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.