Malaysia: The worst possible solution
Winston Churchill once noted that democracy was the worst form of government, except for all the rest.
It may also be true of Chris Bowen’s Malaysian solution -assuming it can be revived somehow. It is the worst possible answer to the asylum seeker problem, except for any others anyone can think of.
I know. I know. Calling a people-swap arrangement “good’’ policy is a stretch. Very few voters would agree right now and for a government that goes backwards even when spruiking a tax cut, the task of selling something so inelegant and counter-intuitive is clearly a bridge too far.
Yet it is also a bridge which must be crossed and a few facts in this incendiary debate would go along way.
A good place to begin might be the perennial argument over push and pull factors. This turns on whether abandoning John Howard’s suite of hardline policies, in favour of Kevin Rudd’s supposedly more humane ones, amounted to a “welcome mat’’ as the Opposition loudly protested.
It is certainly an inconvenient truth for the current Government that the sudden drop-off in arrivals in 2002 followed the imposition of tough border protection laws and that what continued as a trickle for the next five years or so, only returned to significant numbers in 2007-08 when Labor came to power.
It seems an open and shut case. Tough “Pacific Solution’’ policies “stopped the boats’’ just as Labor’s however well-intentioned humane policies, started them again.
Of course, it is not that straightforward. And perhaps the most basic reality has been missed anyway - namely that the big pull factor is not this policy setting or that, but rather Australia itself. Put simply, as a liberal and tolerant democracy with enviably high living standards, people are drawn here.
Should we really be surprised? A glance at the numbers shows there have been four waves of boat arrivals since the 1970s beginning with the post Vietnam War peak late in that decade.
Each time, they have been causally associated with wars and genocide in the countries of origin rather than our policies per se: Vietnam (1976-81); Cambodia and Indo-China (1989-98); the Middle-East - mostly Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan; Turkey as well as Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka (1999-01); and finally, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Iraq (2009-11).
Still you have to believe you have some chance of staying here to risk the journey in the first place.
As one of relatively few countries in the world to be seriously in the refugee resettlement business, Australia has played an admirable part in absorbing those displaced by these human calamities. And on this score at least, there had long been a broad political consensus.
No longer. Flowing directly from the mostly pointless push/pull debate are a number of myths.
The prime one, and the one on which Tony Abbott is currently basing his political position is that reviving the Howard Government’s Pacific Solution would achieve the same results as it did in the previous decade.
Critics say this ignores the fact that it was the resolution of troubles in Afghanistan - namely the defeat of the Taliban - which was the biggest factor.
Whatever the truth, the Government’s immigration and border security experts are now advising that these policies will no longer work. Indeed, they say that one of the most critical deterrent factors of the post Tampa 2001 drop-off in boats was the single element of the policy that is no longer available - towing boats back to the edge of Indonesia’s territorial waters.
It worked spectacularly well then but would not work now. It was done without Indonesia’s formal authority and would certainly not receive that nod now. More importantly, asylum seekers and their people-smuggler agents woke up to it and began scuttling and sabotaging boats rather than allowing themselves to be towed. We saw the tragic results of that as recently as 2009 when the occupants of SIEV XXXVI set fire to their vessel fearing tow-back.
Similarly, Nauru had a deterrent effect because what is known now was not known then. Back in the early 2000s, the prospect of being sent to Nauru was full of uncertainty.
For asylum seekers, the questions were many: Where is it? Will I ever be let out? Where would I be sent then? Now of course it is well known that its processing centre was merely an Australian operation and those found to be refugees were eventually allowed to come to Australia. Its deterrent power now is basically zero, according to the experts. Ditto PNG’s Manus Island.
This is the essence of the message being given to Tony Abbott by experts from Immigration, Customs and Border Protection, AFP and the like. If you really want to stop the boats, the old definition of “off-shore processing’’ as per the Pacific Solution won’t cut it.
Indeed, they have told the Government that the “threat matrix’’ is already pointing to a return to more arrivals after a recent lull brought about in part by the prospect of the Malaysian deal, and in part by the Christmas Island tragedy at the close of last year.
Their advice is that the Malaysian solution, harsh as it looks, is a “virtual tow-back’’ and as such, the only policy likely to dissuade people getting on unsafe boats in the first place.
Some will always regard the end-point as cruel - especially if it involves children. But as advocates of the novel plan say, if it were allowed to work, it may save many lives.
This issue has played well for Tony Abbott so far. But the onus has shifted critically. The question now is: does he really want to stop the boats or not?
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