Abbott government should give Rudd's boats plan more time


Tony Abbott has a canny nose for whether a message will appeal to voters. He was opposition leader for almost four years before he cruised into power in September. Yet, in that time, he offered little more than nine words to explain what he would do (or undo) if he won office: ''Scrap the tax. Fix the waste. Stop the boats.''

And didn't those slogans resonate. Not too long ago, a clear majority of Australians backed urgent action to mitigate climate change, including a price on carbon emissions. Now, Mr Abbott presides over a popular policy of replacing that price with a nebulous plan of ''direct action'', which seemingly imposes no limits on polluters. His pledge to ''fix the waste'' was never accompanied by an explanation of what the waste was, though he did indicate it involved employing too many public servants. He has since asked a commission of audit to find the waste and decide what to do about it.

Yet Mr Abbott's ''stop the boats'' mantra was likely his most effective message in opposition (if not well thought through). His uncompromising stance against asylum seekers on boats repeatedly flummoxed Labor, which changed its policy regularly to try to win public approval. It certainly helped Mr Abbott that Labor's time in office coincided with an unprecedented surge in maritime arrivals, which began in 2010 and has grown since. That surge, coupled with Australians' increasing rancour towards asylum seekers, led Labor's Kevin Rudd to make the hardline announcement in July that Australia would no longer accept any refugees who arrived by boat; rather, it would send them all to settle in countries such as Papua New Guinea.

Australia is not particularly generous when it comes to accommodating the world's refugees; compared with other developed countries we accept relatively few. Much of the opposition to boat people, whom the Abbott government misleadingly labels ''illegals'', is driven by xenophobia and downwards envy. UMR Research polling published this week says three in five Australians think most boat arrivals are economic migrants rather than genuine refugees. They are wrong - about 90 to 95 per cent of claims are accepted - but, in the court of public opinion, that fact has little traction.

Yet the Coalition, now it is in government, might find it hard to appease this anti-refugee sentiment, which it helped stoke. Mr Abbott staked so much on his pledge to ''stop the boats'' he no doubt feels he must see it through, regardless of whether the policy works or how harmful it is. The policy - to instruct the navy ''to turn back boats where it is safe to do so'' - was always likely to inflame tensions with Indonesia, as happened immediately after the election. The first sign the Coalition was aware of just how much trouble was brewing was its decision to suppress almost every detail about boat arrivals and the government's operations to stop them; a stunningly retrograde move in the age of information.

Nonetheless, despite the pleas of humanitarians to simply ''let them come'', Australia is right to try to deter asylum seekers from attempting the perilous sea crossing to our shores. The voyage is simply too dangerous.

Yet the Coalition's latest tack might ultimately cause more harm: to the refugees themselves and to Australia's relationship with Indonesia, which is already fracturing as a result of recent, steep cuts to our aid budget. The Abbott government appears to be preparing a fleet of scupper-proof lifeboats, on which our navy will place boat people once they enter our waters and send them back towards Indonesia. It is a dangerous ploy that will lead to confrontations at sea, arguments with Indonesian authorities, diplomatic fallout and, amid the inevitable publicity, a tarnished reputation for Australia in the international community. It might not even work.

If Mr Abbott's genuine goal is deterrence, rather than simply fulfilling an opportunistic pledge made in opposition, perhaps he should give Mr Rudd's policy of offshore settlement more time to work. It has not been in place long enough to evaluate its success objectively; it might already be having the desired effect on the demand for people smugglers' services. If we can avoid unnecessary disputes with Indonesia while also deterring boat journeys, everyone wins.