Federal Politics


Leaders playing chicken on boats

If the safety of boat people making the voyage from Indonesia had really been the first consideration in the minds of politicians emoting about the latest tragedy in Parliament this week, the solution they might all have agreed on is the purchase of an ocean-going ferry.

But the safety of boat people is not the first consideration. If it were, Australia would have in place far more proactive systems of organising ocean rescues. It would, probably, have to do many more of them once asylum seekers understood they had only to make a reasonable effort to get to Christmas Island to be rescued by Australians.

The plain fact is that both potential Australian governments simply do not want them to go to Christmas Island, whether in good boats or bad, safe boats or sieves. No one, of course, actually wants anyone to drown. If needs we will try to prevent it - but we have more focus, and devote many more resources, on saving Australia from boat people than from saving boat people from the water.

Both parties are conscious of the power of public opinion. They understand that Australians will make moral judgments about one or the other, or both, if ''something'' is not done. But their proposals about what to do are not based on the best humanitarian policies towards refugees at large, the welfare of the asylum seekers in particular, or even at abstract notions such as ''border security'' or the defence of our right to decide who comes here. They are instead merely a version of the old game of chicken, and seeing who blinks first, and swerves, as the car roars down the road.

Most of the politicians in question are not bad men and women as such. Many believe they are juggling between their own tendencies to be generous and open-hearted towards refugees on the one hand and appeasing a public opinion simultaneously hostile to boat people, worried about the apparent ''porousness'' of our borders, and shocked at the loss of life by people at sea on the other. For many of these, one has to be cruel to be kind, to set in place policies which deter people trying to come to Australia, and to, in the new favoured meaningless phrase, ''break the people smugglers' business model''.

Yet even if they want these things, most know quite well that the policies they are espousing, sometimes through tears, will not bring about the desired outcomes. All they hope for is the impression of having done ''something'', and to take the heat from an increasingly critical public. Their positions are focus-grouped, and wedded to pride, to slogans, to shameful incidents of mining reservoirs of Australian xenophobia and to ancient history. One cannot look to leaders for flexibility - the reason for a multi-party backbench revolt this week. But even party discipline triumphed over common sense.


The something that needs to be done is staring everyone in the face. Right now the Greens are closest to it, were it not for its sense of moral purity in both wanting a perfect deal and an understandable reluctance to do a deal with an opposition it knows to be cynically exploiting hostility to boat people.

The Coalition may deserve little credit for its history, but the concessions it is prepared to make about refugee intakes, plus the logical consequence of that, are pretty close to best. Nauru hardly comes into it.

Labor deserves little credit for thinking simply that it can export some or all of its problems to Malaysia. Even if Gillard was prepared, via Rob Oakeshott, to add in the Coalition non-solution to her own non-solution, her plan had no merit: It was spin: an appearance of doing something, cobbled together so as to appear to have the initiative over Abbott. Gillard's first test as a big girl in federal politics, 10 years ago, was in getting together a morally defensible refugee policy; she failed it then and is failing it now.

Australia needs not a Malaysian solution to refugees, but an Australian-Indonesian solution, preferably, but not necessarily with full Malaysian and regional co-operation. We should offer Indonesia the complete wherewithal - say $500 million a year - to look after and properly manage camps for international asylum seekers who have arrived there. Preferably, these would not be detention centres or concentration camps on the Australian model, but villages with schools, health care, work, facilities and

some self-management,. as well as international supervision of people's rights. And that international supervision would involve refugee assessment.

In return for this, Australia would offer to arrange an orderly reception, whether in Australia or elsewhere, of people assessed to be refugees. We would still accept refugees from elsewhere - say Africa or directly from Pakistan - but all asylum seekers in this area would come through such camps. Asylum seekers who arrived on our shores would be taken to such camps. They would have no advantage, least of all in priority, over those who had been in the Indonesian camps.

Having a common-sense plan such as this would remove any incentive for asylum seekers in Indonesia to come by boat, leaky or otherwise to Christmas Island. Some ''queue-jumpers'' might, perhaps, have to wait longer, but they would have more certainty. They might even live in more comfort than now in Indonesia, or even detained at Christmas Island or Nauru.

There are some factors in the boat people equation Australia can influence and some which it cannot. Australia does not control the supply of refugees. Our activities in Iraq and Afghanistan have helped create some of the floods of them, most of whom, luckily for us, have been heading north or west, but other sources, such as Sri Lanka and the Sudan, are beyond our control. Nor can we do much about that desperation - brought on by terror, persecution, discrimination, helplessness, hopelessness and family separation - that makes some willing to risk life in a leaky boat. Against such desperation, mere propaganda or appeal to reason is a waste.

Some of the ''send them a message'' brigade would have people believe that the decision to head for Australia turns on actions by our High Court or Minister for Immigration, but these are of little account compared with the push factors.

In general terms, every dollar spent improving the lives and conditions of refugees in first places of refugee (Pakistan, Malaysia, and Kenya, for example) achieves results on physical welfare and safety worth at least $5 spent in interim destinations, such as Malaysia or Indonesia, and $10 spent in Australian places of reception. Our resources are too much organised from the Australian end, with too small a dividend for anyone involved.

Just what problems the politicians - Labor, Liberal, Green or Independents - were actually trying to solve, and just what brink some political leaders seemed to think they were facing, was never clear. When Parliament tries to give some impression of actually being some sort of court of public opinion, with some of the players actually getting the onion out, the public looks on amazed, sometimes even impressed. But when, even then, they cannot agree, and are plainly mainly motivated by ''how it would look'' questions, the public is well entitled to look on them with contempt.

The base Labor position is justifiable only if it can effectively reduce the number of voyages, and deaths by drowning. It probably cannot even do that, unless Labor goes the whole ''cruel to be kind'' hog and deports children - something the High Court is unlikely to allow. Moreover, as the opposition has sanctimoniously discovered and announces with its own unconvincing onion out, it does not look good for a rich nation which respects human rights to deport people to poor countries which manifestly do not.

The base Coalition position - the restoration of the Howard government's Pacific solution - has the advantage of looking tough, but is unlikely to work because it is likely to be only Australia which will take people processed at Nauru. While detention at Nauru for a year or two may be unpleasant, it will not be a deterrent if the end-up position is virtually guaranteed passage to Australia.

Asylum seekers are well aware of the risks they are taking by sailing to Christmas Island, but, such is their desperation that they are willing to take them. And some of the solutions - temporary protection visas for example - actually increase the payoff for taking the risk.

A person with a TPV cannot help members of his family get legitimately to Australia. Only if the family gets on a boat do they have a reasonable chance of being reunited.

In the meantime, the ferry idea would save a lot of heartache. Not only for the relatives of those who got on to the ferry, but also for many Australians, and others, involved in the grim business of rescuing survivors of tragedies, raising floating bodies, and dealing with the trauma of all involved.

The distress, it seems, even travels to politicians. And it would save a lot of money too. At least until smarties got into the racket, and we had to back-load.

Heaven knows how much, because much of the money invested in ocean surveillance is never revealed. But naval and Customs patrols, espionage, agent running, bribery, corruption and sabotage operations in Indonesia, and the paraphernalia of the reception operations does not come cheap: indeed the Australian Commonwealth spends more money each year repelling and detaining refugees than on running special programs for Aborigines.

A better policy, by more worthy politicians, could probably sustain as many people at a higher dignity.