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.