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Stopping the boats!

July 29, 2010

The asylum seeker issue is for some reason incredibly fraught. I’ve never really understood why this is such a highly emotive issue and am puzzled by the whole compassion argument; more specifically why the Labor policy is considered compassionate and the Liberal policy not. It is also difficult to come to grips with each side of the debate as most commentators on this subject have formed a view and seem to bring those biases to the discussion.

So for those searching for a bit of clarity, an article in The Australian today by Greg Sheridan may help. It has to be one of the most measured discussions I’ve come across on the asylum seeker drama and also helps explain why it is such a political issue.

THIS election campaign is marked by a rush to the centre, a rush by both leaders to minimise their differences.

But there is one issue on which there really is a very big difference on policy: asylum-seekers, illegal immigrants who arrive in Australia, mostly at Christmas Island or its nearby waters, by boat. Julia Gillard said in the leaders’ debate that there is “a fair bit of agreement” between her and Tony Abbott on this issue.

Our Prime Minister has many virtues. She is gracious under pressure, but on this she is profoundly dishonest. Labor has belatedly tacked towards the Coalition — lurched to the right, in the terms Kevin Rudd used in his late-night pre-resignation press conference — by seeking an offshore processing centre. Gillard also described the asylum-seekers as illegal immigrants, denounced the people-smugglers as evil and made plain her desire to stop the boats.

But the respective plans of the government and opposition are worlds apart. And here it is the opposition that has the infinitely more realistic plan, the credibility and will to implement it, and the broad internal unity to pursue the plan in government. The Labor Party, though quiescent in Gillard’s present symbolic toughness, is deeply divided over the issue and lacks a realistic plan.

Should the Gillard government be re-elected, the boatpeople issue will continue to plague it and Labor’s internal divisions will come much more strongly to the fore.

There is no equivalence between Gillard’s proposed regional processing centre in East Timor and Abbott’s proposed centre on Nauru. For a start, the geography is radically different. No one will intentionally sail to Nauru. It’s just too far away. Secondly, its purpose is designed to prevent people-smugglers from being able to achieve for their clients the ultimate prize: permanent residency in Australia. It is only about solving the Australian problem. Illegal immigrants would be sent there and processed. They would be treated humanely and all their human rights observed. They would be free to go to any country that would have them, or free at any time to go home. Of course there is a small element of semi-bluff. If the boats stopped absolutely, then a future Abbott government might decide, as the Howard government did, to exercise a special act of generosity and allow some of the people to come to Australia. But that would only be after some years, and after the boats had absolutely stopped.

At the same time, an Abbott government would institute temporary protection visas without family reunion rights. Despite the braying and self-regarding protests of the Malcolm Frasers and Julian Burnsides and others in their camp, TPVs are completely consistent with the 1951 Refugee Convention. According to a recent speech by UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, there are about 16 million refugees today. The vast majority of these will not be resettled anywhere, but will ultimately go home. Temporary protection is the norm.

This is not a question of compassion. This column has always supported a big immigration program, bigger than either of the main parties now supports, including a substantial refugee component. But it also supports an orderly program in which Australia chooses who gets to live here. The government’s soft policies on boatpeople, and its formerly high rate of acceptance of boatpeople as genuine refugees, has encouraged many thousands to get into boats. According to the opposition, perhaps 170 people have drowned in the process. That’s not compassionate.

Gillard’s proposal for a regional processing centre in East Timor is entirely different from Abbott’s proposal for Nauru. Her insistence that the centre has to be located in a country which is a signatory to the 1951 convention is nonsensical. Most of the refugee camps from which Australia took Indochinese refugees in the 1970s and 80s were located in countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia, which were not signatories to the convention. Similarly, many countries that are signatories, such as Singapore, do not take any refugees for resettlement. Another convention signatory, China, has been known to force genuine refugees back to North Korea. Being a signatory to the convention is completely meaningless.

Moreover, any centre established in East Timor would become a plaything in East Timorese domestic politics, and inevitably a point of leverage for any East Timorese government in its relationship with Australia.

But most significantly, as this column has previously pointed out, it would be positive magnet of enormous power, attracting boatpeople from far away. In the joint press conference between Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa and Australia’s Stephen Smith, it was clear the Indonesians have absolutely no enthusiasm for this crazy idea at all. Natalegawa, the most diplomatic and helpful of men, kept stressing that the region should not focus on establishing this centre, and even less should it focus on the putative centre’s location.

The Rudd-Gillard government policies that have resulted in so many boatpeople coming to Australia have been a huge headache for Jakarta. Indonesia was a significant beneficiary of the Howard government stopping the flow of boatpeople.

It is absurd to slander the Australian people for being concerned about this unregulated flow of people, mostly from Afghanistan, the nation with perhaps the broadest and longest tradition of Islamist extremism. Some estimates are that all up 10,000 boatpeople will arrive this year. Until recently, 95 per cent were being granted, almost automatically, refugee status and permanent residency in Australia. Say next year there are 10,000 Afghan boatpeople and they are all accepted into Australia. With permanent residency there would come family reunion rights. Say then that each brings even three relatives over time. That would be 40,000 Afghans who were never part of a considered immigration program. It is entirely reasonable for the Australian people to be concerned about this.

Given her strong rhetoric but meaningless policies on this issue, Gillard could well get back into government and deliver nothing in the way of stopping the boats. This could set her up for a public reaction, as occurred against Kevin Rudd, that she promised much and delivered nothing. On the other hand, to actually stop the boats she will have to take measures that the bleeding heart section of her party will hate. This issue will run and run.

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