The Houston Panel’s total and utter failure

The forward estimates presented in the 2012-13 Budget estimate such expenditure incurred by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship alone over the period 2011-12 to 2015-16 inclusive to be at around $5 billion assuming that arrivals remain at around the level of 450 per month from 1 July 2012. With the levels of irregular arrivals averaging over 1,300 per month since April 2012, the Panel notes that if this rate of increase were to be sustained the costs of dealing with these IMA s would likely be significantly larger amount than the costs of the recommendations in this report.
Report of The Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers, page 143.

August 13 this year marks the anniversary of yet another doomed Labor policy. It also marks the epoch when Australia’s social integrity was abandoned to people smugglers, in favour of self-selecting economic migrants from a small group of failed societies and cultures in the Middle East. Labor’s catastrophic border control policies have collided and coincided with an exodus of disaffected citizens from the Muslim world.

The Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers recommendations were meant to prevent further loss of life at sea. By this measure alone, the ‘Houston Report’ has been a spectacular failure.  More asylum seekers have drowned in the last 12 months than the previous thirty. The recommendations were also designed to short-circuit some of the political damage this issue had created for the Gillard government.

In the 2011-12 financial year – prior to the Houston Report – 8075 asylum seekers arrived by boat. In the year after the implementation of the report – the 2012-13 financial year – 27,000 asylum seekers arrived on hundreds of boats. More lives lost; more asylum seeker arrivals than ever before; more expense in the rapidly expanding detention network. Each new crisis brought home the sheer folly of dismantling the Pacific Solution in 2008; each new boat arrival demonstrated the impotence of Labor and the futility of its manifold policy settings.  

The cost of implementing the panel’s recommendations was initially calculated at $5 billion. The Humanitarian and Family visa programs were increased, with the main beneficiaries being Afghans, Iranians and Iraqis. There was also a return to the much-maligned Pacific Solution and its central platform of offshore processing in Nauru and PNG, along with the new concept of ‘No Advantage’.

While the report was well-intentioned, it was ultimately flawed. There was no time frame for success, just a vague, open-ended aspiration that these measures would eventually work. They didn’t. The report should have prescribed a trial period, in which the measures would be re-examined to test their effectiveness at a given date and then tweaked accordingly. There should have been a threshold in the number of arrivals, beyond which tougher measures should have been considered. 

The Expert Panel calculated a cost of $5 billion to implement its recommendations, based on the assumption that arrivals would “remain at around the level of 450 per month from 1 July 2012.” The level of arrivals since July, 2012, instead averaged 2250 per month. This is a sustained five-fold increase in the number anticipated and budgeted for by Treasury. And that does not take into account the costs involved with setting up Kevin Rudd’s newly announced ‘PNG Solution’. The ‘East Timor Solution, which became the ‘Malaysia Solution’, has now transmogrified into the ‘PNG Solution’; the ‘Tahiti Solution may not be too far off.

In the 12-month period between August, 2012, and August, 2013, some 27,000 asylum seekers arrived by boat. The Houston Report is a failure, in every definition of the word, and yet the Labor government refuses to abandon its most damaging aspect — to substantially increase visa grants to citizens from source countries in the Middle East. The panel’s recommendations included increasing the Humanitarian Program to 20,000 places per annum and lifting the Family Migration stream by 4,000 places. All of these additional visas have been allocated to nationals who comprise the main source countries of asylum seekers – Iran, Afghanistan and Iraq. In effect, those arriving by boat have been rewarded with additional places in the Humanitarian and Family stream to sponsor the remainder of their families to Australia, the primary purpose of those trips to Christmas Island.

You can’t have it both ways. You can’t increase visa numbers while the number of asylum seekers grows exponentially. This is a two-fold reward for those who can afford to pay people smugglers for carriage to Christmas Island. In effect, Labor is saying that, if you arrive as an asylum seeker, they will quickly shuffle you into the community – where you will be provided with free housing, schooling, medical and dental care – so that you can sponsor your family and relatives from the ever-larger pool of visa places in the Family and Humanitarian program.

The speed and scope of this policy failure should be of profound concern to legislators and commentators of all persuasions. That it has not even rated a mention in political debates to date speaks volumes of the desensitisation of the public to such failure.

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