The politics of asylum seekers has been in the media a lot over the past 5 years, but has been an even more significant part of the political fabric during this term. Specifically, since August, the attention given to what should be a small issue, has accelerated beyond belief. It’s now as if both the major political parties are treating it as one of the biggest issues of the day. It’s simply not, especially in the way it is now being dealt with in a completely negative and dangerous manner by Liberal and Labor alike.
This week in particular has been the most toxic for the asylum seeker debate in recent history. Asylum seekers are now headed to Manus Island for offshore processing and languishing in tents so uncomfortable and so unlivable. To top it all off, asylum seekers that will be released into the community, as a result of the recent influx, will not be able to work.
To top it all off, the Opposition Leader today announced a backflip on asylum seeker policy and it’s not a positive one. Tony Abbott today announced that the Coalition would cut the recently increased humanitarian intake of 20,000 back down to 13,750.
The announcement today is a strange one, given that Mr Abbott and the Liberal Party, just months ago, put the offer of increasing the humanitarian intake on the negotiating table.
Despite the fact that both the Coalition and the ALP both do not understand people movements, let alone humanity, the announcement today shows not just a lack of understanding of refugee policy, but also a real disdain for some of the most vulnerable and desperate people.
The budget bottom-line was given today as the main reason for the policy change from the Coalition, saying that the measure would save the budget $1.4 billion over the forward estimates.
The Opposition, upon taking government would fast realise, having reduced the refugee intake so dramatically, that, at best, the boats will stop temporarily. At the same time, pressure would be building up in refugee locations in the region, particularly Indonesia and Malaysia, but also Sri Lanka.
Ultimately, the change in policy would lead to these vulnerable people taking the dangerous journey. There is also a strong chance that asylum seekers would ignore the supposed policy signal that the Liberal Party believes the change would send to boat people and people smugglers.
So of course, many of the costs associated with the problem, including sending Navy vessels to intercept asylum seeker vessels would actually remain and even increase, seriously putting in jeopardy the theoretical $1.4 billion budget saving.
Really then, it is clear that the decision today is not about saving money. It is again about being cruel while this time not even pretending to be kind. There is no favourable outcome from this policy for either asylum seekers or for the government except in terms of winning the xenophobic vote.
Tony Abbott also argued today that lifting the humanitarian intake to 20,000 would send the wrong signal to people smugglers. Well, he is right about it sending a signal. The change will make it harder for people smugglers to justify asking for thousands of dollars when thousands more people will be accepted into the country under the increased humanitarian intake. This is one thing that Immigration Minister Chris Bowen has been right about this week.
Again we have a case of a political leader focusing far too much attention toward domestic political expediency. In doing so, Mr Abbott and the modern-day Liberal Party display a distinct lack of understanding of the broader refugee debate. In fact, there is a water-tight case that both sides are wilfully ignorant of most of the issues that contribute to irregular people movement. Populism has seen to it that the unusually emotionally charged issue will not be dealt with in a rational manner.
There are only partial answers to the solution. The issue is too immense for Australia to deal with on her own. It is both regional and global.
Maintaining the humanitarian intake at 20,000 under an Abbott Government would have contributed to cutting down the number of maritime arrivals.
Asylum seekers and refugees are never far from the headlines. Indeed from time to time stories involving them are among the most prominent in the news cycle. In recent times, boat arrivals of people seeking asylum have been more than weekly. The debate about what to do about the perilous journey, from Indonesia, Malaysia and Sri Lanka has been up there with the most politicised and most discussed issues of this 43rd parliament.
We have a new policy, a return to most aspects of the Pacific Solution that the Gillard Government continues to work towards implementing. This calls for offshore processing on Nauru and Manus Island as happened under the Howard Government.
The Gillard Government has or is working toward implementing all of the recommendations of the expert panel on asylum seekers which was chaired by former Chief of the Australian Defence Force, Angus Houston. However, the Coalition want more.
The Opposition, through leader Tony Abbott and Shadow Minister for Immigration Scott Morrison have continued to call for the reintroduction of Temporary Protection Visas (TPV’s). The Coalition have also called for a return to that policy that Indonesia do not like and will never allow to happen- turning back asylum seeker boats toward Indonesia.
