23 November 2011

The Majestic Equality of the Law for asylum seekers

"The majestic equality of the law," observed the 19th Century novellist Anatole France, "makes it an offence for rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the street, or steal bread."

The Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee has shown that the same majestic equality applies to foreigners attempting to enter Australia without a visa, and consequently to anyone who helps them.

The report is available here.

It is not actually a criminal offence to come to Australia without a visa to ask for asylum, any more than it is a criminal offence for someone to knock on your door asking for help of any kind. According to the Government and the Coalition combined, however, people who don't have visas have "no lawful right" to knock on our national door. This is nothing more than a simple statement of the fact, confirmed by High Court opinion, that international law is about relations between States, not about the rights of individuals.

Not having a right to do something, however, doesn't make it wrong. It just means you have to ask. That's why they are called asylum seekers.

Millions of people ask to be let into Australia every year. The overwhelming majority do so by applying for a visa: because they can. They don't get on leaky boats and risk drowning to try to get here: because they don't have to.

That's where Anatole France comes in. Rich people don't have to sleep under bridges, and people who can get visas usually aren't fleeing for their lives.

With bipartisan support (minus the Greens, or course), the Bill will get through. As I have previously commented, if it is only meant to confirm what everyone thought the law was for years, then calling it a Deterring People Smuggling Bill is a grossly optimistic.

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