertising to mock Labor’s 2008 decision to close down offshore processing facilities, only to reopen them again in 2012 after a glut of fresh boat arrivals.
This paper will look specifically at Labor’s ‘about-face’ on its 2008 decision, and the Coalition’s subsequent introduction of the military-led Operation ‘Sovereign Borders’ in 2013. It will argue that the achievement of political capital has been the overarching motivator for successive governments, and that the respective parties have not given deep consideration to the underlying systemic issues facing Australia’s immigration system. Finally, it will argue that the adoption of a softer ‘middle ground’ policy is appropriate in order to satisfy the dual obligations of border protection and the humane treatment of asylum seekers in accordance with international expectations.
Unlawful non-citizens are people in Australia, who are not Australian citizens, and do not hold a valid visa. The Migration Act 1958 requires that these people be detained and removed from Australia as soon as reasonably practicable.
One of the options for removing unlawful non-citizens from Australia is to transfer them to a regional processing centre. The Republic of Nauru and Papua New Guinea are currently designated as regional processing countries for this purpose.
The regional processing centres were first established in 2011 as part of the Coalition’s ‘Pacific Solution’, principally as a deterrent to unlawful non-citizens seeking passage to Australia through the services of people smugglers, who typically transport their human cargo from the Indonesian archipelago into Australian territorial waters.
A Holarchy of Systems
From the outset, it is important to understand that the people who arrive by boat represent only a very small proportion of Australia’s overall illegal immigration problem. The vast majority – between 96 and 99 percent (Parliament of Australia website) – of asylum applicants arrive via air to Australian airports, yet boat arrivals are held out to be the crux of the immigration problem and receive a disproportionate level of attention in public debate. In the context of Australia’s overall migration program, the number of asylum seekers arriving by boat to Australia is extremely minor. It is less than 1.5 per cent of new migrants (Parliament of Australia website).
Despite the fact that Australia’s boat people ‘problem’ is comparatively minor (at least from a numerical perspective), confronting footage of distressed people in overcrowded boats on rough seas – what Meadows calls a ‘beguiling event’ (Meadows, p.104) – has become emblematic of Australia’s illegal immigration problem. These emotive images are used by political parties to further their own agendas, either as a symbol of a humanitarian crisis by those on the left of politics, or the sovereignty-threatening incursion of undesirables and ‘queue jumpers’ by those on the right.
From a systems perspective, it is useful to identify the interconnecting systems that make illegal immigration such a complex and multi-faceted one.
The holarchy diagram above (Figure A) shows boat arrivals as a small sub-system within a series of larger systems. Boat arrivals belong to the wider ‘asylum seekers’ system, the vast majority of whom actually arrive in Australia by air. In turn, asylum seekers belong to the even larger system of ‘unlawful non-citizens’, many of whom are not seeking asylum and who entered Australia legally but remain in the country beyond the expiration of their visa. Should unlawful non-citizens become legal residents, they belong to an Australian migrant community, a sub-system of Australian society at large, and, in turn, a sub-system of the wider international community. The boat arrivals, asylum seekers and unlawful non-citizens systems are influenced by social, political, legal, environmental and economic factors in Australian society and the international community. For example, military and civil conflict in Syria, Afghanistan and Vietnam has, at various junctures, served to increase the stocks and flows of boat arrivals in Australia (see Figure B below for an example stocks and flows diagram).
Politicians from various parts of the political spectrum focus their attention on different parts of the holarchy: the Greens see Australia’s boat arrivals policy as heavy-handed and in contravention of its international community obligations (safe in the knowledge that, as a minor party, it will never need to exercise the pragmatism required of a governing party).
Right-wing xenophobes see boat arrivals as a threat to our society’s Anglo-Saxon values, a threat to our jobs and standard of living, and as a potential source of criminals, terrorists and undesirable elements (without any real consideration of how this stance impacts on Australia’s standing in the international community).
The government of the day is necessarily focused on the ‘realpolitik’ of the situation: dealing with the here-and-now problems associated with border protection and control, the ever-increasing costs of maintaining the system, the potential for damaging news associated with deaths at sea – and perhaps, most importantly, the public perception of its overall political performance, and its prospects for re-election.
The Labor Party’s Backflip
Populist politics was responsible for a major change to immigration detention policy in early 2008. On 24 November 2007, the Australian Labor Party won the Federal Election and Kevin Rudd was sworn in as Australia’s 26th Prime Minister on 3 December 2007. On forming Government, the ALP made significant changes to the immigration detention policy, as it had foreshadowed during its election campaign.
