The issue likely to cause the Gillard Government the most difficulty this week is asylum seeker policy, which is due to be voted on in the House of Representatives tomorrow. It seems the votes of cross-benchers Tony Crook and Rob Oakeshott are still not locked in. Bandt and Wilkie will vote against the “Malaysian solution”, so it was hoped that their votes could be replaced by Katter and Crook.
It seems to me that there are four possible outcomes. First, Oakeshott and Crook come on board, Katter stays solid, and the bill passes to be later rejected in the Senate. Second, Crook could abstain. Third, the vote goes down. Fourth, the legislation is pulled. Only the first and the last seem realistic options politically.
One has to wonder what Gillard’s strategy ever was. Surely she didn’t think that Abbott would ever come on board. If not, the plan must have been to see the legislation fail in the Senate and then blame Abbott if the boats keep coming. That’s not going to work. The incumbent government will be blamed for the continual arrival of boats. Assuming, of course, that the arrival of boats is the actual problem:
The latest Herald/Nielsen poll finds 54 per cent of voters believe asylum seekers arriving by boat should be allowed to land in Australia to be assessed.
Just 25 per cent say they should be sent to another country to be assessed while 16 per cent believe the boats should be ”sent back” and 4 per cent don’t know.
Then how is Gillard’s leadership going to look if the current ambiguity is removed at the ALP national Conference in favour of onshore processing?
The politics of Gillard’s position is so bad that you’d wonder whether she chose her present course because she believes in it.
During the last parliamentary session, I listened to endless debate and political sparring on this issue. I came to the conclusion that beyond political strategy, Gillard and Minister Bowen do in fact believe in the Malaysian solution as the best policy. I heard Bowen say that he was proud of coming up with the Malaysian solution and setting it up. Repeatedly we were told that the public service advice was that the Malaysian solution would provide the best deterrence effect and that Nauru would no longer work.
The “public service” of course means Andrew Metcalfe. You will recall the unfortunate remarks attributed to him about “European-style unrest” in our cities on the previous thread. Whether these remarks were fairly reported or not I have to tell you that Laura Tingle reckons that Metcalfe is held in high esteem as a public servant by both main parties.
It is said also that Metcalfe’s officers were the ones that had to deal with advising relatives of those lost at sea, which are said to number about 4% of those making the trip on leaky boats. Apparently he feels deeply about this.
I pointed out in this post last year that many countries experienced an increase in asylum seeker arrivals in 2008 over 2007. David Marr in his excellent 2009 article said that Howard’s Pacific solution was in trouble towards the end of his term. People had started to work out that Nauru was just a staging post on the way to Australia.
The UNHCR has made it abundantly clear that Nauru is seen as Australia avoiding its responsibilities and won’t help with the processing. Their attitude to Malaysia is more favourable. The UNHCR’s regional representative, Richard Towle, has told a parliamentary inquiry in writing:
In the context of the Malaysian arrangements, the assurances of legal stay and community-based reception for all transferees can be seen as a more positive protection environment than protracted – and in some cases indefinite – detention that many face here in Australia, provided the assurances are carefully monitored.
Abbott claims that Nauru will work. It seems clear that it won’t. Moreover, George Brandis’s opinion notwithstanding, other legal advice suggests it could be knocked out by the High Court. Furthermore, it only ever provided for 1200 places and I understand the capacity has been reduced by part of it being converted to other public uses in Nauru. Finally it’s ferociously expensive, from memory close to $1 billion over four years.
The Government was repeatedly asked what was going to happen to asylum seeker number 801 under the Malaysian plan. Good question, and the official government response is that it’s hypothetical because the boats will stop. But I did once hear Bowen say that it’s a pilot program and would then be reviewed. Still it’s also expensive and susceptible to being overwhelmed.
That last link has Gillard also currently pursuing a Manus Island processing centre and you’d seriously have to question whether there was any sense in that. In Kim’s post she said that Government policy was all over the shop. It’s hard to see that anything has changed.
One point clarified is that Gillard has ruled out the reintroduction of temporary protection visas.
As I said last year, I think that setting up a queue in Asia is a necessary step. However, people who make landfall on our territory should be brought into our main population centres and given every assistance in making their claims. Mandatory detention should end apart from the routine checks, as is the practice in other countries.
Setting up an Asian clearing centre from which we take the major portion of an increased intake would provide an incentive for asylum seekers to go that route rather than take to the boats. And Australia must work to have other countries take asylum seekers from there, to reduce the backlog. Nauru or Manus Island would never have this potential. Malaysia as the starting point of 80% of the people getting on boats to come here does.
Marr’s article reminds us that we were heading for policy bipartisanship under Brendan Nelson. Turnbull put the boot in by saying that Labor was going soft on asylum seekers, but didn’t articulate an alternative policy. Abbott fixed that with a full-blooded return to Howard’s policy, complete with turning back the boats (BTW to an Indonesia that shows no sign of taking them.)
Right now the focus is on the Gillard/Bowen policy. Geoff Kitney said in the AFR that Gillard’s project to rescue her prime-ministership starts right here with this issue this week. The starting point is of her choosing and she hasn’t chosen well.
Update: The Parliamentary Library has a comprehensive briefing note on boat arrivals since 1976.