In a cruel twist of irony, the people smugglers mashed the Gillard government’s business model – and the budget surplus – in less than four weeks. I sure hope there is a Plan B, because by the end of this month, the Pacific Solution redux – Malaysia included – will be irrelevant. All at cost of more than $1 billion.
We’re all familiar with the quotes from Labor regarding Nauru and the Pacific Solution:
“We closed Nauru because it was the right thing to do”
“The Pacific solution was cynical, costly and ultimately unsuccessful”
“The Pacific solution is just wrong. It is a waste of taxpayer’s money”
“Most of those who were processed on Nauru ended up in Australia anyway”
After four years of trashing Nauru as an expensive and inhumane failure, people smuggling networks have well and truly absorbed Labor’s message: Nauru is no deterrent. Rudd, Gillard, Evans and Bowen could not have made it clearer. And so, less than four weeks after the government released the findings of the ‘expert panel on asylum seekers’, the proposed capacity of Nauru and Manus Island – all 2100 places – has been surpassed. Even if the Malaysian solution is instituted – and that is a very big if – the 800 places painstakingly agreed to in 2011 will be filled within weeks.
And yet there is an even greater headache lurking in the wings for a government inured to lurching from crisis to crisis. A key platform of the expert panel’s recommendations is the utterly sensible concept of "no advantage", to ensure that “no advantage is gained through circumventing regular migration arrangements”. In other words, asylum seekers who arrive by boat should be subjected to exactly the same length of wait experienced by those without the means to purchase the people smuggler’s enhanced product. While the International Organisation for Migration, the UNHCR and the governments of Nauru and Papua New Guinea have all expressed concern at the implications of this vague and unspecified concept, the Gillard government has embraced it without hesitation. And, it would appear, without comprehension.
If the litmus test of the “no advantage” principle is to detain asylum seekers offshore indefinitely, then one assumes an unlimited capacity to absorb new arrivals. The people smugglers understand this. Their clients also understand this. So what happens when Nauru and Manus Island are at full capacity; when the 800 asylum seekers have been "swapped"’ with 4,000 additional asylum seekers from Malaysia; when Christmas Island is full; and when the 20,000 places in the Humanitarian program have been granted? Will asylum seekers, who have paid thousands of dollars in their country of origin, wait patiently in Indonesia for places to free up in one of the detention facilities? Unlikely.
No, the reality will be a chaotic jumble of half-baked, poorly thought out policy failures which will quickly be subverted by both the Australian professional judicial lobby for refugees and the people smugglers themselves, who have witnessed nothing but capitulation and accommodation of their interests by this government since 2008. Previously, the main risk asylum seekers faced when sailing from Indonesia was drowning. Now, there is a further potential risk; transfer to Nauru or Manus Island. Given the rate of arrivals since August 13, asylum seekers appear to be more than willing to wear this risk, safe in the knowledge that they will eventually end up in Australia as permanent residents (as promised by Rudd, Gillard, Evans, Bowen, et al).
Inexorably, Gillard and Bowen will be drawn towards the final chapter of a tragedy that will play out for decades to come. Next will come the Temporary Protection visas. At present, the department of immigration rewards those who arrive by boat with so-called family reunion visas (Humanitarian Class XB 202 Split family visas), ensuring that each arrival by boat translates to a further ten or more “relatives” granted permanent residency. In a self-perpetuating cycle, the much-vaunted increase of 6,000 places in the Humanitarian program is simply a way of placating those who have already arrived by boat and are anxious to reunite with their families. Curiously, 75% of this increase has been allocated to Humanitarian applicants in the Middle East.
The ultimate irony in this sorry tale may be the description by Jason Clare, Home Affairs minister, of each new boat arrival, “People smugglers are running a closing down sale”. Perhaps, but not in the way Mr Clare envisions. The closing down sale is the entirely predictable surge of asylum seekers attempting to reach Australia before the election of a coalition government.
Each boat arrival is a testament to the success of the Howard government in stopping “irregular maritime arrivals” from 2002 to 2007 — as well as a painful reminder of an incompetent government that changed all this, at a cost of hundreds of lives and billions of dollars, only to claim credit for its reintroduction four years later.