Quite apart from any effort to ‘get the beat of the system’ (Meadows, p.187) and ‘listening to the wisdom of the system’ (Meadows, p.195), Labor moved quickly to implement its election promises. On 8 February 2008, the Labor Party intervened in the system and fundamentally changed its ‘rules’ (Meadows, p.174); the Coalition’s ‘Pacific Solution’ was dismantled and the processing centres on Manus Island and Nauru were closed down.
Having ‘bet the farm’, the Government soon found that:
…self-organizing, nonlinear, feedback systems are inherently unpredictable. They are not controllable. They are understandable only in the most general way. The goal of foreseeing the future exactly and preparing for it perfectly is unrealizable. The idea of making a complex system do what you want it to do can be achieved only temporarily, at best (Meadows, p. 185).
The change in policy had an immediate effect on boat arrivals. In 2008, there had been a mere 161 people arrive illegally by boat; in 2009, this figure increased to 2,726. The dismantling of the ‘Pacific Solution’ signalled to people smugglers that their human cargo had a good chance of reaching the Australian migration zone for processing. Asylum seekers were buoyed by the prospects of success and were willing to part with their life savings to make the journey. Supply and demand forces ramped up. The Timor Sea was soon dotted with boats.
Expecting nothing but benefit from Australia’s newly-altered laws, the boats started arriving in waves, fuelled by a reinforcing feedback loop (Meadows, p.47), as more and more asylum seekers reached their desired destination: 6,555 in 2010; 4,565 in 2011; 17,204 in 2012; and 20,587 in 2013. The self-interested people smugglers and asylum seekers had no reason to consider what the consequences of the influx would be in Australia. They thought nothing of the fact that too many boat arrivals would ultimately force Australia to toughen those laws again, which the newly-installed Prime Minister Julia Gillard did in 2012 – a ‘tragedy of the commons’ in system terms for hopeful asylum seekers.
Faced with the huge number of boat arrivals, the Labor Government did an about-face and reintroduced the policy of transferring asylum seekers to offshore processing centres in both Nauru and Papua New Guinea, before investigating other potential offshore solutions in Malaysia and East Timor. When Rudd was returned to the prime ministership in June 2013, he implemented the ‘PNG solution’ – completely counter to his original position in 2008 – whereby all boat arrivals would be moved to Manus Island.
The Coalition’s ‘Sovereign Borders’
With the election of Tony Abbott’s Coalition Government in September 2013 came the readoption of a hardline stance towards asylum seekers. The Coalition introduced a military-led operation against illegal boat arrivals, known as Operation ‘Sovereign Borders’ (Wikipedia). Under this operation, which is still extant today, military vessels overtly patrol Australian waters and intercept illegal boats, before turning them back to Indonesia – an immediate and strong reinforcing feedback loop that serves to deter further boat arrivals (Meadows, p.172).
In March 2016, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton reported that 698 people on 25 vessels had been prohibited from entering Australia’s territorial waters and had been ‘turned back’ since the beginning of the Sovereign Borders program (Wikipedia).
The practice of boat ‘turnbacks’ has come under scrutiny both domestically and internationally. Human rights and asylum seeker advocates have vociferously opposed the operation, most notably the Australian Greens. The policy has served to heighten tensions between Australia and Indonesia, particularly as several ‘turnback’ operations were shown to encroach illegally on Indonesian territorial waters. A member of the Indonesian Golkar political party party, Tantowi Yahya, described Sovereign Borders as ‘offensive’ (Wikipedia) and officials from the Indonesian Navy said ‘forcing the boats back would also unfairly shift the burden of dealing with the asylum-seeker problem back on Indonesia’ (Wikipedia). The operation has also regularly come under fire for inhumane conditions in detention centres, the lengthy period of detention in offshore facilities, a lack of transparency of operational matters by the Department of Defence, and the routine detention of minors.
Indicators – Success or Failure?
Meadows writes about ‘indicators’ and their importance in all facets of our life, but suggests that we often choose our indicators poorly, and these choices have significant ramifications for the behaviour of our ‘systems’.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the most commonly used indicators are numerical; quantitative factors that measure a narrow, partial element of the ‘system’. These objective indicators are typically retrospective in nature; they measure past performance in the (often mistaken) belief that they are indicative of the future; and they regularly fail to account for the holistic health of the system. Meadows suggests that indicators need not always be numbers and she cautions us to ‘pay attention to what is important, not just what is quantifiable’ (Meadows, p.192).
