No Labor, no boats

The safest way to stop the boats – remove Labor from Government

DEFINITION OF STALEMATE: Labor doesn’t want to turn the boats back because it would risk the lives of women and children; the Coalition doesn’t want to send asylum seekers to Malaysia for the very same reason.

Chris Bowen argued in The Australian that Howard’s policy of towing back the boats was “flawed and hypocritical”. He would know. After nearly four years of amateurish and unsuccessful outcomes in the asylum seeker and detention space, such statements should be heeded when made from such a position of authority.

But hold on a minute – isn’t this the very same policy that Labor took to the 2007 election? Didn’t Kevin Rudd say, just days out from the federal election, that “You’d turn them back”, when asked by The Australian whether he would turn back seaworthy vessels containing asylum seekers on the high seas? And if my memory serves me correct, Chris Bowen was a member of the shadow ministry at the time. 

By repudiating Howard’s policy of turning back the boats, Bowen is openly admitting that Labor secured government deceitfully. The parallels with the carbon tax couldn’t be starker. Kevin Rudd, on the cusp of wresting back government from Howard after Labor’s 11 years in the wilderness, would have said and done just about anything to get over the line. And so he did. He took Labor’s policy of “turning back the boats” to the 2007 election as a major part of their platform, and it was this policy which played no small part in achieving their electoral success. Less than three years later, Julia Gillard repeated the same ruse, promising that “there will no carbon tax under the government I lead”. This promise, as with turning back the boats, was false.

So there we have the hypocrisy; promising to turn back the boats before the election, only to renounce this very same election promise as “flawed and hypocritical”. There has been so much hypocrisy, it’s hard to tell where to start.

Hypocrisy No. 1 – “Push Factors”

This is a personal favourite of both myself and Labor government ministers circa 2009/10, but for very different reasons. Push factors were blamed as early as 2009 by the Ministers for Immigration and Foreign Affairs for the spike in the number of SIEVs (Suspected Illegal Entry Vehicle). This was a large part of the response by Rudd and his team; when questioned by the media, revert automatically to “push factors” (much as Gillard and Bowen are now on auto-pilot when talking about ‘smashing the people smuggler’s business model’). Thus we had a situation where, according to the UNHCR, the number of asylum seekers increased in Australia by more than 100%, compared to a global trend of just 7%. Asymmetrical asylum self selection seems to have only hit Australia since Labor came to power. So what did the Labor government do in early 2010, after years of talking about push factors and their net effect on asylum seeker numbers to Australia? Suspend visa applications by asylum seekers from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka. Apparently, conditions had improved and, with an election just a few short months away, Labor decided that there were no longer push factors. We have all been witness to the spectacular failure of this hypocrisy, and the flow on effect to detention centres. Labor no longer persists with the push factor argument. It has been so thoroughly discredited, like much of what they have said about asylum seekers since 2007, that nobody really takes this line of thought seriously.

Hypocrisy No. 2 – Labor won’t send asylum seekers to countries that have not signed the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees

At the zenith of their ABN (Anything But Nauru) campaign, Labor vehemently attacked the Coalition for their policy of sending asylum seekers to Nauru, which was not a signatory to the UN Convention on Refugees. Then along came Malaysia…

Hypocrisy No. 3 – Mr Abbott’s relentless negativity has encouraged people smugglers and asylum seekers

Another top-notch effort at stupidity. After dismantling the Pacific Solution and advertising it to the entire world – sort of like a ‘permanent visa and no detention on an island in the Pacific with public benefits for life’ sort of package holiday deal – Labor now believes that the Coalition’s relentless negativity has in fact encouraged more arrivals. This strange attempt at schadenfreude logic is yet another example of Labor’s mediocrity. While happy to advertise Nauru’s deterrence value – or lack thereof – to the many interested stakeholders in Malaysia, Indonesia, Tehran and Kabul – Labor is effectively shooting themselves in the foot (again). As Philip Ruddock rightly identifies, “the very fact that they have been trashing the measure for their own purposes reduces, in the end, its effectiveness. In trashing Nauru they have, in the eyes of the smugglers, built up a picture that it is a transit stop, and that makes it more difficult to achieve the sort of outcomes from it we were able to achieve last time”. Labor will never be able to use Nauru now, whether they want to or not, thanks to this latest exercise in self-destruction.

Whether Malaysia gets over the line or not is irrelevant. The Malaysian Solution is a product with a very limited lifespan. Once the 800 places are exhausted – as surely they must be, because Labor continues to kindly point out how many million refugees there are globally – the boats will continue to come, apace. And what will the government be left with then? Mururoa Atoll? Here’s a scenario for you, Mr Bowen. Imagine that the 800 asylum seekers that are sent to Malaysia (if your flawed and hypocritical plan ever eventuates) are released into the community – as they will be shortly after arriving – and immediately find their way back to Indonesia, and thence to Christmas Island; after all, how many on Christmas Island have already spent time in Malaysia and know the route only too well. What then? Do you return them to Malaysia? No, because the deal has already been exhausted. This is just the most simple and straightforward of scenarios which, yet again, have not been thought through or appear not to be fully appreciated. I’m sure others can come up with more creative, nightmarish scenarios.

Chris Bowen isn’t without a sense of humour though. His article also goes on to talk about relations between Australia and Indonesia, and how turning boats back may affect these relations. After alienating the East Timorese prime minister, and floating an idea which sunk virtually straight away in that country, Julia Gillard has gone on to damage relations with Papua New Guinea, Nauru and now Malaysia. After ignoring the Nauruan prime minister at the recent Pacific Leader’s forum, Gillard again gave the impression that she would rather be back in Australia reading to students. And yet Bowen waxes lyrical about the damage turning back the boats might do? He also talks about boats being potentially sabotaged for fear of being turned back. Nobody threatened to turn SIEV 221 back and yet it smashed into pieces against the cliffs of Christmas Island, with the subsequent loss of many lives, all the same. And the only reason we know about the potential sabotage of boats is because SIEV 36 was disabled in this manner in April 2009, almost a year to the day after Labor had dismantled the Pacific Solution.

Mr Bowen also claims that “advice also shows … that sending people back to where they started the boat journey does work. The best disincentive is … overwhelmingly Malaysia”. No, asylum seekers did not start their ‘boat journey’ in Malaysia. This leg of their trip was commenced in Indonesia. But Indonesia and Malaysia are only two of several popular transit points globally. The overwhelming number of asylum seekers have started their journey in either Iran, Iraq or Afghanistan. And exactly how many Iranians have been returned to Iran? With ever increasing numbers of Iraqis, Iranians and Afghans in the Australian diaspora, more and more will continue to come from these countries, financed by those already here.

One last piece of advice to the minister, if I may. You had better start thinking about a Plan B. When Malaysia fails, or is exhausted, or some other impediment makes it no longer an option, you had better think about what is next. Australians will never countenance onshore community processing, and any government that proposes it is politically dead (as the Greens would already know). You have sabotaged Nauru to the point where boats will deliberately sail straight there, and bypass Christmas Island, secure in the knowledge that it is no longer a deterrent thanks to your best efforts at counterespionage. So, if I were you, I would go back to the drawing board now. It’s going to be a very long, difficult period between now and 2013.

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