Political editor, The Age
With a handful of carefully crafted sound bites, Tony Abbott has damaged Australia’s standing in the region, over-simplified the refugee crisis in south-east Asia and sent an ominous warning to Labor on border protection.As the Prime Minister describes it, the unfolding crisis is the result of an “outbreak of people smuggling in Burma and Bangladesh” and the most appropriate and effective way to respond is to “stop the boats”.”Frankly, the only way to stop the boats is to be prepared to turn them around,” he said, two days before his “nope, nope, nope” response to any idea that Australia might share the burden of resettling rescued asylum seekers who are found to be refugees.
Then came the familiar rhetoric about using the front door, not the back door; a reference to these people wanting “a new life in a Western country”; and a re-statement of the principle underpinning the Coalition’s punitive border-protection regime.
“If we do the slightest thing to encourage people to get on the boats, this problem will get worse, not better,” Abbott declared. For the “slightest thing”, substitute anything that suggests sympathy, empathy or compassion towards those stranded at sea.
Finally, to join all the dots, Immigration Minister Peter Dutton emerged to warn that Labor leader Bill Shorten, if he became prime minister next year, would “side with the people smugglers” and dismantle the Coalition policies that had stopped the boats.
So let’s begin by unpacking the Abbott statements, starting with the assertion that the catalyst for this crisis was “an outbreak of people smuggling in Burma and Bangladesh”. Not quite, Prime Minister.
What triggered the crisis was a crackdown on people smuggling by the Thai military after that country was downgraded to the lowest tier on the US State Department’s people trafficking survey last year and a mass grave was discovered at a smuggler’s camp on May 1.
The crackdown prompted smugglers and traffickers to abandon thousands of Rohingya Muslims fleeing persecution in Myanmar and probably as many Bangladeshis seeking jobs who were already on rickety boats in the Andaman Sea.
When those boats sought refuge in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, they were turned away, prompting a humanitarian crisis and international condemnation that, in turn, forced the three countries to think again.
Turning back the boats has clearly been an effective tactic in Abbott’s Operation Sovereign Borders, but encouraging other countries to adopt it in this case was a recipe for folly on a grand scale. This was Abbott’s second regrettable statement.
A third was to assume that the Rohingyas and Bangladeshis were intent on transiting in the south-east Asian countries en route to “a new life in a Western country”. Much more likely, they were seeking refuge or work as soon as possible.
As for the “nope, nope, nope”, Abbott could have brushed aside the question of whether Australia would share the resettlement burden by pointing out that it is utterly premature. Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia have agreed that they will provide temporary shelter for up to a year, and there are many issues to be confronted before the resettlement question even arises. The biggest is whether international pressure can persuade Myanmar to stop the persecution of Rohingyas that began in the 1970s.
But Abbott wanted to make a point to his domestic audience and the Labor Party – that there will be no departure from a border protection policy that is based totally on the deterring people from getting on boats to Australia by punishing those who tried to come.
The skewed priority is reflected in a foreign aid budget that gives more to a single province in Papua New Guinea (which houses the Manus Island detention centre) than to an entire south-east Asian country, Laos, and quarantines Cambodia from budget cuts because that country has agreed to take our refugees from Nauru.
But the opportunity cost is that Australia’s standing as a model citizen in the region is diminished, along with this country’s capacity to influence a discussion that tackles all the dimensions of the problem – the criminal, humanitarian, economic and political.
“The policy of deterrence just means pushing the problem back on to somebody else to fix,” is how Richard Towle, the UN refugee agency’s representative in Malaysia, expresses it. “The lesson here is that this approach irritates relations between states and exposes people to greater danger.”
One potential upside from this crisis is that Labor is up for a debate about whether there is a better way. The opposition’s immigration spokesman, Richard Marles, has spent most of his time in the portfolio in a kind of wishy-washy safe haven: criticising the government when embarrassing revelations surface, but refusing to spell out a Labor alternative. That might be about to change. Marles was in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia as the crisis unfolded. He saw horrifying images of the skeletal state of some who were rescued, heard first-hand responses to Abbott’s turn-back remarks and came away with what he describes as an appreciation of the complexity of the challenge.
“Is Labor just as strong as the Coalition in dealing with people smuggling and trans-national crime? Absolutely. No doubt,” Marles tells me. “But to fail to see the question of displaced people around the world and in our region as having a humanitarian dimension is to choose not to be a civilised and progressive modern global player.
“Building a deterrence network as the centrepiece of a philosophy, which is all about putting a wall around Australia and saying ‘we don’t want to have anything to do with the problems of the world’, is terrible policy. Why? Because we live at a time in history where we are seeing the largest numbers of displaced people on the globe since the Second World War. For a country like Australia to take that view is just unacceptable.”
Clearly, Marles has a mountain of work to do in crafting a policy that applies these sentiments to all aspects of asylum seeker policy, and reconciles them with Labor’s commitment to the detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island.
One indication of his progress will come when the ALP debates asylum policy at its national conference in Melbourne in July. While there are plenty of grounds for scepticism, Marles gives the distinct impression that he is aiming for something better.
“The challenge for us is getting the debate onto a better footing on both sides and actually having a proper understanding of what’s going on – rather than having a debate in which both sides are shouting at the converted. That is really terrible.”
Who could disagree?
Michael Gordon is political editor of The Age.