The metrics that are most often associated with Australia’s immigration detention system are the number of boat arrivals, the number of illegal entrants arriving by boat, and the number of deaths at sea – all numerical factors that point to the success or otherwise of a small part of the overall system.
Purely as a response to the problem of boat arrivals, and in isolation of holistic considerations, it is hard to argue that offshore detention has not had an impact. The ebb and flow of boat arrival numbers on the graph below (Figure C) correlates perfectly with the abolition and subsequent re-introduction of the offshore detention policy.
But the contestable issue is whether these are the indicators of most consequence. Or do they simply satisfy our narrow mental models and ‘bounded rationality’ (Meadows, p.122) of what the problem is?
A more holistic assessment demands further questions: Is Australia upholding its responsibilities as a good international citizen? Is it doing what it ought to do as a privileged ‘first world’ nation in a troubled global context? Are the legitimate refugees who no longer make the treacherous boat journey to Australia being persecuted (or killed) in their home countries? Are Australian values being undermined by the introduction (or non-introduction) of asylum seekers to our society? Is our international standing being damaged in the eyes of our most important geostrategic partners, such as Indonesia?
What is clear is that the successful resolution of this issue (assuming that there is a ‘solution’ and that it is achievable) cannot simply be distilled down to a small number of numerical indicators. It requires a more holistic view.
Meadows explains that many systems are perverse in nature and cause us great trouble, but they often share patterns of problematic behaviour. In systems thinking, these common patterns are called archetypes. These patterns of behaviour represent not only a ‘trap’, but also potentially an ‘opportunity’ for altering the structure of the system.
Several of Meadows’ archetypes are discussed in turn below with examples of how they relate to the boat arrivals issue.
Archetype #1: Policy resistance – fixes that fail
Prime Minister Rudd’s dismantling of the offshore detention system represented a ‘fix that failed’ as it resulted in a new glut of boat arrivals, putting lives at risk on dangerous seas and creating an additional burden for Australia’s border protection apparatus. The subsequent countervailing move by the Coalition to implement a military-led operation to intercept and ‘turn back’ boat arrivals has also generated policy resistance, with sharp domestic and international criticism being levelled at the Australian Government for its avoidance of responsibility and lack of humane treatment of asylum seekers.
Archetype #2: ‘Tragedy of the commons’
As indicated earlier in this paper, the glut of boat arrivals in the wake of the Rudd Government’s policy backflip set in train what was to become a ‘tragedy of the commons’ for asylum seekers – the sheer volume of arrivals forced the government to change the rules, making passage to Australia unavailable to all asylum seekers (Meadows, p.132). And the opposing view: A far-right politician might argue that the wholesale admission of undesirable asylum seekers will create a ‘tragedy of the commons’ by steadily eroding the underlying cultural fabric of Australian society.
Archetype #3: Escalation
The archetype of escalation was clearly evident with the almost immediate increase in boat arrivals after the Rudd Government’s decision to remove offshore detention in 2008. Meadows says that escalation is exponential and can lead to extremes surprisingly quickly (Meadows, p.143), as was evidenced by the huge leap from 161 to 20,587 boat arrivals in the short space of four years from 2009-13 (Parliament of Australia website). The boat arrivals that successfully arrived in Australian waters served as a reinforcing feedback loop and provided the impetus for yet further attempts by people smugglers and asylum seekers to negotiate the sea passage to Australia.
Archetype #4: Shifting the Burden to the Intervenor
In the wake of the Coalition’s ‘Sovereign Borders’ operation and its policy to ‘turn back’ boats, Australia has been criticised for shifting the burden back to the originating country (most notably Indonesia), instead of fulfilling its international humanitarian obligations to receive, process and resettle bona fide refugees. Similarly, sending asylum seekers to poorly-maintained, overcrowded and unhygienic offshore processing facilities in Papua New Guinea and Nauru is also a clear shifting of the burden. These technically expedient solutions fail to address any of the underlying problems of the wider system of asylum seeker movement, resulting in system deterioration, longer term problems, and a greater dependence on future intervention.
Archetype #5: Seeking the wrong goal
Coalition politicians are quick to cite their track record when questioned about the success of their offshore detention policy – ‘we stopped the boats, there have been no deaths at sea’. But this is not the whole picture. Whilst it is true that the system has worked obediently to produce the desired indicators, the overall welfare of the wider system is not known. If international disdain is an indicator of failure, then perhaps the wrong goal is being sought.
A Paradigm Shift?
