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Harnessing the Most Appropriate Coalition Talent

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has now announced the ministry that will, hopefully, be taken to the 2016 election and beyond. That is of course unless there is more ministerial impropriety which takes place or is uncovered from the recent past. The new ministry is quite strong and relatively youthful, which suits the image, messaging and substance which PM Turnbull wants his government to portray.

A particularly brilliant choice was awarding the trade portfolio to Steve Ciobo, the MP for Moncrieff. By all reports, he has been a hard-working member of parliament and has excelled in his junior ministerial role in international development. Mr Ciobo is also a strong and confident when it comes to engaging with the media.

There were however some missed opportunities as a result of today’s reshuffle.

A few women were promoted, including new Deputy Leader of the National Party, Fiona Nash, and Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells. However, there could have been promotions offered to more, including Senator Joanna Lindgren, and the Member for Brisbane, Teresa Gambaro.

Today was also an opportunity to deal with the Minister for Immigration, Peter Dutton, who is simply not across his portfolio. Mr Dutton is also trying very hard to pull the politics of immigration and citizenship even further to the right and that is not healthy.

It must be said however, that Minister Dutton was probably kept in cabinet to appease the Abbott-backers. Also, a new minister would only be able to make the language used around asylum seekers and immigration more positive, rather than any substantive policy change. But an improvement is an improvement.

Given the bipartisan push toward the recognition of indigenous people in the Constitution of Australia and the sentiments from the Prime Minister in his Closing The Gap update to parliament, perhaps the biggest missed opportunity was in the indigenous affairs portfolio.

Currently that post is occupied by Senator Nigel Scullion, who is widely respected and has been quietly going about his business. However, for someone in what is a very important policy area in terms of the current political discourse, his voice has been conspicuously absent from a lot of the debate.

If you couple that with the fact that the Coalition Government now has two indigenous members of parliament within their ranks, then it is easy to see that talent and experience has not been harnessed there.

Ken Wyatt has extensive experience in the area indigenous health and welfare both prior to and during his time in the parliament and he would be the perfect candidate for Minister for Indigenous Affairs.

Senator Joanna Lindgren, although she has not yet been in parliament for a year, would be an ideal candidate for the junior role in this portfolio area.

Shifting Senator Scullion from the role would have proved a bit of a complicated situation, given he has held the role since 2012 and that the process for constitutional recognition of indigenous people is well underway. But, a successful change would not have been impossible.

Today, Senator Matt Canavan was appointed Minister for Northern Australia and will assist Josh Frydenberg in this role – someone who lives just about as far south on the Australian mainland as is possible.

Senator Canavan is a satisfactory choice as assistant minister in this role, given that the north of Australia is close to his heart. However, given that the government wants development of northern Australia to remain a key focus, the ministerial experience of Nigel Scullion, who lives in the Northern Territory, should be utilised in the senior role, rather than Josh Frydenberg retaining it.

Rather than election-winning moves, the changes outlined above are simply minor improvements to better serve the people who are represented in these areas of society.

The Near Impossibility of Finding a Better Way to Help Refugees

The humanitarian crisis caused by the Syrian conflict has dominated world news for days now, as thousands of people fleeing persecution try to get to a number of European nations. Some of these nations have pledged to contribute to addressing the resettlement issue, some with more meaningful contributions than their regional neighbours. It is as if there was no preparation for, or expectation of a mass people movement brought about by the conflict.

But as with every other refugee situation, this is a global situation which needs a worldwide response. But that does not mean that individual nations cannot make their own decisions about how many refugees to aid. The point is though, that all need to help. This includes Australia.

But it seems that Tony Abbott does not want to help. His language so far this week indicates that he has decided there is effectively a ‘no vacancy’ sign shining brightly for the world’s most desperate people to see. As a result, it is now laid bare for all to see that ‘stopping the boats’ is not about cutting down the number of asylum seeker deaths which happen at sea, but a far more sinister attempt to appeal to the crowd that thinks we should not accept outsiders in almost any case. And in terms of situations where a country should help people, this current event is one of the clearest examples of when to do so.

