CANBERRA OBSERVED: News Weekly
Labor's 'people overboard' fiasco
, May 2, 2009
Mr Rudd continues to blame the rise in people-smuggling and illegal arrivals on global factors.You know the Rudd Government feels it has a sticky problem on its hands when the Prime Minister decides to switch the topic of political conversation to the comparative safety of the Global Financial Crisis.
Kevin Rudd likes to control what is called "the news cycle", setting the daily agenda with policy announcements, speeches and targeted attacks on the Opposition, while quickly dousing bushfires when they break out.
He has a team of media specialists working for him, and he monitors — some would say micro-manages — the work and decisions of his ministers in a way that is starting to rankle many on the frontbench.Asylum-seekers
But the explosion on board an illegal asylum-seeker vessel on Ashmore Reef caused a temporary loss of Rudd control for several days.
Mr Rudd's "diversionary tactic" was to declare for the first time that Australia was inevitably heading for a recession.
It was a sharp warning, a reality-check ahead of what will be a tough budget on May 12; but it was also designed to swing back focus onto an issue on which the Government is on safer ground.
The Ashmore Reef incident, in which five people drowned and dozens of others suffered burns, highlighted a potentially serious problem for the Rudd Government — the sharp increase in the number of people seeking refuge in Australia since it softened its laws on illegal arrivals.
Border control, like the fabled Tasmanian timber-worker jobs of 2004, is seared into the psyche of Labor hardheads because they know through bitter experience what voters really think.
That is, the electorate puts jobs and community ahead of totemic Greens-inspired arguments about the environment, and they want the national government to protect Australia's borders from a free-for-all arrivals system.
The 2001 and 2004 elections were fought on these two issues — and Labor, choosing to back its city latte-sipping faction instead of championing ordinary folk in the suburbs, the regions and the bush, lost out.
Yet Australians are also not without compassion.
There is no outcry against the generous welcome Australia gives to 12,000-odd people each year in its humanitarian program — close to the highest per capita intake in the world.
And the Rudd Government's efforts to stop people, including children, being kept indefinitely behind razor-wire in detention centres, was generally welcomed.
The Rudd Government also closed down some of the worst detention centres, ended the Howard Government's "Pacific Solution" of holding people in Nauru and Papua New Guinea, and scrapped temporary protection visas.
Recent newspaper reports have claimed the Australian Federal Police warned the Rudd Government that changing the laws would encourage a fresh wave of asylum-seekers.
The reports have not been denied.
While the Howard Government's policy on illegal arrivals was harsh, it undeniably worked, as even the refugee and humanitarian lobbyists acknowledged.
The more permissive policy approach has coincided with an upswing in people-smuggling, with six illegal vessels arriving this year.
From 2003 until 2007, there were just 250 illegal arrivals; but in just the first year of the Rudd Government the number jumped to 160.
And the Rudd Government is warning that thousands more are on their way.
While Mr Rudd has described people-smugglers as "vile" people who should "rot in hell", tough talk will not stop them coming to Australia if they know that all they have to do is reach the mainland — however they achieve this.
About the rise in illegal arrivals that has occurred since the government's changes to the laws, Mr Rudd continues to blame this rise on global factors and increasing instability in the region.
But, if the Rudd Government does not want to go back to the "Pacific Solution", it has to come up with an alternative but equally effective strategy — or face the electoral consequences.