Australia’s problem with boat arrivals, asylum seekers and immigration detention is multi-faceted and multi-layered; it is heightened by often-impassioned and diametrically-opposed discourse from myriad stakeholders; and it is inseparable from more complex national, regional and international systems. In Meadow’s vernacular, it constitutes a ‘messy’ situation (Meadows, p.198). There is no single technical solution to what is, in Heifetz and Linsky’s parlance, an adaptive problem (Heifetz and Linsky).
Meadows illustrates the magnitude of this adaptive problem with an illegal immigration example from the United States (Meadows, p.194). During his tenure from 1977-81, President Carter suggested that nothing could be done to ease the flow of illegal immigration into the United States from Mexico, as long as the gulf in living standards between the two countries remained. Rather than spending money on fortifying its southern borders, Carter suggested that the US spend its money building up Mexico’s economy, until such time as the cross-border problem ceased. It was a creative idea, albeit one that was politically and economically unachievable, and completely unsellable as a policy to the American people. The fact that the US-Mexico immigration problem has existed since American Independence and persists to this day, more than 35 years after Carter’s presidency came to an end, is indicative of its complexity. Today, more than 6 million illegal immigrants from Mexico are on American soil (Wikipedia).
A paradigm shift of the magnitude espoused by Carter seems to be well out of reach, dependent upon too many disparate players, variables and factors to ever come to fruition. But as an egalitarian, multicultural ‘first world’ nation with a respected standing in the international community, Australia must do more than simply send asylum seekers back from whence they came.
At the same time, however, it has a legitimate obligation to maintain the security of its borders and to protect the way of life of its citizens. To this end, a softer middle ground should be adopted; one that acknowledges ‘realpolitik’ and the requirement for mandatory detention, whilst at the same time providing more attentively to the humanitarian needs of asylum seekers. Accordingly, the following recommendations are offered:
- Retain the mandatory detention and repatriation policies for unlawful non-citizens.
- Retain offshore detention facilities, with a fresh focus on the provision of: a) non-prison-like facilities, conditions and support; b) more detailed Federal Government oversight and scrutiny of day-to-day operations in detention facilities; c) expedited processing of asylum seekers to determine refugee status; d) unfettered access to facilities for international non-governmental organisations and the media; and e) more generous compensation and support provisions for host countries.
- Abolish the military-led Operation ‘Sovereign Borders’; remove the military command and control element from border protection operations; and hand lead-agency responsibility back to Australian Customs.
- Abolish the boat ‘turn back’ policy. Accept boat arrivals and process all asylum seekers in the same fashion, regardless of their method of entry.
- Increase cooperative efforts with Indonesian and other regional authorities to disrupt and interdict the operators of people smuggling operations at their source, and to assist with other regional law enforcement issues.
- Take a regional leadership role in relation to cross-border movement of people; initiate cooperative bilateral and multilateral arrangements with neighbouring countries; and provide appropriate monetary aid, expertise and support to help them manage their own domestic cross-border issues.
- Take a global leadership role in relation to cross-border movement of people by providing international humanitarian support, and by accepting refugees and displaced persons during times of conflict (as the Australian Government has done with Syrian refugees recently).
Perhaps Meadow’s most poignant lessons in relation to systems thinking appear at the very end of her seminal book ‘Thinking in Systems’. She appeals to our moral sensibility and the human spirit, urging us to ‘expand the boundary of caring’ and to not ‘erode the goal of goodness’ (Meadows, p.201). She argues that no part of the human race is separate either from other human beings or from the global ecosystem – for example, it is not possible for ‘Europe to succeed if Africa fails’ (Meadows, p.201).
And so it is with Australia. Geographically, Australia is an island, but figuratively, it is not. Its fortunes are inseparably wrapped up in the fortunes of the wider international community that it belongs to. With this realisation, Australia’s policies should tend towards the pursuit of human goodness and the goal of morality, without compromising the integrity of Australia’s borders. These aims are not necessarily mutually exclusive.
BBC Website, ‘Australia Asylum: Why is it controversial?’, URL: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-28189608, accessed 9 August 2016
Heifetz, R and Linsky, M. (2002), Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive Through the Dangers of Leading, Harvard Business Press
Meadows, D. (2008), Thinking in Systems: A Primer, Chelsea Green Publishing
● Illegal immigration, URL: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Illegal_immigration, accessed 9 August 2016
● Operation Sovereign Borders, URL: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Sovereign_Borders, accessed 9 August 2016
● Pacific Solution, URL: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pacific_Solution, accessed 9 August 2016