Federal Politics


Labor lists to the right on asylum

Prime Minister Julia Gillard threw Chris Bowen the political equivalent of a hospital pass when she appointed him as Minister for Immigration in September 2010. Implicit in Ms Gillard's identification of asylum seekers as a priority for her new government in June 2010 was the imputation that Labor was determined to get on top of this problematic and thorny issue. Instead, it has presided over succession of disasters of one sort or other - from diplomatic overreach to spectacularly poor planning and embarrassing policy shifts to the right. All despite the Rudd Labor government's vow never to go down that path. There has been a tragic loss of life at sea, too. Through it all, Mr Bowen has maintained with near-heroic stoicism that the fight against people smugglers and unauthorised arrivals is being won. It is not, as his announcement on Wednesday made clear.

The decision to release into the Australian community thousands of asylum seekers who had been destined to be transferred from Christmas Island to Nauru or Manus Island (and potentially held there for years) is the clearest indication yet that Labor's asylum seeker policy model is broken and needs to be replaced. That these asylum seekers will have no work rights and barely adequate support from government is added reason for Labor to take a new approach.

The Gillard/Bowen model had been predicated on removing the incentive for people to undertake the dangerous sea journey to Christmas Island - a laudable and human objective. Labor first proposed setting up a regional processing facility in East Timor but fumbled badly by failing to go through the proper diplomatic channels with the East Timorese government. Then came a proposed agreement to send 800 asylum seekers to Malaysia for processing while accepting 4000 people already assessed as genuine refugees. This, however, was ruled invalid by the High Court. Through all this ultimately futile manoeuvring, the flow of boats from Indonesia to Australia continued.

Then, under the auspices of the report of the Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers led by retired Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston, the government dusted off the Howard government's so-called Pacific solution - the warehousing of asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru. Again, Labor appeared to give little thought to the logistical issue or face up to the fact the revamped facilities would only ever be able to accommodate about 2100 refugees. Plans to expand and upgrade the facilities have been delayed by the islanders' demands for greater recompense.

Labor, probably knowing it was never going to be possible to comfortably house the thousands of boat people who have arrived on Christmas Island since the Malaysia solution was floated, banked on the fact the ''hard-headed but not hard-hearted'' approach recommended by the expert panel would further discourage people from setting out for Australia. The 7600 boat people who have arrived on Christmas Island since August 13 have demonstrated the naivety of such thinking. Rather than accepting the need for an entirely different strategy, however, Labor has veered further to the right.

Mr Bowen has defended the imposition of limited bridging visas, saying it is essential the ''no advantage principle'' recommended by the expert panel - that no benefit accrue to anyone circumventing regular migration arrangements - be preserved. This view probably has significant popular support but it is difficult to see what, if anything, will be gained by restricting people's access to all but the most basic of rights and support services.

Asylum seekers come here to escape conflict or persecution in their native lands, often at great risk to themselves. It is not a crime to do so and to subject those who make it to further indignities is both heartless and insensitive. Labor's bridging visas even disallow the right to work, something the temporary protection visas issued by the Howard government did not.

The Gillard government's efforts to resolve this issue have not been helped by opposition intransigence. With the failure of offshore processing now obvious to all, Labor must boost Australia's humanitarian intake beyond the 20,000 it promised after the Houston report was released. Australia has the capacity to accept more and a higher intake would almost certainly facilitate a regional agreement allowing claims to be processed in Indonesia or Malaysia. That may conceivably act as an incentive for economic refugees to try to rort the system but it would be a small price to pay for ensuring an end to the highly risky transit of boat people from Indonesia to Australia.