In the case of TPV’s, the Labor Party, as part of the recommendations from the Houston panel are, in effect, implementing an iteration of the Howard Government measure which will cut out family reunion.
But of course, and rightly so, the ALP Government is against turning back the boats This is the case, one, because the ADF sees it as no longer feasible or safe and two, because Indonesia would voice their anger and discontent at our contempt for our regional neighbour.
But it is the evolution of the asylum seeker policy of the Tony Abbott led Opposition, apart from the already announced measures, that will add to the poor treatment of people seeking asylum in Australia who arrive by boat.
Last Friday the Opposition Leader announced an effective minimum prison sentence for the “offence” of seeking asylum, seeking refuge from the fear of, or from actual persecution. The no advantage test, part too of the recommendations of the expert panel, has so far not had a time in offshore detention applied to it. But Tony Abbott and the Liberal Party think it should be no less than 5 years. In the legal fraternity this would be termed a mandatory minimum sentencing provision.
Of course, since mandatory detention was introduced in the early 1990’s, we have had what amounts to a term in prison. At first, a time limit of less than a year was implemented by the Keating Government, but that was removed in favour of an indefinite stay. In effect, the indefinite nature of asylum detention will continue under a Liberal Government with a 5 year minimum stay. The time served would almost certainly be longer.
In further worrying comments, the Opposition also appeared to question the efficacy of a regional solution, saying that too much time was spent on discussing the problem in the region and not enough on tough deterrence measures.
Also of concern in the comments made at the end of last week was what appeared to be utter contempt for the work of the UNHCR, the United Nations’ asylum seeker and refugee organisation. Australia has long appeared to feel this way towards the UN about asylum seekers and refugees. However, that would seemingly accelerate under an Abbott Government.
The Coalition is obviously moving towards an aim of being the most punitive in Australia’s history toward asylum seekers and refugees. At the moment that is just rhetoric, but there is a strong chance that the strong words will become punishing deeds in government, also a strong possibility.
Far from just showing a desire to put forward the strictest regime for asylum seekers, the Abbott-led Opposition appear hell-bent on isolating Australia further from the way the region and the international community should deal with the asylum seeker question.
All this punishment and pain for what gain? Seeking asylum is not a crime, thought it appears there is a wish that it was. Either way, asylum seekers are going to be locked away for at least 5 years under a Coalition Government.
We might have been forgiven, after the extraordinary scenes last week in the parliament, having built up over months, would have begun to fizzle out to a spot-fire here and there. However, it seems that the government, our politicians, are firmly wedded to continuing to give the blaze, presumed under control, more oxygen. It would appear that, even in the case of some policy, the Gillard Government is set to prosecute it from a personal angle rather than a political angle about the sense or otherwise of Coalition policy.
Members of the Opposition yesterday, including Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, his deputy and Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop and Shadow Immigration Minister Scott Morrison made a flying visit to Indonesia yesterday. Tony Abbott as Opposition Leader was granted a rare privilege by the Indonesian Government, access to the ear of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
Early in the day Mr Abbott made a speech where he said, for the relationship between Australia and Indonesia to continue to prosper, we and Indonesia, to continue to foster a culture of mutual respect would need to raise potential policy changes with each other.
Then, during his meeting with President Yudhoyono, the Opposition Leader, discussing the relationship between our two countries, including the issue of asylum seekers, Tony Abbott failed to talk about the proposed policy of turning back asylum seeker boats headed from Indonesia. Scott Morrison since stated that he had brought up the policy in his meeting with Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa.
In and of itself, the leader of the Liberal Party not raising the issue is not a terribly horrific misstep. Neglecting to mention turning back the boats will appear clumsy and hypocritical in light of his words early yesterday both domestically and in Indonesia. The events of yesterday, no matter how trivial, were well and truly open to being spun by the ALP into an attack strategy.
It is important to mention that the Indonesian Government are well and truly aware of Liberal Party policy regarding asylum seekers. Our friends to the north have seen the plans in action before under the Howard Government. The Indonesians too, have actually heard about Abbott’s plan to resurrect the draconian measures that were part of the ‘Pacific Solution’.
