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February 24th 2013 print

Royston Mitchell

Another Immigration Minister all at sea

Like his predeccessors, Brendan O'Connor seems to believe that ridiculing Tony Abbott will stop those boats. And do you know what? Incompetence, incoherence and misleading press release will not stop them either


Dear Minister,
After only three weeks as the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship, you have released
five media statements. Three of those statements ridicule the Opposition leader:

Abbott’s secret plan to import cheap workers exposed

Abbott’s plan will lure more people onto boats

Abbott abandons stop the boat promise


This puerile fixation with Tony Abbott suggests that you have learnt nothing from the failure of the previous two immigration ministers, Chris Evans and Chris Bowen. In the meantime, 11 boats have arrived carrying 1380 asylum seekers. Just so you are clear on what this represents: 288 asylum seekers arrived between the years 2002 and 2008 inclusive, following the introduction of John Howard’s Pacific Solution. In your first three weeks as immigration minister, this figure has been eclipsed by 1092 arrivals more than were received in the seven years before Labor came to power. Just last week, it was announced that the budget costs for immigration have doubled to $2.2 billion for this year alone.

While you and your staff were busy writing your latest half-witty riposte to Abbott’s perceived policy failures, Australia’s border security was further compromised, 98 asylum seekers from Myanmar died en route to Christmas Island and the treasurer admitted that it costs $42 million per week to cope with asylum seeker arrivals. This does not, of course, include the costs incurred by Defence, Customs, AFP or the ongoing social welfare costs (and payments) for those who have already arrived.

Several statements in your media release — “Abbott’s plan will lure more people onto boats” in particular — caught my attention. I will attempt to correct your ignorance on several of the matters you have raised in this statement; after all, I would hate for you to mislead the public in relation to these claims. While it may be politically expedient to do so, I am concerned at your inability to understand or take responsibility for this issue.

Statement 1: The planned increase in humanitarian program targets those in most need: those vulnerable people in camps around the world. The increase is in line with the recommendations of the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers.

The planned increase in the humanitarian program will not target those in most need globally; it is actually designed to clear the backlog of visa applications at posts in the Middle East Region. As you may (or may not) be aware, the increase in humanitarian numbers, from 13750 to 20000 annually, has been apportioned entirely to the Middle East Region, not to “camps around the world”, or to “the most vulnerable lingering in overseas camps”, but to those three countries in the Middle East Region that have been the source of the bulk of asylum-seeker arrivals since 2008: Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan.

None of those “lingering” for decades in African and Asian refugee camps or fleeing war in Syria and Mali has the slightest chance of gaining any of the additional 6250 places proposed by the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers. So please don’t muddy the waters of public opinion by evoking images of sprawling refugee camps in Africa and Asia. The only real beneficiaries of the increase in the humanitarian program are asylum seekers from Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan. To suggest otherwise is mendacious and false.

The sad reality for those real refugees lingering in overseas camps is that the increase of 6250 places has already been eclipsed by asylum seekers arriving on Christmas Island. Any talk about extra places is completely fallacious.  Since the announcement of the Houston Report, there have been record arrivals averaging 2000 per month. In simple terms, the hope that additional places in Australia’s humanitarian program would prevent asylum seekers risking their lives on dangerous boat journeys has been dashed.

So please: drop the false indignation and confected outrage. 

Given the track record of the Rudd and Gillard governments since 2007, I think you should retract the statement that “Tony Abbott has shown his blatant ignorance about how the people smugglers work”. Chris Evans, Chris Bowen, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard have all demonstrated this very same ignorance time and again. Some examples of egregious ignorance about how the people smugglers work include:

  • Stating publicly for several years that Nauru did not work and was a waste of money, as most asylum seekers ended up in Australia anyway; repeatedly attacking the opposition’s plan to reopen Nauru; stating that the Howard government’s legacy in Nauru was shameful and an international humiliation. And then re-opening Nauru when it was far too late.
    That is egregious ignorance about how the people smugglers work.

  • Announcing the Malaysia Solution before undertaking due diligence from a legal perspective; announcing the Malaysia Solution before it has even been signed by or negotiated with the Malaysian government; and setting the number of transferees at the random number of 800, thereby providing a goal for the people smugglers to surpass.
    That is incompetent ignorance about how the people smugglers work.

  • Suspending the processing of all Afghan and Sri Lankan asylum seekers, until the congestion on Christmas Island leads to riots; and then revoking that suspension and granting those who have rioted Permanent Residence.
    That is an ignorant mendacity about how the people smugglers work.

In short, how dare you have the temerity to suggest that you ‘know’ how the people smugglers work? To this very day, I don’t think Labor has the slightest idea, or interest, in how the people-smuggling networks operate. You have had five years to fix this festering sore. Instead you have done nothing but encourage this trade since day one.

One final piece of advice for your last several months in office: stop talking about “breaking the people smuggler’s business model”. This mantra has been thoroughly discredited, due to the fact that the people smugglers have broken Labor’s business model time and again. Instead, introduce some honesty and credibility into the debate. Admit that you have made a lot of mistakes along the way. Admit that Labor was wrong to dismantle the Pacific Solution.

And most of all, admit that Labor can’t do anything to stem the flow of asylum seekers, as the biggest selling point for people smugglers is the Gillard government.