Abbott won on points, but didn’t deliver a knock-out
AN insight to Tony Abbott’s thinking emerged from the Coalition joint party-room on Tuesday where he told colleagues that of course Julia Gillard wanted to talk about boats because the carbon tax was “so toxic’‘.
It seemed an almost comical remark given the timing. Remember, this was the morning after an historic victory. After a decade of preaching from the moral high ground on refugee treatment, depicting Abbott as a heartless xenophobe, Labor had capitulated. Apparently, he had been right all along.
Others would go on to rub the Government’s nose in it in Parliament and Abbott himself would play a part but the Opposition Leader’s reluctance to dwell exclusively on his win was telling. It showed that his laser-like focus on an issue can sometimes look like inflexibility. But more importantly, it betrayed a grudging recognition that although he had dished out a fearful beating to Julia Gillard on boats, he’d foregone the knock-out punch.
Her last roll-of-the-dice ploy of appointing Angus Houston, Michael L’Estrange, and Paris Aristotle to find a way forward, had actually worked. Their deftly political report picked its way through the policy maze saving enough face on both sides of the aisle by nodding politely to Abbott’s tow-backs and Gillard’s Malaysia. Yet they backed neither.
For Gillard however, it was the things they did recommend that mattered. This gave her both a direction to move, and the objective authority to do so – the latter being crucial given her own party’s sensitivities. Abbott had won but he saw the report for the get-out-of-jail-free card that it was. In boxing terms, she had managed to get herself off the ropes.
And by adopting the trio’s 22 recommendations, replete with re-opening of Manus Island and Nauru for detention and off-shore processing, she had also inveigled him to some extent. The deterrent power of the two-island nations would be strongly linked with him and thus span the party divide.
Neither could he argue as clearly that Labor’s border security system was soft.
In its new “no advantage’’ provision, ensuring a boat person cannot gain faster entry to Australia than would have been possible through the orderly UNHCR process, it is arguable that it is actually tougher than the Pacific solution.
At the same meeting on Tuesday, Julie Bishop was in no hurry to move on so quickly from boats policy speaking of “the public humiliation of a government,’’ and the PM being the “person responsible for this shameless episode’’ which had seen a thousand drownings and 22,000 asylum seekers since Labor came to power.
But by Wednesday’s Question Time a mere day later, the Coalition had swung fully back to carbon - eschewing any questions or point-scoring on boats. Ditto for Thursday.
This is amazing given the heat of this issue and the sheer scale of Labor’s retreat – a retreat not yet fully appreciated even within the Government.
When the then Immigration Minister Chris Evans dismantled the Pacific solution in 2008, he described it as “one of his greatest pleasures in politics’‘.
Reminded of his words this week, he pointed to other aspects of the Howard era policy including temporary protection visas, arguing the Pacific solution had been “punitive and wrong’‘.
“It was a regime based on punishment and trying to convince people that if you hurt them they will stop coming,’’ he told Parliament.
Yet the Evans distinction is moot. Punishment - and what other term would you use to describe the prolonged detention of bona fide refugees for having jumped the queue - is once again the central tool in stopping the boats. If the Pacific solution was punitive because it was based on the disincentive power of extended uncertainty and third-country detention, then so too is this new arrangement.
Despite the sneering at Mr Abbott for reducing the problem to a three word slogan, this very slogan – albeit unstated – now sits at the core of Labor’s policy.
The new consensus has seen efforts move from rapid processing in order to minimise time in detention, to its polar opposite, the artificial extension of incarceration on far-flung islands.
And as if to book-end the tragic arc of Labor’s journey, yesterday saw the arrival at Christmas Island of the MV Parsifal.
This enormous merchant freighter had rescued 67 asylum seekers off Java on Monday and had wanted to continue to Singapore but was forced to Christmas Island by the very same people it had saved.
Those not charged with criminal offences, will be among the first occupants of Australia’s harsh new off-shore system.
It was a fitting historical twist. The hapless Parsifal is operated by the same company as its sister-ship the MV Tampa which marked the start of this tawdry argument way back in 2001.
In both symbols and reality, it seems, it’s back to the future.
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