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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.

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.

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.

Reason Excised From the Mainland

Reason and informed debate are both being used much less in politics than they should be. Too much time is focused on populist policies for political gain and not enough on well thought out ideas. The withdrawal of sensible thought has been accelerating during this 43rd parliament and it is a blight on both sides of politics.

There are two recent decisions in particular which best display the timidity of thought and action that now pervades our parliamentary process.The first is the “tactical withdrawal” from moving towards indigenous recognition in the Constitution in the preceding weeks. The second topical example is before the parliament at the present time and that is the decision to excise the whole of mainland Australia from the migration zone.

The former, indigenous acknowledgement in the Constitution received much more attention than the latter, the excision of Australia has. That in itself is a sad example, not just of the lack of reason and thought used in the political discourse, but also the wildly out of kilter priorities of those put forward by our political parties.

The excision of the mainland was not a policy advocated for by the government as part of the misguided response to asylum seeker policy. Instead, it was put forward by what was, in name only, an “expert panel”. However, it and all the other recommendations set out in the Houston report have been adopted wholeheartedly by a rapidly changing Australian Labor Party.

The ALP is a political grouping that appears to be doing its best, at least on asylum seeker and refugee policy, to appear a faction of the Liberal Party.  At the very least, they are playing wedge politics in an over-indulgent manner.

The policy of removing the Australian mainland from the migration zone defies all logic. As some have argued, it would be quite funny, if it were not sad and cruel, to believe anyone really thinks that pretending the mainland does not exist for the purposes of being able to send more largely desperate people for offshore processing, will help “stop the boats”.

Immigration detention is jail wherever it takes place. It is punitive and it is ugly. It is also something that should be beneath Australia as a mostly civilised nation. Funnily enough too, the spectre of detention has actually not deterred too many from risking their lives.

So why does the asylum seeker and refugee debate lack reason. First and foremost, because it appeals in some way to a fear of difference that some in our community hold onto. This area of government action also lacks commonsense because it is easier to appeal to fear, engage in knee-jerk responses and to punish than it is to invoke compassion and implement more comprehensive and sensible policies.

What of that much less discussed and debated issue, the one that should be of much more domestic concern than the over-inflated “boat people” “issue”? How about choosing not to pursue, for the moment at least, indigenous recognition in our Constitution?

The dropping of the process, the tossing of it into the too-hard basket is again a case of the easy way out.

Yes it is true that it would have been very difficult for the constitutional amendment to pass, especially when it was supposed to be posed at or before the 2013 election. The question would have required a majority of people in a majority of the states to say ‘yes’ to whatever the proposition put forward by the government and of course only 8 out of 44 referenda have successfully been prosecuted.

However, just because the circumstances are difficult does not mean that the process should have largely been abandoned. A smart approach would have been to acknowledge the difficulty in forging ahead with the vote on the timetable agreed on.

After doing that it would have been quite reasonable to say to the public and more importantly, our indigenous people, that we would like to forge ahead with the planned constitutional amendment, but in doing so would need more time to forge a strong consensus in the community.

The fact that we need more time to forge a consensus within the Australian public that indigenous people are indeed humans populating this country and did inhabit this country prior to our ancestor’s arrival is an uncomfortable thought too. It shows that perhaps some of the lack of reason it appears our politicians show might actually be more of a fear of losing power .

The apparent abandonment, or at least wariness  of the Coalition towards implementing the next best thing, a legislative instrument giving some form of recognition to indigenous people, gives pause for thought and defies sense.

Why would the Coalition give bipartisan support for constitutional change, including recommending a bipartisan committee, but then apparently baulk at the opportunity for an Act of Recognition, a meek and mild form of acknowledging a truth? Why seek a preference of separate statements to the parliament when the question of a statement proved difficult for some in the party back in 2008?  It just does not compute.

These are but two examples where logic and reason have been abandoned in Australian politics, both for similar but also divergent reasons. They are only two examples, others do exist and will continue to eventuate as a result of a number of factors, not the least of which are appealing to irrational fears and beliefs as well as a rampant desire, an uncontrollable lust for power and political dominance.

A Mandatory Minimum Prison Sentence and Other Asylum Seeker Policies

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.

Personal Over Political Even in Policy

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.

Question Time Ahead of Time

Parliament and Question Time are back after just a weekend break. It has been a rather eventful weekend, with tensions exploding from within elements of the Islamic community of Australia in response to a lame video by an American individual. The government here and most across the Western world, including the United States of America, were quick to condemn the video when it became known. These events seem likely to change the complexion of Questions Without Notice early in the week at least as the government seeks to explain their position and possibly answer questions on the matter from the Opposition.

Last week, like the previous sitting week, was all about the Opposition asking questions about the spending priorities of the Gillard Government, especially in relation to the budget, which the government is trying to say, will return to surplus.

The carbon price was next in line on the list of priorities of the Coalition, with a number of questions on the issue throughout the week. But unlike many previous weeks in this, the 43rd parliament, it actually took a backseat to something else on the political agenda of the Liberal and National Party Coalition.

Of course too, it would not have been a parliamentary week, or even a week in politics in general, without the Tony Abbott led Opposition asking the government some questions on asylum seekers and refugees.

The government again continued to have their backbencher’s ask questions on a number of issues including the economy, health, education, infrastructure, the environment and workplace relations as well as immigration.

In the week ahead, not much is likely to change as far as the overall make-up of Questions Without Notice goes. Early on in the week, probably limited to Monday, there is likely to be a question or questions from both sides of the political fence as Australia seeks to make sense of the angry protests which took place at the weekend.

After that, it is likely that the Coalition and the government will return to other issues. But the policy areas considered will likely remain the same.  Only the number of questions on each regular issue will change.

Asylum seekers might well dominate the week, at least early on, as the Opposition seeks to goad the ALP into allowing the re-introduction of Temporary Protection Visas and the turning back of asylum seeker vessels. This comes after the first asylum seekers have begun to head to Nauru

If asylum seekers isn’t the main political game this week, it will again be government spending priorities, taxation and the budget that make up the majority of questions that come from the Liberal and National Party’s.

That small matter of the carbon price will also make an appearance, but it may not be as prominent again as it has been in previous weeks of parliament.

The Labor Government for their part will also aim to respond to the events of the weekend during Question Time, with Government MP’s likely to ask a question or questions on the matter, but probably limited to Monday.

After that, attention will again to return to the spending priorities of the government, those announced and half-announced, including health, education and infrastructure in particular. There will however, also be questions on the environment, the economy in general and workplace relations.

The only unknown factors in Question Time are the exact make-up of questions on each issue, whether any other topical issue arise during the week and just how bad the behaviour is and how hammy the theatre.

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