Under section 501 of the Australian Migration Act, the minister for immigration has sole discretion for refusing or cancelling visas on ‘character grounds’. Last year, musician Chris Brown had his visa request denied by Minister for Immigration Peter Dutton following a public campaign initially led by the progressive campaigning organisation GetUp!. The justification for the decision was Brown’s domestic violence conviction, though the fact he had previously been allowed entry to Australia (despite holding the same conviction) led to strong suggestions the government’s decision was motivated by politics, and a desire to be seen to be acting ‘tough’, particularly on domestic violence.
Yesterday, following another grassroots campaign, this time supported by the Australian Greens, Dutton cancelled the visa of ‘pick up artist’ Jeff Allen, again on character grounds: he was accused of promoting violence against women. The Greens’ spokesperson for women, Senator Larissa Waters, hailed Allen’s visa cancellation as a victory for ‘people power’.
The fact that in both the Brown and Allen cases the government didn’t act until public campaigns reached a crescendo is a strong sign the decision was, in part, influenced by petitions and demands from politicians and community leaders. But is the cancelling of visas something progressive politicians and activists should be calling for in the first place, and is Dutton’s response driven by a genuine concern about violence against women or by more cynical motives?
While the above cases are the most high profile instances of visa refusals, both the Human Rights Commission and the Refugee Council of Australia have documented the way section 501’s wide scope has been used by the immigration minister to deny asylum claims and place legitimate refugees in indefinite immigration detention. While it might sound trivial to link refugee claims to the case of Jeff Allen, it is important for campaigners to understand that the laws they are demanding Dutton exercise in these instances are exactly the same laws he exercises regularly when dealing with asylum seekers.
Can we really support the existence of laws that allow arbitrary immigration decisions to be made in certain situations, but decry their use in another? The law exists to be used at the minister’s discretion. Not only is section 501 the same law used to sanction both Allen and refugees the minister determines have stepped out of line, the entire immigration framework and the way it treats access to Australia as a reward and punishment mechanism cannot simply be shoved to the side and ignored.
By creating and enforcing a quasi-judicial framework through border controls (which is exactly what demands to deport undesirable visitors is), with the immigration minister serving as judge, jury and executioner, we allow that same framework to be used against vulnerable people like refugees. Demands the minister ‘exercise his authority’ only serve to reinforce that same framework that discriminates against the disadvantaged.
The key argument used to justify the campaign against Allen was that the seminars he runs regularly promote violence against women and sexual assault. ‘Surely kicking him out of the country is clearly a rational response in order to protect women,’ argued many campaigners.‘If Allen isn’t here, how can he promote violence against women?’ Yet, the only reason we know the content of Allen’s seminars is because they are available on YouTube. Is any Australian man actually less likely to commit violence against women because they can’t see Allen in person, only on YouTube?
To be clear, I am not advocating for the public incitement of violence against women. Inciting violence is a criminal act and something campaigners could have petitioned for Allen to be charged with, as opposed to an arbitrary application of visa laws; interestingly, this was the approach taken by Federal Labor MP Terri Butler.
Given that Australia has adequate criminal laws dealing with Allen’s alleged behaviour, it isn’t quite clear why the preferred route of many feminist campaigners was to demand he be removed from the country. The only argument articulated was that ‘People who support violence against women don’t belong here’. But this is obviously a disingenuous line. What they really mean is ‘People who support violence against women and don’t have the luxury of Australian Citizenship don’t belong here’. After all, no-one is campaigning to deport Australian citizens found guilty of domestic violence offences. All this kind of deportation logic does is further reinforce the idea that ‘Australians’ somehow are immune from social problems like violence against women – a demonstrably false argument.
Do we really think Peter Dutton, or any immigration minister for that matter, is primarily concerned with the safety of women when they operate what amount to little more than offshore concentration camps where women and children are regularly subjected to sexual assault? It’s not that surprising Dutton was keen to jump on both the outrage directed at Brown and Allen, given it simultaneously reinforces his authority to deport at will and the guise of a politician taking domestic violence seriously.
There are options available to campaigners concerned about people like Allen that don’t require the assimilation of problematic, conservative frames around border politics. Albert Santos, who helped organise a campaign against a prominent actor associated with the Gamergate movement, has written a strong critique of the ‘weaponisation’ of immigration controls. He argues that instead of ‘grovelling at Dutton’s feet’, progressive campaigners would be better off protesting, organising rallies and boycotts and running public awareness campaigns designed to educate the community. None of these things individually will magically fix the issue of violence against women, or any other social issues. But they are more likely to challenge attitudes and change minds than kneejerk appeals to state authority.
Jeff Allen and Chris Brown didn’t bring violence against women to Australia, it was already here, sanctioned by the very person campaigners have spent the past few days appealing to. Putting Dutton in the position of ‘gatekeeper’ deflects from the work we need to do in challenging domestic violence at home, and only strengthens his conservative political authority, particularly in matters of borders and refuge.