CANBERRA OBSERVED: by national correspondentNews Weekly
Seeking an answer to asylum-seeker dilemma
, October 1, 2011
Julia Gillard’s obdurate insistence that her government pursue any alternative to the former Howard Government’s “Nauru Solution” has resulted in the asylum-seeker issue tumbling into absurdity.
Had Ms Gillard quietly agreed to Nauru being re-opened at the beginning of the year and thereby negating Tony Abbott’s repeated election campaign promises to “stop the boats”, she would have suffered a fortnight’s loss of face at most and the issue would have largely disappeared from the public mind.
Instead, it appears there will be a protracted stand-off between the Government and Opposition, with Mr Abbott insisting on excluding Malaysia from any offshore processing and Ms Gillard insisting that unless Malaysia is included in new laws as a place to send asylum-seekers, there can be no offshore processing.
After the humiliation of the High Court decision, the Prime Minister says she is now invoking the “national interest” and attacking Mr Abbott’s lack of co-operation, accusing him of being hypocritical and “politicising” the issue. Ms Gillard claimed in Parliament that Mr Abbott is simply trying to block Malaysian offshore processing because he is “terrified it will work”.
Some commentators, including those normally sympathetic to him, have urged Mr Abbott to get behind the PM because he is setting a dangerous precedent for himself should he win office in two years’ time.
Yet there are a lot of problems with the Malaysian deal which was sold to the Gillard Cabinet by bureaucrats as an ingenious way of stopping the people-smuggling “business model” stone dead while avoiding the humiliation of Nauru.
The Australian public initially reacted coolly to the deal because of the arithmetic — the imbalance of exchanging 800 of our asylum-seekers for 4,000 Burmese refugees was not a good look. Making it worse was the fact that Australia was to pay the Malaysian Government $290 million over four years to do the processing and accommodating we would have done for the 800 had they stayed in Australia.
The Australian left-wing intelligentsia did not like it because Malaysia was not a signatory to the United Nations Convention on Refugees and the fact that customary canings as a form of punishment are licit there. Finally, the High Court didn’t like it and controversially scuttled the idea because it was unlawful.
But now Ms Gillard is demanding the Opposition come to the Government’s aid and back her bill to override the High Court or face having to take the blame for any increase in boat arrivals.
Bizarrely, it is now the Opposition which is arguing in favour of human rights issues for asylum-seekers, and the Labor Government arguing that human rights must be set aside in favour of the national interest.
And it is the Labor Party which is arguing vociferously that asylum-seekers must be processed offshore — the exact opposite of the position it took against the Howard Government when the latter first proposed its “Pacific Solution”.
The whole asylum-seeker debate is at one level unseemly and absurd. Yet Australians have consistently shown they want their federal government to run an ordered immigration policy that stops people simply turning up on Australian shores and abusing the country’s long record of generosity toward refugees.
Neither party wants to see a repeat of the Christmas Island tragedy, and Labor (with the left-wing of its parliamentary party reluctantly tagging along) have accepted the principle that offshore processing is the best means of achieving this.
The debate is no longer how, but where. However, some deeper thinking needs to be done on asylum-seekers.
The 1951 United Nations Convention on Refugees was devised in the aftermath of World War II and the Nazis’ attempt to annihilate the European Jews. It was specifically designed to assist people fleeing from persecution because of their race or nationality or because they were from a distinct social group. Australia accepted many Jewish refugees from Europe at that time.
But the situation is different today when people-smugglers are deliberately using the Australian appeals system and their own network of people in Australia to land in Australia via Indonesia.
Many are cashed up sufficiently to pay large sums of money to smugglers for a better life. Many are desperate, but others are abusing the system, displacing far more desperate refugees stranded in camps with no money and no escape route to affluent Australia.
Victorian academic Mirko Bagaric has proposed a redefinition of refugee based on the person’s need rather than proximity, including “disentitling” asylum-seekers who come by boat from refugee eligibility.
Bagaric wrote recently: “There are two imperatives driving this. The first is pragmatic. We should not encourage or reward uncontrollable risk. Paternalism is justified where the activity involves a grave risk to the individual.
“This is especially the case where they are incapable of making an informed assessment of the danger. Asylum-seekers have no control over the seaworthiness of their vessel and no remedy if things go wrong. There is no safe way to come to Australia by boat. These people, and their children, need to be saved from themselves.”
Bagaric also says the change in definition will help Australia put genuine refugees first.
At the same time Bagaric suggests Australia double its refugee intake to 30,000 — a figure which Ms Gillard or Mr Abbott or both would have a hard time selling.
The other thing Australia should seek to do is improve co-operation with Indonesia, including looking at the possibility of seeking permission for Australian customs vessels to patrol in Indonesian waters.
In the twists and turns of the asylum-seeker debate, Tony Abbott has found himself on the same side as the Greens in attacking the Malaysian solution, much to the fury of Ms Gillard.
But the fact is compassion and common sense are not virtues owned by the left or the right. The sooner both sides step back and look at serious solutions to fix the problem the better.