The politics of asylum seekers and our fiscal cliff
In an episode of the 1970s comedy series The Goodies, Graeme Garden is so taken by the power of his pirate radio station transmitting from a submarine outside the 12 mile limit, he succumbs to megalomania. He draws up plans to insert a giant hydraulic car jack between Britain and the continent to hoist the whole island outside its own 12 mile limit.
A fortnight ago the Gillard Government unveiled its latest capitulation on asylum seeker policy: a plan to excise the entire Australian continent from its own migration laws.
Not satisfied with merely redefining the country’s northern territorial islands to deny asylum seekers access to Australian courts, Labor is now making John Howard’s reviled Pacific Solution seem half-hearted.
Howard first wanted to excise about 3000 northern islands for migration law purposes in 2002.
Labor MPs branded that morally reprehensible.
Ditto in 2006 when a move remarkably similar to the current plan was made to excise the country’s northern coastline.
Then in opposition, Chris Bowen had told Parliament it would be “a stain on our national character.’’
Worse stains were to come. For a start, Labor won in late 2007 and immediately set about “humanising’’ the policy.
But to its slowly dawning horror, this invited a lucrative new people-smuggling business which led directly to a flood of boats and a rising toll of deaths at sea. The ALP initially blamed the increase on “push factors’’ in other countries. But that dog won’t hunt anymore. Both sides know it is the pulling power of Australia itself that attracts asylum seekers.
Facing a genuine moral dilemma, Labor has been forced bit-by-bit to cave in, culminating in its last chance Houston review this year. Clearly the review was designed to give the Government the political cover for a full retreat.
But policy slipperiness is not the exclusive province of the ALP. For two years as the boats kept coming, Tony Abbott banged on demanding that the PM simply “pick up the phone’’ to Nauru to get third country processing restarted. He publicly issued this admirably simple advice to the PM no less than 106 times and was happy to take the political dividend from such simplicity.
The Government argued the deterrent value of the two outposts had never been high and was probably zero given that neither country could offer final resettlement and most refugees would wind up in Australia anyway.
Now it was Labor’s turn to be right.
What ever the deterrent value of two further measures favoured by the Coalition, (Temporary Protection Visas and boat tow-backs at sea) there can be no avoiding the fact that picking up the phone to Nauru and PNG has done precisely nothing.
Don’t hold your breath though waiting for a concession. This isn’t about policy, it’s about politics.
Another colossal failure is the craven refusal to discuss the now seriously underperforming GST.
There are sound policy reasons to broaden its base to include food, health care, and education as had been initially intended. Increasing its rate above 10 per cent - perhaps to 15 per cent - should also be on the table. Yet thanks to political timidity both are off-limits.
From the excruciating days of its birth, politicians set about compromising its integrity. The carve-outs were part of the deal. They reduced its impact and therefore its revenue raising capacity. The other big compromise came through assurances that the new tax would effectively be set in stone, virtually guaranteeing it would eventually suffer from the very tax-base narrowness problem it was expressly designed to address.
This triumph of populist politics over responsible fiscal policy – which demands ever lower taxes and yet more middle-class welfare – has meant that Australia, like most western economies has a structural revenue shortfall. Put simply, outside of atypical boom-times, there is not enough money coming in to meet expectations. Neither is there the political courage to get.
With a swathe of new spending programs in the offing, including the NDIS, dental care, the Gonski education reforms, and healthcare, it is crazy that a discussion of the effectiveness of the GST was excluded from the Henry Tax review. Just as the Howard Government had in 1999, the Gillard Government feared that even discussing change left it exposed to a partisan fear campaign.
So what we got instead was a crippling high-octane argument which yielded a butchered super-profits tax on big miners and which so far has failed to add a cent to revenue.
The Government which had made a 2013 surplus an iron clad commitment, has recently hinted that it might be unachievable.
Wiser heads beyond the party trenches are increasingly concluding that it is our hyper-partisan politics that is now the greatest impediment to problem solving.
One of them, the Business Council of Australia’s Tony Shepherd added his voice last night.
“In the days of the Accord, different sectors were able to agree on a common purpose and a plan to foster productivity, competitiveness and growth,’’ he told the peak employer body’s annual dinner.
“There is no reason we cannot do this again.”
Unfortunately, there probably is one reason: politics.
Comments on this post will close at 8pm AEDST.
Read all about it
Up to the minute Twitter chatter
The latest and greatest
Good morning Punchers. After four years of excellent fun and great conversation, this is the final post…
I have had some close calls, one that involved what looked to me like an AK47 pointed my way, followed…
In a world in which there are still people who subscribe to the vile notion that certain victims of sexual…