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Why are we doing this again?

Last week, the High Court authorised the government to send 267 asylum seekers who are currently in Australia to the offshore processing centre on Nauru. 91 of them are children, including thirty-seven babies born in Australia. Keeping children in detention is horrific and incredibly damaging to their mental health. In the aftermath of the High Court decision there has been a surge of political pressure on the government to keep these refugees, and especially the children, in Australia rather than deporting them.

The most significant development is that Daniel Andrews, the Premier of Victoria, has written to the Prime Minister offering to settle the refugees in Victoria and accept all the costs of their healthcare, education, and so on. The Chief Minister of the ACT has made a similar offer, and the premiers of Queensland, New South Wales, South Australia and Tasmania have also made somewhat more limited offers to help with the settlement of refugees. So you might think that, for Malcolm Turnbull, that's it: you don't have to pay for them, you don't have to deal with them, you don't have to accept any of the burdens - you just have to let them stay. Surely whatever reason the federal government had for not settling refugees doesn't apply when none of the cost will rest with them; there's no defence for refusing Daniel Andrews' offer.

Well, not quite. The reason the government doesn't want to settle refugees in Australia has nothing to do with the cost or the impact refugees would have on public services. The only point of the offshore processing system is to discourage potential asylum seekers from making the journey to Australia by boat. It's humanitarian, see - the boat journey is incredibly risky, hundreds of people have died making it, and Australia has a duty to avoid more deaths by deterring more from attempting it. In fact, I shouldn't just say this is the government's reason - this is the explicit, accepted, bipartisan rationale for offshore processing and boat turnbacks, and it has been for almost six years. And on that rationale, it doesn't make any difference if Victoria has offered to pay - settling refugees in Australia, whoever bears the cost, attracts more people to come and boats and risk their lives, and that's unconscionable.

Confused? Why are six state leaders offering to help, when their offer is completely irrelevant to the rationale for keeping refugees out of Australia? The answer is that this way of thinking hasn't made any penetration into Australian political discourse at all. The way the debate is actually conducted (stop the boats! we will decide who comes to our country!) makes it seem to almost everyone - state leaders, people in favour of offshore processing, people against it - that we do offshore processing for border security reasons and nativist worries about cost. But that isn't what federal politicians - at least when they talk in detail about the issue - actually say.

This is not a sign that people haven't been paying attention enough. It's a sign of deep dishonesty in the attitudes of federal politicians to the refugee question. The intellectual, morally-acceptable-looking rationale for offshore processing is that it saves lives. But that's not why harsh policy resonates with people. It's a vote-winner because of exactly the concerns about the cost, and the impact on public services, and the character of these foreigners, which federal politicians never explicitly express but frequently cater to.

Maybe some of those politicians are being straightforwardly dishonest - they don't believe, or aren't motivated by, the 'save lives' rationale at all, but they say it anyway for cover. I think it's probably more common that the dishonesty is more suppressed than that: that Bill Shorten and Malcolm Turnbull have convinced themselves that brutal offshore processing is the right thing to do, even though it's totally clear that it's popular not for that reason but for one which neither of them can bring themselves to endorse.

You can see this on a large scale by looking at the history of refugee policy in Australia. Since about 1992, policy towards refugees arriving by boat has become steadily harsher and harsher (with a pause of about a year in 2008.) Up until the end of the Howard government, that harsh policy was explicitly justified by saying that we shouldn't have to pay for these people or let them into our country if we didn't want to. Since 2009, the explicit justification offered by politicians has instead been that this is necessary to save the lives of refugees and protect them from exploitation by people smugglers. We suddenly became much more humanitarian. But the policy - and the constant escalation of its brutality towards boat arrivals - stayed the same.

It's no doubt nice for Turnbull and Shorten that they've managed to convince themselves the politically expedient policy which caters to the tastes of racists is also the morally correct one. Very convenient - but it should also be concerning. It should be the kind of thing that prompts them, in a moment of quiet reflection to ask: why am I really doing this?