The asylum seeker battle is not over yet
Tears swiftly turned to acrimony in Parliament last year, as MPs failed to agree on measures that could stop lives being lost at sea. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
When Papua New Guinea's opposition leader Belden Namah issued a statement late on Sunday slamming his country's involvement in Australia's offshore asylum seeker processing regime as ''illegal'' and ''inhumane'', most in the federal government kept their heads down.
The exception was federal cabinet secretary Mark Dreyfus, who is also a QC, who said Mr Namah's bid to overturn the Manus Island processing centre's legitimacy in PNG's courts ''smacks of politics''.
Here, some rolled their eyes. If the processing centres on Manus Island and the tiny island nation of Nauru were not driven by Australian domestic politics, what drove them?
While Labor has tried in recent months to avoid talking about asylum politics except in positive policy terms, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott and immigration spokesman Scott Morrison have repeated their ''stop the boats'' mantra at every opportunity. They sought to paint every new boat arrival as another policy failure and yet another sign that Australia's borders were weak and porous. In 2012, asylum politics were notoriously fraught for Labor. So will this year, an election year, see a return to the battlelines?
The short answer is, yes. But the extent to which asylum seekers will influence voters' decision at the ballot box will depend on a few factors.
First, it depends on whether the lull in the number of boats arriving holds. At the moment, the ''swells'' around Christmas Island are still in force. The swell season, at its peak from December to March, will end about three weeks after Parliament resumes for the year. Local authorities expect the boats will again become a regular fixture.
But the government hopes the raft of asylum policies enacted last year will slow the asylum tide. The number of Sri Lankans intercepted by Australian authorities has fallen; in November News Ltd reported that it had obtained figures showing that more than 1200 Sri Lankans had arrived in October alone, compared with about 100 in April. The department does not release monthly arrival rates by nationality, but it said on Tuesday that of 225 people who had arrived by boat in 2013, just two had been Sri Lankans. It said this compares with last year, in which 6428 out of 17,202 people who arrived by boat came from Sri Lanka.
As Fairfax reported on Tuesday, the number of Afghans fleeing their country is expected to rise as the country braces for the withdrawal of foreign troops next year. LINK While the report by development consultancy group STATT described Australia as a ''niche'' destination for Afghan asylum seekers – Pakistan and Iran bear the overwhelming brunt of the Afghan asylum burden – it predicts Australia will see more Afghans fleeing their crumbling country this year and next.
But the government also hopes its tougher policies will neutralise the issue, with support strong – even among Labor voters – for tougher measures to curb the arrival of boats.
An August Fairfax Nielson poll showed 67 per cent supported the return to offshore processing, including 59 per cent of Labor voters, 81 per cent of Coalition voters and 40 per cent of Greens supporters.
Two months earlier, Australians watched with horror as televisions screened graphic scenes of scores of boat people crashing and thrashing against the rocks of Christmas Island's unforgiving coast. About 50 people died.
The Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, cut short her leave. Later that month, about 130 people were rescued when their boat sank off Indonesia.
There were extraordinary scenes in Parliament as politicians openly wept for the lives of asylum seekers who had died at sea in search of a safer life in Australia.
But the tears swiftly turned to acrimony, as the parties failed to agree on measures that could stop lives being lost at sea and Labor, the Greens and the Coalition blamed each other for contributing to the deaths.
Ms Gillard, known for her pragmatic negotiating skills, announced in August the establishment of an ''expert panel'', headed by the former Air Force chief Angus Houston.
That panel recommended a raft of policies be adopted in both the short and the longer term, to deter people making the dangerous voyage to Australia.
The Coalition supported the government in reopening detention centres on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, and in Nauru, which had signed the Refugee Convention since the Howard government sent thousands there under the ''Pacific solution''.
But it would not support other measures the panel stressed were part of a package deal of policies, including the Malaysia solution. As one pundit observed, the Coalition supported the stick and ignored the carrot.
So while the Coalition refused to adopt many new policies pushed by the government, Labor – which took office in 2007 promising to dismantle much of John Howard's tougher asylum approach – has adopted a raft of policies previously seen as Coalition core business.
In the meantime, the Coalition has been using every possible opportunity to hammer the message to voters that Labor is ''soft'' or ''weak'' on border protection.
Even the Prime Minister's announcement on Wednesday of Australia's first national security strategy – which identified the three key areas of effective partnerships, cyber security and enhanced regional engagement – was seized upon by the Coalition in its attacks on border control.
Opposition defence science spokesman Stuart Robert sought – somewhat clumsily, it must be said – to link national security with boat people fleeing warzones.
''How do you have a secure and integrous border when it is so porous that 32,000 people have managed to come here in leaky boats in the risk of lives and the lives of crew and people on board?
''The intergrity of our borders has always been a national security issue.''
Out in the cold are the Greens, who have steadfastly refused to budge on asylum politics. In the weeks after offshore processing was re-adopted, the Greens' support dropped to 8 per cent, its lowest in three-and-a-half years. That poll was perhaps a brief blip; there has always been a small, but passionate group who will never support harsher measures being dealt to asylum seekers.
As Monash University Professor Andrew Markus pointed out on his Mapping Population blog, in November's Newspoll, when voters were asked, ''Which party do you think would best handle the issue of asylum-seekers arriving in Australia?'', 36 per cent nominated the Coalition, 18 per cent nominated Labor, 13 per cent nominated ''someone else'', 11 per cent none and 22 per cent were uncommitted. ''This result is almost identical to that obtained in July 2012, despite a significant change in government policy,'' Professor Markus observed.
The question for the government in an election year is, perhaps, whether the boats will slow enough to allow Labor to argue its policies have taken effect, and hope beyond hope that voters stop talking about the issue.
Just don't expect the Coalition to let up.