It has been heartening to see at least a couple of members of the Coalition saying publicly that we need to help some of the Syrian asylum seekers. The most striking and also highest ranking example being minister and National Party MP, Barnaby Joyce. The Agriculture Minister is someone who is known for a bit of a dislike of foreign capital in terms of farmland. The other example being Craig Laundy, an MP from a marginal seat with ethnic diversity, whom you would expect to have a more sympathetic view.

Leaving aside abolishing offshore processing of asylum seeker claims, there are three things which could be done in terms of refugee policy in this country, with an eye to playing our part in dealing with this emergency. However, it is likely none of these policies will be enacted, at least until a change of government. The three main options are a significant increase in the yearly quota, to a number closer to 30,000 or above, a temporary spike in the number of refugees we accept, or a more flexible policy which focuses on helping people from current and emerging conflicts.

A permanent increase to Australia’s humanitarian intake would help absorb some of the strain caused by the displacement of people across the globe. The increase would have to number in the thousands to have any meaningful impact and would have to be coupled with greater regional and global cooperation on the matter. This is also the least politically palatable option, which is a real shame.

One of the easiest things the Coalition Government could have done is said to the Australian people that we need to accept a temporary spike in our refugee intake. It is a small fringe element within our community who would not accept such a reasonable policy prescription. A temporary spike could last a year, or a number of years and that increase would solely be made up of refugees who have been forced out of Syria. Again though, the problem is too big to be overlooked at a regional and international level, and that is the hardest part of the equation.

A more permanent way of contributing to the management of this and other refugee events which may emerge over time is to gear our almost our entire humanitarian intake toward managing the flow of asylum seekers from current and emerging conflicts. This is a flexible approach which can be managed as new movements of displaced people occur. It also largely removes the politics as it would be impossible to sensibly argue that those we would be helping are not the exact definition of a refugee. Yet again though, world thinking needs to be aligned.

It seems however that we are destined for regressive and repressive thinking domestically, at least for the time being. And our wilful inaction, coupled with the same dastardly inaction from other countries, will mean people who are so obviously suffering are still dying at sea.

When the Debate is About Borders

Many of you will be aware of my relative social liberalism from some of my past work on this blog. I support social liberalism in a range of areas of public policy. I like to think of myself as very liberal – not to be confused with Liberal, when considering the plight of asylum seekers and refugees. Again, I have written strongly in favour of recognising and embracing these very vulnerable people in our society and in countries across the globe. To that end, it might surprise you to know that I am somewhat in agreement with the Liberal Party this week.

On Tuesday, an asylum seeker vessel carrying 66 passengers, reportedly bound for New Zealand reached the mainland of Australia at Geraldton in Western Australia. The ship, coming directly from Sri Lanka made it much further than a boat has for some time. And it immediately sparked heated debate, as the issue does at the best of times, as well as a review of our surveillance measures. Again, talk turned to the question of our “borders” and “border security”.

The arrival of asylum seekers in our waters is often considered a breach of our borders by the Liberal Party. We are consistently reminded that Labor has “lost control of our borders”. That happens even when Customs and Border Protection patrols intercept boats carrying asylum seekers well away from our shores and often, it seems, in the vicinity of Christmas Island.

It is not true to say in those instances that such a circumstance means we have a problem maintaining our borders. In fact it is wildly over the top and completely irresponsible to suggest as much. When our authorities are successful at intercepting boats, any boats which are foreign, they are in fact maintaining our borders in a successful manner. Any attempt to persuade us otherwise should be viewed with disdain.

On the other hand, if you have a vessel reaching the Australian mainland without being detected, then this is potentially an issue of border security. This somewhat unusual event is a potential issue of border security, not because asylum seekers are evil and must be stopped – they are most certainly not and should be received with care and compassion.

The reason why there should be concern is not necessarily about asylum seekers arriving on the mainland undetected. Some arrivals are inevitably deemed a security risk by the security agency ASIO, though unfortunately at this stage those assessments cannot be appealed. Rather, asylum seekers arriving on the mainland, as has been argued, shows a lapse in surveillance endeavours which could be exploited by people who wish to perpetrate real and actual harm.

