When Tony Abbott visited the RSPCA in Canberra on Tuesday, one of the staff introduced him to a pet rat. “Wow!” said Abbott. “I suppose I should show professional respect to an animal like that, shouldn’t I?”
It was a good joke, equating rats and politicians. But by week’s end, most Australians probably thought it was unfair to the rodents. They certainly weren’t laughing. Our politicians brought contempt on themselves and on the institution of parliament. A number of them confessed to feeling shame as they headed off for their six week winter break.
After all the talk, all the tears, all the hand-wringing over the tragic deaths of asylum seeker at sea - nothing! Is it any wonder, as the Lowy Institute found in a recent survey, that Australians are losing faith in democracy, with only 60 per cent now believing it is preferable to other forms of government.
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It is possible to be so ideologically pure as to be useless, so fixed in your politics that your actions have the contrary effect to your stated intentions. That is the situation the Australian Greens find themselves in over border protection.
Their obstinate refusal to be even remotely pragmatic in their opposition to offshore processing has one obvious effect. It ensures that Australia will remain a beacon for asylum seekers, that the boats will continue to come, and more people will risk death. If you keep telling desperate people that they will be processed onshore, you turn their chances of landing into a deadly lottery.
I am not saying that out of any attempt to lay a guilt trip on the Greens. This debate over the past 48 hours has been more emotive and unpleasant than probably at any stage over the past few years – and it has never been particularly good. I am sure that the Greens are driven by a sense of compassion and humanitarianism. What I’m saying is that that sense is so strong that it blinds them to practical realities.
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As Labor and Coalition politicians wallow in a moral quagmire while failing to settle on the difficult issue of how to prevent boat people from risking their lives at sea, many people are asking: What is Indonesia is doing about it?
According to well-placed sources, about 300 displaced people or economic refugees arrive each week at Jakarta’s Soekarno Hatta International Airport. They come in on one-way tickets from places like Dubai, New Delhi and Kuala Lumpur and they carry fake travel documents.
They speak no Indonesian, they have no job to go to and they move straight from the airport to a half-way house run by one of a number of people-smuggling syndicates with close links to Indonesian officials. But most do have cash lots of cash.
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A workable border security policy for responding to irregular maritime arrivals should not be this hard - but it has proven too much for a bitterly partisan parliament.
The nation’s legislators have been locked in a deadly embrace now for years on this subject - a fact only aggravated by the advent of minority government, the constant spectre of an election, and a Senate beholden to a minor party.
Correctly, the humane treatment of people arriving here by boat is seen as a clear moral issue. However, this fact has fuelled some of the most heated and unproductive arguments and obscured the practical dimensions of policy - such as the uncomfortable fact that well-intentioned liberal rules masquerading as compassion can actually wind up being the opposite.
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Just to start: here’s a small taste of current commentary online in Australia: “This disaster was the ‘smoking gun’ of the ALP’s failed ‘border protection policies’ and now the claws are out!” says John.
Then there’s Caz “… let’s ALL imagine that we have come out of a war torn country, (that our soldiers are attempting to fix, by the way) and have made it safely to Indonesia where our lives are not in danger and our children are being fed and receiving medical attention…....OK, you with me so far?”
And Caz continues… “As a mother I wouldn’t care if I stayed in the camps for the rest of my life, there is no way I would risk my children’s lives on one of those boats.”
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Julia Gillard is not just between a rock and a hard place in the aftermath of the Christmas Island tragedy - she’s wedged between an angry Left and a rabid Right.
It was hardly unexpected that Andrew Bolt and his gang quickly trotted out the “blood on her hands” mantra after dozens of asylum-seekers met their awful deaths yesterday, but they’ve been joined by a loud chorus of refugee advocates claiming the atrocity could have been prevented with a softer government policy.
The only people not attacking the Prime Minister today are the Opposition, who’ve remained for the past 24 hours particularly civil towards Gillard and her Immigration Minister Chris Bowen. And Gillard’s announcement this afternoon of a standing group including the Opposition and representatives from the Greens to examine the fact of the boat’s sinking could well prolong that cease-fire beyond the usual limits.
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