Government of sorrows

The sinking of another boat, the second in two months, has signalled both the final collapse of the last vestiges of Australia’s border protection capability, and the near-fatal unravelling of the Gillard government.

The capitulation is complete. Not only does this latest tragedy epitomise the failure of the Rudd and Gillard administrations to adjust to and cope with the evolving regional and global challenges posed by asylum seekers, but it calls into question every self-belief, every cherished ideal held dear by the left. Even the most fervent refugee advocate, whose hatred of the Howard government is immortalised in the memorial to the SIEV X in Canberra, must finally face the dreadful realisation that the policies of Labor and the Greens are killing more asylum seekers, more frequently, than anyone ever imagined possible.

The failure by Labor to find a solution to the asylum seeker question is a manifestation of the government’s other miserable failures writ large. Four years this has been going on for. Four years of embarrassing, demoralising defeats. Four years in which disasters such as the SIEV 36, Oceanic Viking and Christmas Island boat crash are surpassed by greater, ever more depressing events. After such a litany of infamy, nobody really believes that Tony Abbott is to blame for the failure of Chris Bowen’s so-called ‘elegant’ Malaysian Solution. Actually, nobody is really listening to Bowen at all anymore. If anything, Abbott has laid to rest an embarrassing chapter in the ongoing saga of Labor’s inability to cope with asylum seekers. Subsequently, the magic, speculative figure of 800 has been eclipsed in a matter of weeks, leaving the painful realisation that there is no plan B; no Nauru; no Temporary Protection visas, just a void where a strategic policy should be.

On the anniversary of the Christmas Island tragedy, there could be no better reminder that, behind the façade of responses to previous crises such as the multi-party ‘Christmas Island incident’ committee, there is a complete absence of ideas.  This dearth actually dates back to early 2010, when the boats started arriving in earnest, and Rudd had the tragi-comedic idea of suspending the processing of asylum claims by Afghans and Sri Lankans. The ensuing violence, rioting and suicides in detention can all be traced to this farcical decision. When numbers on Christmas Island started swelling, and detainees started rioting, Labor had no Plan B. Their response was identical to every other emergency they have faced since coming to office in 2007; throw money at it, and hope it goes away. And so Australia’s very own version of ‘disaster capitalism’ was born. Labor’s man about town, Chris Bowen, was soon appearing at a town near you, spruiking the economic miracle of the expansion of the detention centre network. From Leonora to Inverbrackie to Pontville, locals were inveigled into accepting and sharing in the benefits of the billion dollar asylum industry.

We now face a situation where each fresh emergency, each new twist, every new tragedy, is met by a weary feeling of déjà vu. The same old authorities are wheeled out to pedal the same old platitudes. The mandatory Hanson-Young interview, urging onshore processing to unlimited numbers of asylum seekers, is followed up by refugee advocates making ever more preposterous claims. The same old merry-go-round from a decade ago has gone full circle, yet no one seems to appreciate the irony. The tables have now turned. Instead of the duumvirate of evil, Howard and Ruddock, the left have only their own to blame – Rudd, Gillard and Brown. The dismantling of the Pacific Solution; the closing of Nauru; the temporary mothballing of Christmas Island; the end of Temporary Protection Visas; all these symbolic victories by the forces of reason and have come at an awful cost. For some bizarre reason, Labor thought they had actually wedged Abbott following the High Court’s rejection of the Malaysian Solution, presenting an image of Abbott the wrecker, Abbott the obstructionist, Abbott the “people smuggler’s best friend”. That image, carefully constructed by focus groups and highly paid spin doctors, is now in tatters. Labor’s border policies have reverted to type: ruined.

Still, now is not the time for self-reflection. Gillard’s response to the latest tragedy has been superb to date; she hasn’t opened her mouth and said a word. No sentences with fourteen references to Tony Abbott; no attempt to deny four years of failure; no mention of another bipartisan committee. Julia Gillard is at her most potent when she is either overseas or incommunicado. Inevitably, her approval rating jumps and Labor take a step back from the precipice when she is not drawing attention to Abbott’s ascendency.

Her next response needs to be equally dramatic. She needs to reinstitute Temporary Protection visas immediately, allied with an aggressive policy of returns. The public are used to backflips, double Dutch and reversals from the Prime Minister, and may actually approve of this latest volte-face. Much is made of asylum seekers arriving by air, and how their numbers are greater than those arriving by boat (an urban myth in 2010 and 2011, by the way). Well, let’s start treating boat arrivals like air arrivals. If they arrive without genuine documents, then they are returned to their country of departure, exactly as air arrivals are returned. If their claims for asylum don’t immediately raise Australia’s obligations for protection, then they are to be returned within 24 hours to their country of departure. Furthermore, when not intervening in the cases of juvenile Australian drug users overseas, Kevin Rudd should negotiate a settlement with a suitable country in the Middle East to return all Iranian asylum seekers – say, Iraq. Perhaps Australia could accept a certain quota of Iraqi asylum seekers, in addition to a large commitment to foreign aid, in exchange for all Iranian asylum seekers arriving by boat.

The time for games is over. The educated voter now accepts that Gillard would rather resign that send asylum seekers to Nauru, just as they intuitively understand that Rudd and Gillard’s policies are directly attributable for the 14000 arrivals since 2007. So let’s get tough, just as Sweden, the Netherlands, France, the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States have gotten tough. In order to stem the one way flow out of the Islamic world, in response to the now toxic Arab Spring, let’s get serious about preventing more economic migrants from entering the land of litigation and welfare, or the next boat that sinks may have 500 or more people on board.

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