It is important that we take that risk seriously. A review into our border security activities has already been ordered by Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare in the wake of the events in Geraldton, and that is the right thing to do. What must not be pursued are severe policy overreactions and dangerous displays of rhetoric which seek to blur the actual issue and incite unnecessary fear in the community.

There should be some limited concern about border security issues when there is actually a breach of our borders. Boats of any kind which are actually intercepted in the ocean are not and should never be considered a breach of our borders by any political party seeking to gain political capital.

Sadly, that will continue to be the case, as the race to the bottom will continue apace.

Stopping the Stupidity on Boats

There has been another asylum seeker tragedy in Australian waters. In the latest incident, following an increase in the number of maritime arrivals, two people died and two were critically injured. A total of 95 asylum seekers were rescued off the ship which capsized near Christmas Island on Monday. The debate over the issue, never far from the headlines, has again escalated since the overturning of the vessel. The same lines are being trotted out and the race to the bottom is continuing over an issue which Australia can do little to solve. There needs to be a different way of thinking on the issue, but that is impossible while there is political capital to be gained from ‘talking tough’.

The Gillard Government has, in the wake of the deaths, called on the Opposition to work with them to pass an amended deal with the Malaysian Government so that asylum seekers and proven refugees can effectively be traded by the two governments in a vain attempt to stem the increased flow of maritime arrivals in Australia.

The trouble is that offshore processing has achieved nothing and the Malaysian swap deal will also fail to make an impact on the so-called ‘problem’. The whole ‘cruel to be kind’ policy mantra has been shown up as a failure. Offshore processing along the same lines of what was enacted under the Howard Government has not halted the flow of asylum seeker vessels.

The whole issue, including the unfortunate deaths of the two asylum seekers needs to be rethought. The realities of the situation need to be assessed and the emotional politics completely removed from what should be an issue that is centred around the idea that asylum seekers are human beings. An acknowledgement of the different roles of the different players in the policy puzzle needs to be made.

First and foremost, refugee policy needs to be thought of as an issue where there can be domestic policy settings which contribute to working towards a ‘solution’, but also that there are other considerations which need to be taken into account. In fact, regional and international processes need to be factored into the equation, because asylum seekers do not magically arrive in the Asia-Pacific region. Domestic policy has a role, but its significance is much less than our politicians would have you believe.

As Australians, from our politicians down to ordinary everyday citizens, we also need to rethink the asylum seeker conundrum in another important way. We must view asylum seekers arriving by boat as a problem which is based on desperation, for the most part, rather than ‘failed policy’. We have a strong policy now and still have a high number of vessels coming into Australian waters.

The “blame game” over asylum seeker deaths has to stop too. It goes back to the idea that domestic policy now has little effect when it comes to people arriving in Australian waters on dangerous vessels seeking asylum. So government is not to blame, especially when they are resorting to inhumane acts in order to try to deal with the issue. We have to accept that it is the waiting game played by asylum seekers and those already granted refugee status which feeds the desperation that leads to risk-taking behaviour.

And finally, it is the asylum seekers themselves who are ultimately responsible for the actions they take, even though such actions are fueled by the desire to be in a better situation.

Going Too Far With Policy and Generalisations

The politics of the asylum seeker issue is back in the headlines. Earlier this week we learned that an asylum seeker housed at Macquarie University on a bridging visa has been accused of sexual assault. This shameful crime has led to the Liberal Party streaking away in the so-called “race to the bottom”. We have seen further moves from liberal ideals mixed with the support of generalisations which give rise to xenophobic tendencies in some parts of the broader public. There has been a gross miscalculation of the issue and a complete exaggeration of any so-called ‘problem’.

In response to the alleged sex attack, the federal opposition have proposed a mandatory behaviour code for asylum seekers living in the community on bridging visas. The Coalition has also pushed for the government to suspend all current bridging visas which have allowed a number of asylum seekers to live in the public while their asylum claims are processed.

No crime is ever forgivable and should be prosecuted by the law. And in this case and others of a similar nature, it will be. The man will have his day in court and answer for his alleged actions. We live in a liberal democracy and have this process, along with many others where people are made accountable for their actions.

