Illustration: Andrew Dyson
Tony Abbott would have been wise to have left alone any mention of asylum seeker ''policy'' in the so called leaders debate screened on the ABC on August 11. It only served to remind many viewers of how little they respect or like the leaders of the two major parties.
Abbott took delight in rubbing salt into what he imagines is the wound of Kevin Rudd's PNG asylum seeker policy. Nonetheless, he told viewers the Coalition would salvage what they could of Labor's PNG policy, but provided no details.
In the absence of any rational policy options he resorted to the tired old mantra of towing back the boats, which only he and opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison appear to have any faith in and which the Indonesian government rejected.
Rudd contended that desperate asylum seekers, being towed in the ''wrong'' direction, were likely to scuttle their boats. It is a fair point. Abbott claimed that the Coalition will only resort to towing back boats when it was safe to do so, whatever that means.
The current asylum seeker policies of both major parties are unworkable. Has Rudd considered likely outcomes to his hasty PNG asylum seeker policy? One thing people smugglers might hit on could be to load PNG with refugees to the point they cause significant social and political unrest, leading PNG to renege on the deal, forcing the involvement of the UN, and the deployment of UNHCR, to solve the problem.
This unrest would likely stem from local jealousy arising from perceptions that the refugees had received too much assistance compared to the indigenous population, and fear of social and religious change that the refugees might force. This unrest could take the form of attacks by mobs of locals on refugees, the facilities provided to them and government property. The PNG opposition would likely use such rioting to attack the government in Parliament.
Australia could then face strong criticism from other Pacific states and regional countries including Indonesia. How good would that look for Australia now sitting on the UN Security Council? The potential for damaging criticism might have been avoided through proper regional consultation rather than the financial inducement put before unequal partners.
Of course, if the refugees were to be persecuted by PNG locals, that would make them, as a group, eligible under the UNHCR convention to be refugees, necessitating resettlement in other countries including Australia. The same of course could apply to Nauru.
Foreseeing the problems outlined above, PNG and Nauru might walk away from the deal even before social unrest occurred.
Declaring a new Coalition policy on Friday, Abbott had little new to offer other than abolishing the Refugee Review Tribunal. He announced the introduction of temporary protection visas and the fast-tracking of the review of asylum seeker claims by the 30,000 applicants currently in Australia. However, he said he doubted whether any of them would find permanent residence in Australia.
Legal experts including Benjamin Saul, George Williams and David Manne say that if Abbott proceeds down this path, a High Court challenge can be expected. The constitution is quite clear that decisions made by government are open to appeal through the courts.
The levels of denial by both major parties in Australia and their leaders on this key humanitarian policy matches that of the Apartheid government when it established black homelands in order to prove that black South Africans did not live in South Africa. It was straight out of Alice in Wonderland, as is the policy towards boat people by both major parties. In terms of cruelty and lack of commonsense, their policies are on a par.
Since the start of the election campaign we have heard nothing from either leader, or their spokespeople on immigration, on the need to engage with Indonesia on the issue. Australia should use its position on the Security Council to engage the international community. The issue of asylum seekers cannot be dealt with unilaterally. Deterrence along the lines suggested by the so-called expert committee will not work. In any case, it is cruel and shows no understanding for the factors leading to the difficult decision to risk everything to escape oppression in its many and varied forms.
Deterrence is state-sponsored repression and oppression. Is that what we want from Australia? And to justify this cruelty based on fear we allow our political representatives to demonise the very people we should be helping. That is what happened to the Jews in Nazi Germany. Do we want Australia to develop and carry through policy outside the rule of law?
Bruce Haigh is a political commentator, retired diplomat and former member of the Refugee Review Tribunal.