Asylum seekers and policy in sinking condition — 2

If you read yesterday’s post at all carefully you will have seen that I am re-examining the issue in the light of recent events. The critical line was this: “Even if we accepted all boats and abolished Christmas Island and the dodgy excision of bits of Australia for immigration purposes, wouldn’t the very fact of boats still have led to those drownings?”


Back in June I was impressed by the arguments of my SBHS Class of 59 classmate Clive Kessler in The Sydney Morning Herald. A longer version of the article appeared in Malaysia. A parallel post is on Online Opinion with, as one might expect, much discussion.

JUNE 26 — And now another hundred souls lost. Another hundred souls on all our consciences.

Responsibility for this latest terrible loss is widely shared. By refugees themselves who risked this recourse, and by the people smugglers. By the Indonesian government. A government that prefers to see overloaded, unseaworthy boats head south and reach, as soon as possible, some place on the open seas where they will effectively become Australia’s responsibility, not their own. Here the commercial interest of the smugglers — who want to show that they have a “product” that they can sell, a service that they can deliver — is reinforced by the Indonesian preference to see the “refugee burden” passed on to Australia.For all their talk about “Islamic solidarity”, the Indonesian and Malaysian governments prefer to see themselves, and to serve, as transit points, not destinations, for Muslim refugees from Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Myanmar.

And then, also on the responsibility list, comes Australia. Perhaps all, or most, or many of us. Those to whom our populist politicians defer, whom they wish to placate. But especially upon those politicians, of whatever stripe, who seek to mobilise fear and resentment, and to ride to power by inflaming them further.

At the head of the list come those who have obstructed all progress towards implementation of the “Malaysia solution”. That means especially Tony Abbott and his shadow immigration minister, the “hard man” in this awful passion play, and also the holier-than-thou Greens.

Wrapping themselves in the mantle of high virtue, the Greens have opposed the Malaysia solution on the grounds that Malaysia is not a paragon of human right practice. That it fails to measure up to ideal standards. Standards by which even Australia itself must be deemed a failure.

So, if Malaysia is for them not a fit place for the refugees, neither is Australia. Why then do the Greens urge open, unrestricted entry here to all comers and claimants?  On what basis can they do so? A workable set of arrangements has been negotiated by Australia with the Malaysian government. These arrangements are not perfect, neither is Malaysia. Nor are we.  But those arrangements have been agreed upon. They are workable. So why resist implementing them?

Tony Abbott’s reasons and strategy are clear. They are rational if hardly attractive. On immigration, as on all other matters, he wants, by a chosen strategy of finely targeted obstructionism to all government initiatives (in other words, of “maximum possible nay-saying and mischief-making”), to make the country ungovernable. That is half of his strategy. The other half is then to spend the rest of his time sneering and jeering that the government is demonstrably hopeless, that it simply cannot govern. Whose doing is that? Abbott is on a sure winner. But at least his strategy makes sense for him.

Less fathomable are the Greens and the other “human rights purists” who will not have a bar of the “Malaysia solution” because of Malaysia’s defects and shortcomings. Having spent a scholarly life, over half a century, studying Malaysian society, culture and politics — and many years living there — I know those shortcomings far better than most. Even so, there is a good case to be made for the Malaysian solution.

I am not naïve about Malaysia. But the hitherto obstructed and rejected “Malaysia solution” is about the best available option that is now to be had to the problem we face. It provides the most workable, humane, long-term sustainable approach now on offer. It offers one that, more than all others, is sensitive to human rights issues and capable of promoting a principled concern for them. It is a policy that stands somewhere between saying no to everybody and yes to everybody who shows up here — or who tries to and, facing terrible “peril on the sea”, gets less than half-way from Java to Ashmore or Christmas Island…

I find this very hard to disagree with.

The issue really is how to make the drowning tragedies less likely. At the same time I cannot disagree with the tenor of this either: Turning back the boats not quite so simple, Tony.

…It’s good politics to be seen to be ‘tough on people smugglers’ but it’s even tougher to acknowledge that we are locking up the wrong people.

Mr. Abbott has sought to exploit the mess that our Government have created by saying he will ‘turn back the boats’. This is simplistic thinking in the extreme, insensitive to our Indonesian neighbours and ignores the very privileged position we as Australians enjoy as a sophisticated and advanced nation.

With the live cattle fiasco; the US marines being based in Darwin; the PM’s ill-considered interference in case of the Australian boy on drug charges in Bali, and the jailing of Indonesian children in Australian maximum security prisons, the current Australian Government has done enough already to leave our northern neighbour worried about where we are heading on regional foreign policy issues.

They certainly don’t need the opposition leader to add to these worries. (May 2012)

In all this, however, keep the big picture in mind. We so easily lack a sense of proportion when it comes to Asylum Seekers, especially “Boat People”.