I think that we also saw why the problem of "boat people" is so intractable - being Prime Minister is a walk in the park to being Immigration Minister. They really are on a hiding to nothing.
The Indonesian Government (quite rightly according to its position of twisted logic) sees itself as a "transit country". Indonesia is not the final goal for asylum seekers and as far as the Indonesian Government is concerned it doesn't really care what happens to them.
Australia on the other hand because it is the "destination country" has all sorts of problems in dealing with people who come out of desperate circumstances and who literally will sacrifice everything including their lives to ensure a better life for themselves and their children.
Who can blame them? If my home was left but a pile of smouldering rubble as is often the case in civil war-torn Syria, or where violence is being exacted in a confused game as in Sri Lanka, or where religious fanatics are trying to install their favourite kind of nutter to power as in Egypt, Turkey and Pakistan, I'd think about upping sticks and moving on too.
Then there are those countries which we've willingly aided and abetted big brother America in bombing the snot out of, like Iraq and Afghanistan.
We should remember that 30 years ago equally desperate people came from places that we helped in bombing the snot out of, like Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar and I'd suggest that they've all made this country richer for their arrival and contribution to society.
I can understand the willingness in wanting to smash so-called "business models" but really that misses the point entirely. When you have next to nothing and all you want is to live peaceably and not in fear of who might come to kill you, to risk everything is in many respects the most sensible course of action. At least in a detention centre you're going to be fed and clothed, which might be a lot better than where you came from.
What I think is curious is both the dishonesty of language used particularly by the Liberal Party in the sphere of this debate and the failure of the Labor Party to call it for what it is.
- It is not and never has been illegal to seek asylum in another country. Whether or not someone is a genuine refugee should be assessed on a case by case basis, looking at the facts.
- It is illegal to overstay the conditions of one's visa, to deliberately mislead the Department of Immigration about the terms on which you arrived.
Yet the Liberal Party in particular likes to frame the language in terms of "stopping the boats" whereas the facts show that more people who are "illegal" immigrants arrived by plane.
I think its also curious that Mr Abbott likes to suggest that policies "worked" under the Howard Government. Never mind the fact that Australia did enter into two wars which were never authorised by the UN and were probably illegal (but no-one ever decided to test this in court). Never mind the fact that the people who were displaced by those actions took in some cases more than five years to filter to Australia, which by the way was conveniently after the Labor Party won the 2007 election. I wonder what Mr Abbott has to say about his part in the government in two illegal wars which in part have resulted in the people he clearly doesn't like arriving here. I also wonder why no-one has ever called him up on it.
Consider the following:
When pressed on whether he viewed the invasion of Iraq as illegal, he said: "Yes, if you wish. I have indicated it was not in conformity with the UN charter from our point of view, from the charter point of view, it was illegal."
- Kofi Annan, via the BBC, 16 Sep 2004
"Under the charter, a country can use armed force against another country only in self-defense or when the Security Council approves. Neither of those conditions was met before the United States invaded Afghanistan. The Taliban did not attack us on 9/11. Nineteen men - 15 from Saudi Arabia - did, and there was no imminent threat that Afghanistan would attack the US or another UN member country. The council did not authorize the United States or any other country to use military force against Afghanistan. The US war in Afghanistan is illegal."
- Marjorie Cohn, professor at Thomas Jefferson School of Law, president of the National Lawyers Guild, 17 Sep 2009
Also consider the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees' opinion on the Howard Government's so-called "Pacific Solution":
UNHCR welcomes the end of Australia's Pacific Solution which comes to a close today
UNHCR had strong concerns about the 'Pacific Solution'
We welcome the prompt decision taken by the new Australian Government to end the Pacific Solution and bring the refugees to Australia. We hope that any continuation of offshore processing on the Australian territory of Christmas Island reflects the letter and the spirit of the 1951 Refugee Convention.
- UNHCR, Briefing Notes, 8 February 2008
I'd concur with Mr Abbott that the Pacific Solution "worked", if being inhumane and garnering the scorn and ire of the UNHCR was the intent. I imagine that it's very easy to suggest that your policies are working when the only boats which come to your electorate are the Manly Ferry and people's yachts worth $10m plus.
Mind you, I think that the current Rudd Government's policy of simply dumping asylum seekers in Papua New Guinea is just as bad if not worse. Notwithstanding the fact that some writers like those at The Economist have said that "PNG's governments are notorious for corruption, and ever run the risk of turning the state into a fully-fledged kleptocracy".¹ I wonder how Papua New Guinea is supposed to cope with extra arrivals. There's been no mention as to what sort of facilities they have to house these people. The only reason that I would suggest that they've even agreed to it is probably some sort of kickback payments.
¹ - http://www.economist.com/blogs/banyan/2011/08/papua-new-guinea-and-australia
Really I think that this boils down to little more than some sort of greed. The bottom line for a lot of people is nothing more than the bottom line. Put simply, they don't want to have to pay for people once they've arrived and they're not prepared to pay the wages to employ them either. The current Rudd Government's ad campaign which has appeared in Fairfax and News Corp Australia's newspapers basically could have been summed up in two words: Go Away!
Mr Abbott's constituency, the Federal Electorate of Warringah, is a moneyed and predominantly white only suburb. I have heard old ladies on the bus discussing bombing asylum seekers' boats and think nothing of it.
In contrast, I live in the Federal Electorate of Chifley which according to the last census has people from 197 countries living within its boundaries.
To be totally honest, I hope that the next generation learns to live with an even more diverse range of people. I'm quite proud of the fact that as I look around the trains and buses on my daily commute that I honestly can not guess where people came from, and that this country was generous enough to open its doors to an ever increasingly colourful palette of cultures.
Surely it makes more economic sense to house people properly and process their applications efficiently than to leave them languishing in detention centres for years. Canada has a processing time of just 8 days. Eight?! Why can't Australia do this?
If this is merely about "stopping the boats" then why not make passage safer and commission a 3000 berth ship to do the job. Why do we need a Pacific Solution, a Malaysia Solution or a Papua New Guinea Solution? Why can't we have an Australian Solution? Why not have on shore processing and treat people with the dignity that they deserve as human beings?
I don't see the arrival of a few people who have risked everything as a threat to national security at all. If anything, the character and courage that they've shown in getting here should prove instructive and enlightening to a complacent people who are more worried about their property values - the value of people is far greater.
Never before have the words of Donald Horne rung quite this true:
Australia is a lucky country, run by second-rate people who share its luck.