2014 Commencement Dinner
Scientia Professor Jane McAdam was the guest of honour and speaker at New College’s 2014 Commencement Dinner. Professor McAdam presented an engaging and challenging talk, reflecting on Australia’s response to asylum seekers trying to reach Australia. The evening was also an opportunity to celebrate the academic achievements of many New Collegians including our latest University Medallists.
Professor Jane McAdam is the Founding Director of the Andrew & Renata Centre for International Refugee Law. She is a Scientia Professor at UNSW Law, a non-resident Senior Fellow at The Brookings Institution in Washington DC, and a Research Associate at the University of Oxford’s Refugee Studies Centre. She publishes widely in international refugee law and forced migration, with a particular focus on human rights-based forms of protection (complementary protection) and the impacts of climate change on mobility.
In a speech that traced the history of former Federal Australian governments’ policies relating to asylum seekers, Professor McAdam began her talk by stating:
It is incongruous that in a country as large, wealthy and multicultural as Australia, the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees is a national preoccupation. The conversation is not about rights or responsibilities, assistance or protection, but rather about ‘stopping the boats’ and ‘smashing the people smugglers’ business model’.
Professor McAdam was critical of the current policies adopted by both major political parties in relation to asylum seekers trying to reach Australia by boat. The fatality of an asylum seeker within the Manus Island detention facility is one matter that Professor McAdam discussed in relation to international law. She explained:
Under international law, Australia retains responsibility for what happens on Manus, and remains jointly and severally liable with PNG for any human rights violations that occur. This is known as the law of State responsibility. We can share responsibility, but we can’t devolve it. And even though what happened...was not part of our agreement with PNG, from a State responsibility perspective that’s immaterial – we remain responsible even if the other country goes beyond what it was asked to do. In other words, we can’t have our cake and eat it too.
The treatment of asylum seekers who arrive by boat in Australia is a topic New Collegians were keen to engage with. At the conclusion of Professor McAdam’s talk they were given the opportunity to ask questions. The tenor of question time demonstrated the maturity of Collegians, their concern for the humane treatment of asylum seekers, an acknowledgement of the complexity of the issues and that there are differing views about how to respond.
The dinner was an opportunity for members of the New College community to tussle with complex ideas and learn from an expert in International Law about aspects of Australia’s role in the dealing with asylum seekers. The dinner was also a wonderful occasion to celebrate the academic achievements.