Some people seem to think that the response of refugee advocates has been to legitimise the alleged crime. This is complete nonsense. Not one person is for a second giving any support to one of the most heinous criminal acts imaginable. They are however trying to put the whole issue into a sensible context based on reality and not some issue confected from emotion and irrational fear.

The problem of crime, it may surprise some, is not unique to asylum seekers. Crime is perpetrated by all kinds of people and for a number of different reasons. The Oscar Pistorius case shows that crime is not an issue for one section of the community but for the whole of society. Crime is not an asylum seeker problem, it is a human problem and people would do well to put the emotion to one side and realise that for themselves.

A big problem related to the asylum seeker debate is the treatment of all asylum seekers as if they are criminals. We lock most of them up while we process their refugee claims, some offshore and some onshore as if they have committed some criminal act. They have not. And the two proposals from the Coalition in the wake of the sexual assault treat asylum seekers as if they are all criminals regardless of whether a criminal act has been committed.

It is dumb and illogical to suggest that asylum seekers be subject to a code of behaviour. Everyone that comes to our shores is subject to our laws. A code of behaviour would just be a reiteration of those existing laws. It is merely an attempt to look tough and to appeal to those who are at the least very sceptical about asylum seekers in Australia.

Calling on the government to suspend all bridging visas is an equally silly idea. Again this feeds the generalisation that all asylum seekers are undesirable which is, in large part what motivates the xenophobia that pushes this issue into the absurd depths of idiocy we have come to expect when the politics of asylum seekers is raised – and it is raised too often now.

When it comes to asylum seekers, we see the Liberal Party veering further and further from the liberal ideals they were founded on. It is fundamentally illiberal to treat people differently under the law. It is also fundamentally illiberal to be hostile with regard to immigration, especially in the way that the Liberal Party are prosecuting their latest demands.

The 43rd parliament has seen some lows in asylum seeker policy that few would have predicted. The trouble is that the debate keeps plunging lower and lower to the point where there is not much further to go before rock bottom.

Pretending Not to Fail at Asylum Seeker Policy

Prime Minister Julia Gillard spent some time with our friends across the Tasman over the weekend. The Prime Minister met with her New Zealand counterpart John Key in Queenstown for the annual Australia-New Zealand Leaders’ meeting. Among other things, the meeting triggered a warning to phone companies to bring down roaming charges or face regulations and also a $3 million pledge to try to develop a vaccine for rheumatic fever.

But it is the asylum seeker and refugee conundrum which will always garner the most attention in the media and tend to dominate talks with other nations in our region. And of course this trip was no exception.

Both the Australian and New Zealand Prime Ministers’ managed to reach a new deal with regard to refugees. It was agreed between the two leaders that New Zealand will accept and resettle 150 refugees from Australia. The agreement, commencing in January 2014 will see the transfer of genuine refugees from the Australian mainland and also the offshore immigration facilities on Nauru and Manus Island.

On the face of it, the deal looks pretty ordinary, but at least like an attempt to deal with the movement of asylum seekers in the region. But it is not even close to a deal that understands the policy problem facing governments in the Asia-Pacific.

The deal fails in two key areas. First, it is an attempt to appear to be trying to do something in terms of the domestic policy situation surrounding refugee policy which is a fraught area for government. Second, it appears to be an attempt to deal with the regional nature of the asylum seeker equation which is a traditionally much more difficult part of the “solution” to reach agreement on.

Australia agreeing to send 150 refugees to New Zealand gives the appearance of acting on the domestic implications of irregular people movements. But in reality the deal will do nothing of the sort. It will not cut down the overcrowding of detention centres in Australia and our offshore facilities. The number, 150, is simply too low for that aim to ever be achieved.

Voters will know that it is the performance of a political illusion. It is an attempt to appeal to the irrational fear of outsiders that a number of our politicians seem all too willing to gently prompt with their often deliberate choice of language when describing maritime arrivals. Politicians care far too much about the votes in being tough on asylum seekers. In fact they should not be tough at all – there is no crime involved, so no punishment is required.

