My name is Kevin Rudd, and I’m just like John Howard
Many a battle has been lost because generals were caught fighting the last war in the new one.
Perhaps this goes some way to explaining Labor’s rhetorical bluster on border protection.
In just one interview in Adelaide this week, Kevin Rudd used the terms “tough’’ and “hard-line’’ over and over again and repeatedly declared the Government made ``no apology’’ for its hairy chested approach to boat people.
Clearly, John Howard’s words from the divisive 2001 “Tampa’’ election have been seared into his psyche: ``We will decide who comes to this country and circumstances in which they come.’‘
While it was a political triumph, cynically clawing back the Howard’s battlers who were drifting home to Labor, it left a bad taste in many mouths also.
The Howard Government’s hard-line “Pacific Solution’‘, gave effect to this new ‘fortress Australia’ mind-set. Asylum seekers, men, women and children, would be detained indefinitely and treated in the first instance, like criminals.
New arrivals in Australian waters would be sent to gaols in third countries such as PNG’s Manus Island, and Nauru which had jumped at the opportunity of riches associated with running the detention facilities.
Where asylum seekers were eventually determined to have legitimate claims for refugee status, they were usually granted Temporary Protection Visas - limiting their access to social security, barring access to family reunion rights, and requiring three yearly re-application.
Labor promised to take a more humane approach and has delivered in part. It abolished TPVs, and ended the use of third country detention facilities. Crucially, it discontinued the automatic detention of women and children and dramatically increased the speed at which refugee assessments, along with health and security checks were completed.
Yet now, as the flow of irregular maritime arrivals increases, Labor is running scared - too frightened to robustly defend the moral and practical dimensions of its position.
Despite a stratospheric approval rating, and a crushing two-party-preferred vote that could see the ALP gain as many as 20 new seats at the election, Kevin Rudd has adopted the tough rhetoric of his predecessor- even an Opposition MP has branded him “John Howard-lite’‘.
Rather than using some of that massive political capital to, as one commentator put it, ``start a new debate about asylum seekers’‘, Kevin Rudd has beaten an undignified retreat into lowest common denominator politics.
But it is not just rhetoric.
Last weekend, the PM picked up the phone and leant on his Indonesian counterpart to intercept a boat of some 260 Sri Lankan Tamils headed for Australia.
The Government dresses this as part of its routine and constructive working relationship with our northern neighbor.
But having the Indonesian President intervene on a specific boat is hardly routine. And it is a long way removed from the focus of supporting policing and intelligence gathering in the fight against people smuggling. Indeed, using Indonesia in this way is dangerously similar in its practical impact to the old third country approach. Indonesia, like those other countries, has not signed up to the UN Convention on Refugees.
At one level, Mr Rudd’s timid response to the public relations challenge of increased boat arrivals should really surprise no one. It has been part of his political formula for a long time. Despite his leftist branding as a Labor figure, he has often positioned himself as a centre-right politician in the mould of John Howard.
As religious and morally conservative as the older man, he proudly declared he was as economically conservative as well. This tendency to pitch to the conservative mainstream was also evident (to a fault) when he released his first attempt at a carbon reduction target for the ETS. Despite winning an election by reframing climate change as “the great moral challenge of our times’’ he instinctively demured when it came to putting an actual policy forward opting for a mere 5 to 15 per cent range. That had to be beefed up after critics including even the Opposition derided it as laughable.
This surfeit of caution is again ditating tactics on asylum seekers.
Now, even after adopting more reasonable policies, Kevin Rudd is spooked by the fear of being branded as too soft on refugees. This is why he has sought to cloud the issue with his rhetorical flourish by falsely suggesting he is under attack from the left while he is actually being attacked from the right.
“We believe, unapologetically, in a tough hard-line approach to border security’’ he said. It’s a classic straw man tactic longer on political cowardice than political courage.
After all, the Government has a strong story to tell on boat arrivals.
For example, the Opposition charge that Mr Rudd has actually attracted refugees by a softer policy ignores the reality that unlawful arrivals are up all over the world. In fact, Australia gets off very lightly with just a 19 per cent increase in 2008 compared to numbers like 122 per cent for Italy, 121 per cent for Norway and 30 per cent for Canada.
Our raw numbers are also small with just over 1700 people arriving on boats so far this year compared to tens of thousands in comparable developed countries. In the two years to the end of 2008, Australia had fewer than 9000 claims for asylum compared to 54,000 for Canada. Plus, the proportion of asylum seekers arriving by sea was a paltry 3 per cent last year.
That is, of the 4,936 asylum seekers, only 161 actually arrived in Australia without a visa - the rest came through airports with perfectly valid papers and then sought to stay claiming regugee status.
If Australia has a problem of unlawful residents, it is not from those coming in rickety boats. In fact in the last dozen years or so the number of people living here without a valid visa - ie, people over-staying their visitors’ visas - has remained at a relatively constant 50,000 or so.
Obviously, this dwarfs the number of people arriving by boat for processing. And the number arriving this year, (some 1,700) while much higher than recent years, pales against the more than 10,000 arriving over the years 1999 to 2001 under John Howard. In 1999 alone, there were 86 boats arriving - a great deal more than the 32 arriving here so far this year.
Mr Rudd has never tired of lecturing Australians about the moral failings of “neo-liberalism’’ and the inherently globalised nature of the world economy.
Yet there is no more pressing moral question before the world than the human rights of the forcibly displaced - some 42 million of them at present. And like capital, the movement of people is a global reality also.
The Government should now have the courage of its convictions and stare down the fear campaign being waged against it. If ever there was a case for evidence-based policy, it is here and now. That would be real moral leadership - voters respect that too.
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