In a kooky swapsie deal, Australia and Malaysia entered into a “cooperative transfer agreement” on asylum seekers, only to have the deal trounced by the High Court.
Under the Malaysia Solution the next 800 asylum seekers to arrive in Australia would be shipped off to Malaysia to join the ‘queue’ there. In return Australia would take an extra 4000 refugees from Malaysia.
Refugee advocates were chuffed that we’d take extra refugees but dismayed at the idea of sending asylum seekers to Malaysia, where they were reportedly badly treated. Critics said it was both inhumane and ineffective, and many were pre-occupied by the maths of 800 for 4000.
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I was sitting with some friends and students in the outer western suburbs of Sydney the other day. We were chatting about the High Court’s decision on the Malaysia Solution and offshore processing of refugees.
The general feeling was that it was about time someone demanded that Australia meet its international obligations and stop dumping them onto other countries. While there was not much sympathy for Gillard, nor was there any support for Tony Abbott’s posturing.
Someone actually quoted their Greek grandmother, who compares Greeks and Italians - saying, “they are the same, but different”. My question: “Would you vote for Tony Abbott if an election was held tomorrow?” was met with a resounding ‘no’. So is Gillard finished?
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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.
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Should we ban the live export of asylum seekers?
In a compelling majority, the High Court seemed to think so, issuing a permanent injunction against the Commonwealth Government, barring them from pursuing the current proposal to trade asylum seekers with Malaysia.
Despite numerous changes to the Migration Act over the decade to expand administrative power, the Act could not be used to justify the transaction of asylum seekers as if they were export goods.
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The Gillard Government’s legal miscalculation of its Malaysian enterprise will amplify Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s consistent theme that it is an administration which simply can’t get anything right.
It isn’t the first instance of clumsy handling of the asylum seeker debate and the political imperatives which are driving national attention on what is, essentially, a minor matter.
Against solid advice - including that of Kevin Rudd - the Government tried to get a detention centre deal with East Timor but had to limp away embarrassed from negotiations which were always destined to fail.
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The government’s failure to “stop the boats” is an albatross around its neck and the issue is driving the political agenda. Their asylum seeker problem is two-fold. Scores are dying trying to reach Australia by boat and the government is losing support by its failure to stop those who don’t. However, the solution to both problems is simple - a blanket ban on accepting boat people as refugees.
Australia and Malaysia have tentatively agreed to exchange 800 boat people for 4000 confirmed refugees. The underlying assumption is that asylum seekers will be deterred from making to voyage to Australia by the prospect of ending up in Malaysia. Although the Greens have spit the dummy over Malaysia’s human rights record, the inhospitality of partner countries is the very reason these agreements may deter some boat people from coming.
Yet the Malaysian agreement doesn’t go far enough to fully deter asylum seekers and entering Australia will be a lottery with enticing odds. You don’t need to have an abacus to calculate that if arrival trends continue - 6535 people having arrived in Australia by boat last year - the vast majority will have an opportunity to stay in Australia.
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It’s interesting, isn’t it, that the general public finds itself dismayed and outraged about our live export industry, which transports our happy, healthy cows to deepest darkest Asia to meet a cruel and violent death, at the same time as our government is preparing to transport our refugees to the very same region and it’s only the Greens and the usual bleeding-heart refo activists that are arcing up.
This week, we heard Senator Sarah Hanson-Young hopes to thwart the Government’s plan to send refugees to Malaysia – where refugee treatment includes the occasional caning – by introducing an amendment to the Migration Act that will oblige Julia Gillard to seek the Parliament’s permission before sending refugees to a third country.
The opposition will support Hanson-Young out of sheer contrarianism rather than concern for human rights. But she’ll take her support where she can get it, since the tens of thousands who signed online petitions and wrote to their local members begging them to save our cows don’t seem to have much compassion left over for the human cargo.
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Yesterday, it was revealed in The Australian that since the government announced its Malaysian solution six boats have arrived in Australia carrying 274 asylum seekers. With the Malaysian’s reluctance to backdate the agreement, each and everyone one of those 274 asylum seekers are likely to be processed in Australia.
How extraordinary, considering that if Gillard ever gets this shonky deal with Malaysia signed, only 800 asylum seekers who come to Australia illegally are going to be deported to Malaysia! The quid pro quo in the bargain is that Australia will resettle 4000 of Malaysia’s refugees over four years and will pay the Malaysian government an as-yet-undisclosed amount of money.
Last year 6879 asylum seekers tried to come to Australia illegally by boat. That’s almost 19 people every day. If that rate were to continue and the next 800 illegal arrivals were deported to Malaysia then in 43 days’ time Australia will have used up the Prime Minister’s quota and all other illegal arrivals after that would still have to be processed in Australia.
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The Federal Government now has a clear policy direction on asylum seekers: Confuse them so much they go elsewhere.
What the Government needs is a decisive way to stop desperate people getting into boats bound for Australia while maintaining our UN and human rights obligations to accept asylum seekers.
What they’ve got is a fear-induced policy spasm that tries to keep both sides (the turn-back-the-boaters and the open-armers) happy, but succeeds in pleasing neither.
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Clear the waffle and you find the Government and the Opposition now have a bipartisan position on dealing with asylum seekers who arrive by boat.
It’s quite simple: Put them in the closest to squalor we dare endorse, and hope that the nastiness of the accommodation deters other refugee hopefuls.
And it is an unmistakable message: Our Hell hole could be worse than the Hell hole you are now living in. Or at least, it might not be worth the risk and expense of setting out by boat to find out.
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Last week saw an unusual event in Australian politics: backbench members of Parliament from both sides took a foreign affairs initiative, independent of their party leaderships. Sixty Members and Senators – Labor, Liberal, Green and independent – signed a letter which was presented to the Malaysian High Commissioner protesting against the current trial of Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim on charges of “sodomy.”
The letter was signed by, among others, Laurie Ferguson, Malcolm Turnbull, Greg Hunt, Bob Brown, Nick Xenophon, Duncan Kerr, Deputy Speaker Anna Burke, Jennie George, Gary Gray and Mark Dreyfus QC.
It followed a speech which I gave in the House of Representatives on 3 February, in which I drew the House’s attention to the 2nd Sodomy trial in Kuala Lumpur of Anwar Ibrahim.
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