The pact reached at the weekend also fails the regional test. The deal, involving the transfer of genuine refugees from Australia to New Zealand is given the veneer of a regional solution, but it is nothing of the sort. In fact, the only thing remotely regional about the policy is that it involves more than one country in our region.

With the deal there will be no increase in the number of genuine refugees that New Zealand takes in on an annual basis. The 150 refugees that New Zealand will accept from 2014 will be a part of their annual intake of 750. That adds nothing to the regional quota and will still see a large number of boats arriving in Australia.

A significant addition to the refugee intake in the region is what is needed. And with a number of countries in Asia not signatories to the Refugee Convention, it is discussion to get those countries onboard, and a deal with New Zealand on a quota increase which is required to do anything significant about people movement in the region. Of course Australia has recently decided to increase its humanitarian quota, but the election result will likely see it return to the previous number.

But the regional part of the policy discussion is not the only important and meaningful part of the puzzle. Even those politicians with a keen interest in the regional dynamics of the discussion are missing the point. Far too often the regional options are discussed at the expense of the international. Refugee policy is an international problem because conflict is an international problem across all regions of the world.

The agreement contains two false attempts at pursuing refugee policy in a meaningful way, both domestically and regionally. Couple that with an international failure to acknowledge and deal with the movement of people in the early stages and you can be sure we will continue to see large numbers of asylum seekers making the dangerous journey to Australia by sea.

It’s Deprivation of Liberty Whatever the Court May Say

The asylum seeker issue is never far from the headlines. And that has proven to be the case so early in the new year. Parliament has not even returned, and the full complement of political players have not resumed regular hostilities, yet refugee policy has again been raised in the media. On Friday we had Malcolm Fraser chastising both the government and the opposition over their treatment and demonisation of asylum seekers in an interview. And today we learned that the political opposition in Papua New Guinea launched a legal challenge on Friday to the immigration detention facility recently re-opened by the Australian Government on Manus Island.

There have been multiple challenges to elements of asylum seeker policy and practice over the last few years in Australia. But this is the first challenge launched overseas. The appeal was launched by Opposition Leader Belden Namah in the National Court and seeks to have the Australian immigration facility overturned on the grounds that it is unconstitutional.

In bringing this case, Mr Namah wants the imprisonment of asylum seekers on the island to permanently cease. While the case is being heard the leader of the opposition has also sought a temporary cessation of the transfer of asylum seekers to the Manus Island detention centre.

The PNG Opposition Leader has spoken out about the immigration facility before. He has made the point that asylum seekers have not broken any laws and as such, should not be imprisoned in the Manus Island complex.  And so it follows that Mr Namah has brought this challenge because he believes the processing centre deprives asylum seekers of their personal liberties.

On this point, regardless of the legal outcome in the context of the legal system in Papua New Guinea, he is absolutely correct. Being detained and imprisoned for something that is not a criminal offence does deprive asylum seekers of their liberty. Such an act of unwarranted cruelty is in no way justifiable, especially when used as a political weapon by government.

Whether or not the challenge in a legal sense is successful is a completely different story and frankly irrelevant. Asylum seekers have been sent to Manus Island before, under the former Howard Government. This was not subject to a legal challenge from anyone in PNG  so there is nothing to compare the present situation to.

And opinions on the merits of the case appear divided, though it must be noted that the probability of success appears more than even, with the Constitution of Papua New Guinea having a list of rights enshrined within it.

The government of Papua New Guinea has however said that the centre is being run within the laws of the country and that of international treaties. The former might be correct in terms of the asylum seeker issue and it may not be, but the latter most certainly is not.

But we know of course that the debate over the detention of asylum seekers involves more than just the deprivation of liberty and the breach of international law.

Detaining asylum seekers can both exacerbate pre-existing mental illnesses and create new ones. Why would we want to be known to endorse a practice which results in diminishing the welfare of already vulnerable people?

Unfortunately there is an answer to that question and it is a disgraceful one: fear. For some reason there is an underlying fear of difference for which some trace the genesis back to the White Australia Policy. With the right checks and balances undertaken in a sensible manner by authorities, we have nothing to fear from people trying to seek asylum in Australia.

