Since the controversial years of John Howard’s Prime Ministership (it’s hard to believe it’s only been six years since his electoral defeat), and for decades before that, the issue of Australia’s position on people smuggling, asylum seeking and immigration has been a hotly contested political topic. Every time the topic of ‘mandatory detention’ or ‘offshore processing’ is broached, you can be sure there’ll be impassioned calls from both sides of the issue, ranging from moderate to extreme views at both ends of the political spectrum. Somewhere between the desire to shut down the immoral people smuggling market and the instinct to give aid to those who need it, Australia has been locked in a struggle to balance security with humanitarian interests, and strength with compassion.
Whichever side of the debate we might stand on, it’s clear that Kevin Rudd’s announcement earlier this month of a tough new stance on boat-borne immigrants sets a new tone for the whole debate. It has traditionally been the rallying call of the left side of Australian politics to decry the Pacific Solution and the mandatory detention of unregistered immigrants as fear-mongering and pandering to Australia’s cultural insecurity. Yet now the Labor Party is going to into an election with a stance on immigration far more inflexible than anything the Coalition has proposed.
Under the new set of laws, all unregistered immigrants arriving by boat are to be processed offshore, in a facility on Manus Island. This is nothing new, but the drastic new detail is that even those immigrants shown to have legitimate claim to refugee status will still not be admitted to Australia, but rather resettled in Papua New Guinea. The tough new laws are aimed at stopping the scourge of people smuggling, which is a noble aim, but many believe the stance goes too far.
In many ways it’s not surprising. It’s almost a political axiom that no-one is going to lose votes by appearing to be too tough on border control. And it might cynically be suggested that opponents of the Pacific Solution are unlikely to turn and vote for the Coalition, even if they do not support the drastic new measures being implemented. By taking such a bold and tough stance on refugees, Labor stands to gain the votes of those who see arrivals of boat-borne immigrants as some sort national threat; votes which have traditionally been in the Coalition’s wheelhouse.
Whatever the outcome, and whether we’re pleased to see votes moving in Labor’s direction or not, the practice of using the lives of asylum seekers, officially recognised as such or otherwise, as political leverage is every bit as disgraceful as the people-smuggling industry that brings them here in the first place.
Regardless of the diversity of opinions on offshore processing or mandatory detention, surely the notion that asylum seekers with legitimate refugee status can be turned away from Australia must send up some humanitarian alarm bells. Deterring people smugglers is one thing; deliberately ignoring the plight of those who need our aid, to say nothing of our obligations under international agreements, is quite another.
Assuming the new laws survive a challenge in the High Court, Australians may soon find themselves in the strange position of advocating a more compassionate refugee policy by voting Liberal. For many, this will be an impossible dilemma, and one which the Labor leadership may well be counting on. The question that the next election will answer is whether Australian society is really so politically polarised that the left-wing party can adopt a policy more right-wing than the right-wing party and still keep its traditional voter base loyal.
Meanwhile, the first batches of asylum seekers have already arrived in Papua New Guinea, ready to begin new lives in a country prepared to give them a fair go, rather than use them as a political football. Here’s hoping they can find the fresh start that was denied them in Australia
Make of that what you will.
Garry with 2 Rs