It is no surprise and has been known for some time, that the Indonesians are not keen at all on receiving back asylum seeker vessels that have departed from their shores on the way to Australia. Indeed, they hate it. They will not be open to an Abbott Government pointing asylum seeker vessels back toward Indonesia.
To not mention the specifics of Abbott’s planned return to the Pacific Solution was clearly an attempt to avoid an embarrassing situation, of again being publicly rebuked by Indonesia. In light of his words yesterday though, a little embarrassment has though been suffered. However, that will probably pale in comparison with the real embarrassment that could have been inflicted over being shot down again on policy grounds.
What was very interesting about most of the verbal attacks mounted by the government was what, more correctly who, was attacked. Instead of most of the verbal barbs being directed at the Liberal Party or the inhumane policy, most of the venom was directed at Abbott himself with the Prime Minister and Immigration Minister accusing Mr Abbott of various things, including being “cowardly”, a “mouse” in Indonesia.
Very little focus in the put-downs was directed at the policy itself. It was raised by Chris Bowen that the Indonesians do not like the idea of boats being directed back to Indonesia and will never participate in it, but those words came as a secondary thought.
The government too, could have attacked the policy directly, not from the standpoint of the Indonesians not being willing to allow it to happen, but from the angle that it is just too horrifying, too unbelievable to even contemplate a government wanting to actually behave in a manner like that. Labor should have destroyed the proposal that way like they used to.
Could it be that the Gillard Government, after having already shifted dramatically to the right on asylum seekers and refugees did not want to appear too soft on asylum policy by not attacking it directly? That’s a possibility.
In any case, attacking the personal over the political is set to continue.
Parliament has now returned to Canberra after six weeks break and so has the associated noise and lack of courtesy and decency during Question Time. Things were looking up. There were wonderfully heartfelt speeches in the chamber at the commencement of Question Time in expressing the condolences of the parliament to the families of both Sargeant Blaine Diddams of the SAS and art critic and writer Robert Hughes who both passed away during the winter recess.
But that is where the respect and decency ceased. After over half an hour of speeches paying respect to Sgt. Diddams and Robert Hughes, which included a brilliantly animated and well-spoken speech by Malcolm Turnbull Question Time began.
Somewhat surprisingly at least, Question Time was dominated by asylum seeker politics. It was surprising insofar as it meant that the carbon price, the major battleground of this parliament did not even get even a skerrick of attention from the Coalition, nor for that matter from the government through their usage of the Dorothy Dixer.
What was also surprising about this is, given the outcome of the expert panel on asylum seeker policy, is that the government also used Questions Without Notice to heap attention on the issue. Now, it wasn’t a complete win for the Coalition. Nauru and Papua New Guinea will be used, but in a slightly different capacity than the outright detention under the Pacific Solution. But at the same time, asylum seekers that go there will likely languish for a very long period.
It would appear likely that the Coalition strategy from today, to focus on the half backflip of the Gillard Government on this area of policy will continue in Question Time on Wednesday. Not wanting to give up the opportunity, the Coalition will almost certainly continue to highlight the recent history of the ALP in asylum seeker and refugee policy. This should continue even though the new amendments will be supported by the Coalition. This attack will also likely continue even if the bills pass the House of Representatives before Question Time at 2pm.
What is far from certain regarding this policy shift on asylum seekers is whether the government will continue to highlight the importance of implementing the policy when the Coalition have agreed to support it in parliament.
Electricity prices were raised during Question Time, once, just to break up the monotony for the briefest period of time and this could again make an appearance in Dorothy Dixer’s and maybe in questions from the Coalition if refugee policy doesn’t completely dominate.
Failing asylum seeker policy dominating Question Time again, it is within the realms of possibility that the parliament could return to the tried and tested debate over the carbon price with the Abbott-led Coalition attacking the policy and the Gillard Government attempting to highlight the compensation package associated with the price on carbon.
Another likely inclusion, at least as far as the government’s questions to itself goes is the High Court case on plain packaging of tobacco products. This case today ruled in favour of the government, allowing them to proceed with their legislation. It’s almost certain that the Labor Party will dedicate at least one question to this matter.
Whatever the fuss that’s focused on, it all begins from 2pm Wednesday.