There simply is no valid reason for Australia to continue to embark upon such a barbaric course of action in trying to tackle a policy concern which, despite that barbarity, is still and will continue to be an issue.

A date has not yet been set for the hearing of this case. But we do not need a court case to tell us what we already know, and that is that people being held in immigration detention are being deprived of their liberty, whatever the courts may say.

The Trajectory of Politics According to Malcolm Fraser

The most recent episode of One Plus One, a one-on-one interview based program was thought-provoking and delightfully honest. It was all about politics, past and present- though it was mainly about the present day political situation. The whole half hour show was about politics in the Australian context and where it is headed. The guest on the show was a former Prime Minister, an outspoken former member of the Liberal Party- Malcolm Fraser. And as always he was willing to tread where few dare when it comes to commenting on and critiquing the political discourse.

The half hour program identified four key issues in the front of Malcolm Fraser’s mind when it comes to Australian politics. Two of these issues are policy-based concerns and the other two about politics in a broader context. In short, the former Prime Minister is concerned about the treatment of asylum seekers, Australia being a dependent nation, career politicians and  that the Liberal Party and the Labor Party are becoming closer. More specifically on the latter point, Fraser is concerned about the Liberal Party and their eroding liberal values.

Malcolm Fraser, as a former Liberal Prime Minister, is perhaps the most well-known in terms of support for refugees and asylum seekers. During his time as the nation’s leader from 1975-1983, Australia took in nearly 250,000 Vietnamese refugees during and after the Vietnam War in which Australia participated.

Since leaving the parliament, Fraser’s commitment to the refugee cause has been maintained, if not expanded. He constantly lambasts Liberal and Labor alike for their unfortunate and often inhumane convergence on the asylum seeker issue.

And he is right to do so. To put it simply, the asylum seeker ‘issue’ is not an issue. There is no “peaceful invasion” and we are not being overtaken by undesirables. What is happening is that we are dealing with a world where regions are in significant conflict. That conflict is either within or between countries. And people movement is an impact of that disruption to peace.

We should take more refugees and can afford to. In the long-run, taking in more refugees will prove a cheaper option than pursuing and locking up those that arrive on our shores, like they have committed some heinous crime- which they have not.

And we need to treat asylum seekers better. There should be no rubbish talk or actions involving turning boats around or issuing Temporary Protection Visas. And we should not send asylum seekers to foreign lands to languish in truly atrocious conditions. These are all concerns held by Malcolm Fraser and he is right to be worried. Australia too should be worried.

There is another policy that worries the former PM and that is what he sees as an increasing dependence on the United States of America in terms of security and Australia’s broader foreign policy. He is both right and wrong.

Australia has had a long-held relationship with the United States of America, dating back chiefly to the signing of the ANZUS Treaty. And we have had strong diplomatic ties since. Our relationship too has escalated, particularly since the September 11 terrorist attacks with our commitment in Afghanistan and Iraq and the recent move to station US Marines in the north of Australia.

But is this immediately a bad thing? Are we immediately, by extension, too dependent on the US? The answer to both questions is no, not necessarily. A number of nations enjoy similar relationships with allies. The trick here is that we not neglect our regional neighbours in the Asia-Pacific more generally and more specifically, in the Indo-Pacific. Australia can pursue an abiding relationship with the US and in our regional neighbourhood.

It is at this point where we begin to look at politics in a slightly broader sense, delving into the world of party politics and the modern politician, both of which Malcolm Fraser is wary of.

A significant concern of Malcolm Fraser’s, particularly in the last decade, has been the trajectory of the Liberal Party. Indeed it proved the catalyst for his resignation from the party he so proudly represented in the highest office in the land.

In short, Mr Fraser believes the Liberal Party is no longer the party of Robert Menzies. And he is largely correct. Over the last decade and a half the Liberal Party has become progressively more conservative in social policy, to the point of being regressive at times. Social liberalism has long given way to social conservatism and the remaining adherents to the former ideology are continuing to disappear.

The Liberal Party was set up, in the words of its founder, Sir Robert Menzies, “to be a progressive party, in no way conservative, in no way reactionary”. And indeed that is what it has largely become. There is still an allusion to individual rights and freedoms, but the conservative viewpoint within the party is clearly in the ascendancy. There needs to be a shift in the opposite direction, as the two theories are largely incompatible.

