Abbott's partisan politicking over refugees is heading for the rocks
This article originally appeared in The Australian.
Asylum-seekers, boatpeople, refugees, refos - they aren't a new phenomenon. After World War II more than 180,000 refugees were resettled here under the auspices of the International Refugee Organisation.
Later, following the fall of Saigon, about 150,000 asylum-seekers came to Australia in a desperate search for a new home, a new start. Some of our most successful citizens came here that way. They weren't made particularly welcome by many Australians and in some cases the response was even violent.
The political class, however, did what they should do - they led. Ben Chifley, Robert Menzies, Malcolm Fraser, Gough Whitlam and Bill Hayden - all showed bipartisan support over political opportunity.
What is different now is the determination by the Abbott opposition to play partisan politics with the issue. The recent rejection of the government's attempt to achieve bipartisan consensus around offshore processing is further evidence, I believe, that Tony Abbott has no intention of reaching an agreement unless, perhaps, the government capitulates on every issue. This would include the offensive temporary protection visas of the Howard years.
The moral and political crisis is even deeper than that; people are dying in large numbers trying to get here and we must do something about it. This should mean offshore processing in the manner pioneered by the Fraser government. After the fall of Saigon in 1975 an estimated 250,000 South Vietnamese refugees perished in boats fleeing the communist regime for places such as Australia.
The Fraser government, supported by Whitlam and later Hayden, was determined to stem this terrible loss of life. He did so by working with the leaders of other nations in the region - Thailand, Malaysia, The Philippines and Indonesia - to establish refugee processing centres in those countries. Most importantly, the UN was intimately involved.
In all, about 1.4 million refugees were processed in these camps and countless lives were saved as a result.
Just 2000 asylum-seekers reached Australia by boat between 1975 and 1982. By contrast, the Fraser government accepted more than 150,000 refugees from these camps secure in the knowledge that the Labor opposition would not politicise the issue.
Australians don't seem to have any real problem with accepting asylum-seekers - provided they come here by plane. They do struggle, however, with the idea that the few refugees who breach our border security have a legitimate right to seek asylum in this way. I don't pretend to understand the myriad reasons for this, although I suspect a deep-seated national insecurity based on our geography has a fair bit to do with it. Despite our multicultural character many Australians still feel as though they are Europeans living on the edge of Asia. Fraser's achievement is all the more remarkable therefore, in that he was resettling Indochinese refugees. As John Menadue observed, it was Fraser who, once and for all, broke free of the White Australia policy. In doing so he built on Whitlam's abolition of the racist laws that supported it.
The recent tragedy off Java, with the loss of perhaps 200 people, should be a powerful incentive to sort out the issue. The government has certainly come a very long way from its earlier position of opposition to offshore processing. By contrast, the Abbott opposition has not moved one inch.
Having said that, this is not an issue where virtue is the sole preserve of Labor. We introduced compulsory detention and John Howard built on it. Howard came up with the so-called Nauru solution and successfully politicised the issue during the 2001 election in the wake of Tampa. Everyone involved in that campaign recalls Howard's bellicose pronouncement: "We decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come."
Likewise, Labor overreached by committing to onshore processing and in doing so it exposed itself to the claim that people-smugglers were taking advantage of the new policy.
However, that has now changed; Labor wants an offshore processing capacity but the High Court has ruled this out - certainly for Malaysia - and probably for all the countries where we need to establish those centres. Only the bipartisan support of the opposition will see that ruling circumvented. With that hurdle overcome the government could get to work with the countries in the region and the UN to establish a proper system for processing refugees, just as Fraser did. There is no doubt that the lack of any meaningful regional co-operation is creating a humanitarian mess in countries such as Malaysia.
Julian Burnside QC made the point that the success of the offshore processing centres after Vietnam was in large part due to the preparedness of the international community to accept some of the responsibility for taking the refugees - especially since the US and its allies had intervened so aggressively in Indochina. Surely the same argument applies today, particularly in the case of Afghani asylum-seekers. The success of the Indochinese resettlement was in part at least due to the guarantee of resettlement for genuine refugees. Would this be too big an ask given that more than 6 million people have come to Australia since the end of World War II?
It is his refusal to come to an agreement with the government that leaves Abbott exposed. He could have accepted the government's offer of including Nauru in a regional solution. However, he keeps finding more reasons to reject the government's overtures. The danger for Abbott is that this tactic will become more obvious as the opposition rebuffs further attempts by Immigration Minister Chris Bowen to reach consensus. Inevitably, people fed up with the politics surrounding refugee policy will question Abbott's sincerity when he claims he wants this issue solved. But, like the rugby player he was, he wants to keep this ball in the ruck as his team pushes towards the try line.
Sadly, it still represents his best chance of winning. Abbott has the opportunity to be a statesman, but right now he just looks like any other politician.