CANBERRA OBSERVED: by national correspondentNews Weekly
The Rudd Government's asylum-seeker dilemma
, November 14, 2009
There is a strange disconnect when the Prime Minister of Australia advocates pushing Australia's population toward 35 million by 2049, and is at the same time involved in a messy diplomatic stoush over who should take in 78 Tamils from civil war-torn Sri Lanka.
"I actually believe in a big Australia. I make no apology for that. I actually think it's good news that our population is growing," Mr Rudd declared late last month, clearly allying himself with Australia's population-boosters.
"Contrast that with many countries in Europe where it's actually heading in the other direction. I think it's good for us, it's good for national security in the long-term, it's good in terms of what we can sustain as a nation."
But Kevin Rudd also knows that the Labor Party lost an election (2001) on immigration, and that the majority of the Australians still have a low tolerance level for any administration which is not on top of one of the basic responsibilities of government - keeping its borders intact.
It is true than the hard-line attitudes of the community present after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on America have been tempered, and that there is no desire to bring back indefinite long-term detention of women and children in facilities in the outback as a deterrent to people wanting to come to Australia via the backdoor.
Nevertheless, Australians demand an ordered immigration policy which treats genuine refugees fairly and humanely.
Reflecting this change in attitude, the Rudd Government decided to soften some of the harsher aspects of the Howard Government's immigration policies, including dismantling the "Pacific Solution" and doing away with temporary protection visas.
But since those rules were changed last August, around 2,100 asylum-seekers have successfully come to Australia in boats and, with ongoing regional conflicts, there are warnings that many more are determined to follow their lead.
The last Budget allocated an extraordinary $600 million to various federal agencies, namely the Australian Federal Police, for surveillance and deterrence measures, but even this amount of money has not been enough to stem the growing tide.
The Christmas Island detention centre, which currently holds a maximum of 1,200 people, is overflowing, and the Government has confirmed it wants to double its capacity to 2,300 to cope with the expected future arrivals.
Conflicts in Sri Lanka and Afghanistan are producing a potential flood of people prepared to risk all to reach an affluent country like Australia which is obliged to meet its obligations under the United Nations charter on asylum for refugees.Murky tragedy
Another contributing but rarely mentioned factor is the fading memory of one of the strongest deterrents to people-smugglers and their potential customers - the murky SIEV X
tragedy in which 353, mainly women and children, were drowned just before the 2001 election.
The difficulty of finding a compromise between compassion and firm border deterrents has been brought home by the stand-off involving 78 ethnic Tamil migrants from Sri Lanka.
The rickety fishing-boat carrying 68 men, five women and five children, was located by the Australian Navy in Indonesia's search and rescue zone off the southern Sumatran coast of Indonesia in mid-October.
Their boat was leaving Indonesia hoping to reach the safe haven of Australia where they could claim refugee status.
Indonesia, which is not bound by the same obligations, had initially agreed to accept the rescued migrants on humanitarian grounds, but then refused to force them to leave the Australian vessel, the Oceanic Viking
, to which they had been transferred.
The Sri Lankans' plight became a diplomatic as well as physical stand-off after the migrants refused to disembark from the Australian ship or co-operate with Indonesian immigration officials.
Despite being detained in Indonesian waters, the asylum-seekers preferred, and in fact demanded, to be sent to Australia - a demand Mr Rudd could not possibly agree to.
Agreeing to this demand would mean that asylum-seekers could effectively reach Indonesian waters, disable their boat and ask to come to Australia.
In the midst of this, the Government has been under pressure from the union movement, lead by Australian Workers Union boss Paul Howse, to show greater compassion and generosity to people affected by regional conflicts.
Given trade unions' traditional opposition to cheap labour from overseas, it is a significant development.
Mr Rudd has been forced to seek the direct assistance of Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
Inside the government the Caucus has been supportive of Mr Rudd's handling of the issue.
Not surprisingly, the Opposition has failed to fully capitalise on the issue, refusing to articulate a clear alternative position.
Opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull will only say that Kevin Rudd is proving himself a failure on border control compared with the Howard Government.
"For a long time, the boat arrivals were nil or negligible, and that was because John Howard's policies were working," Mr Turnbull said.
"Now Kevin Rudd recklessly unpicked them and said changing these policies will have no impact on boat arrivals. And then of course what have we seen? This dramatic surge."
But Mr Turnbull refuses to say what specifically he would do differently.
If Australia is indeed to be bigger, both in size and in heart, Mr Rudd needs to articulate a coherent and firm policy on refugees.