It is of not much concern that the Liberal Party are economically conservative. It is inherently sensible for government to live within its means and the Liberal Party has a long-established association with this particular ideology, most strikingly, in the Howard years.

Economic liberalism, in terms of support for public goods, is something that the Liberal Party should rediscover. The glory days when the Liberal Party were much more concerned about the provision of education and healthcare in particular have long passed.

The final concern Malcolm Fraser elaborated on during the interview with Jane Hutcheon was about the increasing prevalence of so-called ‘career politicians’. These are people who have little or no experience in the world outside of politics. These are people who have usually studied politics at university and gone to work as staffers of MP’s soon after graduation.

The ‘career politician’ Malcolm Fraser argues, is fast becoming a major issue for our democracy as political parties begin to favour party operatives more than talented candidates.

The major issue for present day politics however is the narrow skill set of our political representatives. Most are lawyers and former union officials and then business people. The latter is fine, particularly if they were small business owners in a previous life and so is a mix of former lawyers and union officials, but the point is that a broader skill needs to be represented in the parliament.

It is unquestionable that politics needs to be on a different trajectory. Right now we are headed even further toward rampant voter apathy and that is not healthy for a democracy such as ours, where to at least turn up to a polling booth on election day is compulsory.

A shift in ideology and in some public policy areas is also necessary.

Cutting Aid: Why, At What Cost and For What Gain?

The Gillard Government has today confirmed their intention to shift hundreds of millions of dollars from the overseas aid budget to the immigration budget. A total of $375 million in foreign aid will now be redirected to paying for onshore processing of asylum seeker applications. Not surprisingly there has been a significant amount of anger directed at the government from overseas aid providers in the charity sector.

The refocused budget allocations will help pay for the living costs of asylum seekers, 400 of whom have been released into the community, while their refugee claims are being processed.

The move comes weeks after the end of the parliamentary year. The contentious decision has arrived at a time when the government’s budget surplus is looking an even more impossible and unbelievable prospect than when Treasurer Wayne Swan announced that there would be four successive budget surpluses during his May fiscal statement.

Governments have a habit of making bad decisions, ones that will cause a political storm, when they think few are watching. And few likely are paying as much attention to the political debate, not just because of the toxic year in politics, but because we are coming ever closer to Christmas and there is always much less attention at this time of year.

And this latest decision about the aid budget comes after an announcement by the ALP Government that, in search of the elusive surplus, they would delay increasing the aid budget to 0.5% of gross national income by a year.

With the Australian Government moving to temporarily decrease our contribution to foreign aid, the question must be asked: What will be gained by our decision in terms of our domestic political environment?

The answer is, absolutely nothing. The chances of our budget returning to surplus are non-existent unless much more dramatic cuts are made. Returning the budget to surplus is not even seen, according to some polls, as a political necessity to help curb the poll woes facing the Labor Government.

If the Labor Party is so desperate to return to surplus, perhaps they could have considered cutting unnecessary subsidies and government programs which offer assistance to people and businesses that do not require government help.

What makes this decision harder to contemplate, even more baffling, is, as Shadow Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop has pointed out, that it comes just two months after Australia won a seat on the UN Security Council. And what did we do to help our chances of winning a temporary spot on the Security Council? Why, we played around with our aid budget, offering significant financial incentives to developing nations.

But far more important than the terrible look this has in terms of our recently won UN campaign, is the human cost of such a short-sighted decision, from a government desperate to at least appear as if they have a shred of credibility when it comes to balancing the federal budget.

Of course foreign aid can always be better targeted and is most efficiently allocated when it is focused completely on our sphere of influence.

But development aid should never be cut . This is especially the case when such funds will not be replaced by payments from other nations, when our ultimate aim is to increase foreign aid and especially not when the domestic political situation is part of the equation and will not be changed by such a decision.

This is exactly what has occurred and in the shadow of Christmas.

The Theoretical Budget Savings Proposal Capping a Week Of Shame

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.

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