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.
Every now and then a former parliamentary leader, minister or MP returns to the airwaves or to our TV screens to comment on issues that they think are important, on policy issues that they can still offer a reasonable opinion on. Some do it more than others as if craving to be back on the national stage in a big way. Some appear to have lucid thoughts, others not so intelligent or in-touch thoughts. Paul Keating is one such man. At times his thoughts on current challenges facing Australia and the world are clearly observable in reality, even on the money, and sometimes his ideas and comments are way off the mark.
The former Prime Minister last night went on Lateline to talk about a speech he was asked to deliver- the Keith Murdoch Oration which was given at the State Library of Victoria. It was a speech called Asia in the New Order: Australia’s Diminishing Sphere of Influence. The oration comes just a short time after the Labor Party released their Australia in the Asian Century White Paper.
In a wide-ranging speech about Australia’s positioning in Australia, both in historic and forward-looking terms, former Prime Minister Keating focused particularly on our relationship with Indonesia and her government based in Jakarta.
Australia’s relationship with Jakarta has been much like a yo-yo. We have had a tough time having to establish and then re-establish firm ties with Indonesia at different times in our mutual political history. Most recently, that cooperation was lost over the East Timor dispute and then clawed back, particularly since the Bali bombings.
Keating’s speech made a number of claims about how Australia should be participating in Asia and with whom that political interaction would offer the best outcomes for Australia.
Ostensibly, Mr Keating said that our key strategic relationship in the Asia-Pacific should actually be situated in the Indo-Pacific, specifically with a close geographical neighbour, Indonesia.
Paul Keating has form talking up the need for a close strategic partnership with Indonesia. Just under twenty years ago the former Australian Prime Minister declared that, “no country is more important to Australia than Indonesia. ”
His argument last night with regard to our relationship with Indonesia was based on three main themes, They were that our partnership lacks “structure” and “coherence” and is dominated by “transactional issues”. Those arguments are, for the most part, wrong.
The Australia-Indonesia relationship, though testy at times, has been a firm one for the past decade despite the occasional flash of discontent toward Australia and vice versa.
To say that the bilateral ties between Australia and Indonesia lack structure is false. For one, increasing economic ties with Indonesia is currently on the negotiating table. We are working towards an Indonesia-Australia Comprehensive Partnership Agreement and have been since 2010 when it was announced that discussions had commenced.
Australia and Indonesia are also part of regional bodies including the Bali Process, the Indonesia-Australia Annual Leaders’ meeting and APEC where we have the chance to meet on both a multilateral and bilateral basis.
The only regional forum where Australia is missing out on interaction with Indonesia is ASEAN, We are not a member of this grouping and that is one area where Paul Keating is correct to say we could improve on engagement with our region.
Australia-Indonesia ties do not lack coherence either. Coherence cannot be found to be lacking when we have set meetings at which we engage with the Indonesians at both a multilateral and bilateral level. It cannot be said that our regular two-way visits imply a lack of ongoing relations with our northern neighbour.
In terms of transactional issues, the former Prime Minister almost has a point. He talked about specific examples, the live export trade which was temporarily suspended and about the ongoing people movement between Indonesia and Australia.
They are transactional issues but our relationship goes beyond that. At the very least there appears to be a working relationship that has continued between President Yudhoyono and Julia Gillard after being grown by John Howard in particular and then Kevin Rudd.
There are times when we do not get as much as we would like from the Indonesians and they from us, but that is the nature of most relationships, not just with Indonesia. Particularly in the case of Indonesia, there are some things that they just cannot or will not grant us, mostly by virtue of the fact that they are a developing nation.
When talking about military and security power, the regional importance of Indonesia is questionable. They have a weak defence force and even weaker border protection capabilities. Australia, to its credit is trying to provide some assistance in those areas.
Paul Keating is wrong when he talks about needing to pull back from the Australia-US relationship in order to have a stronger friendship with Indonesia. Our relationship has been largely maintained, even grown throughout a period of increased Australian military ties with the United States of America.
The same is true of our relationship with China, despite their initially being some protestations from both the Chinese and the Indonesians when we announced a greater ongoing military presence in the Northern Territory. Those purported tensions appear to no longer be an issue or at least not one to foment great conflict.
Should we dramatically escalate ties with the USA? Perhaps not. However, the purported need to dramatically disengage from one of our ANZUS partners is overstated, even based on an illusion.
It is quite silly of Paul Keating to say that our relationship with Indonesia lacks structure and coherence and is dominated by transactional issues. This is clearly not the case.
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.