Given my published opinions on refugees, it may surprise many that I’m actually favouring Kevin Rudd’s plan to ship boat arrivals off to PNG, as announced last week. This decision caused a ruckus. It was condemned by the liberal left (of which I’m an occasional member, minus the latte) and other sections of the population. It threw Tony Abbott into a spin as he couldn’t decide if he supported it or not. Regardless of anything else, it was a particularly clever political manoeuvre – a fact that many seize upon as evidence of cynicism.
I don’t doubt that there is a large dose of political opportunism in this decision, but I also believe it might work.
I’ve been a hardline critic of the previous policies, many of which were inhumane. Many seeking refuge in this country have been treated disgracefully, much to the shame of anyone who cares – which is very few on either side of the political fence. Regardless of what is to come, history will record this as a stain on what has been a pretty proud record. Dare I say it, the demonising of refugees seeking a better life and their treatment after it is un-Australian.
Unfortunately, this is very much a political hot potato, perhaps the hottest. That’s very unfortunate but typical of Australian politics (and in many other parts of the world). Informed debate has been jettisoned in favour of sound bites and violent language. I’ve gone on about this many times before. I blame John Howard for lowering the tone of public debate. On the one hand, a deliberately paternalistic attitude suggested that issues of this sort should be left for the adults to sort out – you run off and be relaxed and comfortable. He was blatant in turning issues like this to political advantage, irrespective of truth or morality. He was the first of the real dog whistlers in Australian politics, and Tony Abbott has followed in his steps. That’s pretty well set the agenda for debate ever since, and weak leaders such as Gillard have been unwilling to resist it.
As a result of all this, the Australian public is much less informed now than 10-15 years ago. The shrill tone of debate carries no substance, and with few exceptions, the media have let it go unchecked (the tabloids, in fact, joining the scrum). The scrutiny on issues such as ‘border protection’ matched with a general ignorance of the real situation means that Australian governments have had to be seen to be acting. Placating the ignorant redneck masses (who, nevertheless, are entitled to a vote) has led to successive Australian governments spending many more millions than necessary to implement a harsh ‘offshore’ policy. The victims in all of this have been the poor families who have travelled on a leaky boat and somehow survived it, only to be interned out of sight, out of mind in something equivalent to a concentration camp.
Now it is a complex problem, notwithstanding the politics involved. From a humane level, if from no other, Australia must act to stop the boats. This morning there are reports of another 60 refugees perishing as a boat capsized somewhere between Indonesia and the west coast of Australia. These deaths are a monthly, occasionally weekly, event. Many make it to these shores to be interned, but many die along the way. This tragedy is not properly understood by much of the populace who see numbers, not individuals. Independent of maintaining control of our borders, we must find a way to prevent these deaths.
Part of that is to capture and sentence the people smugglers, the real villains of this piece. That’s a long, hard process, however, and has minimal impact. The other solution posited is deterrence. There is another, but we’ll come to that later.
The whole philosophy behind Rudd’s PNG solution is to implement an effective deterrent. It must be drastic to work – the deterrent must bite, but it is this which has so many up in arms.
His policy basically states that if you set off for Australia in a boat, you’ll never get to settle here. Instead, you’ll be shipped off to Papua New Guinea, a sovereign nation, but few people’s notions of a utopia, unlike Australia. In essence, this policy negates all the reasons motivating refugees to get on a boat in the past. Time will tell how effective it is, but I’m confident it will lead to a decline in illegal arrivals.
Critics of this plan have attacked it on two fronts: that it continues to be inhumane; and that the PNG cannot cope with such an influx of refugees.
In response to the first criticism, the simple answer is that this solution is many times more humane than shipping the refugees off to somewhere like Nauru, where they’ll fester for years. PNG may not be on most people’s must-see tourist destinations, but at least it exists as a place – a culture, a society, opportunities, and so on.
To the second criticism, the answer is that the idea – whether it is to be realised or not – is that PNG will not be subjected to torrents of refugees because the penny will drop, the boats will stop, and the refugees will seek other ways of getting here.
This is where we need a regional solution. A policy like this can only be part of the solution, not all of it. I think that’s understood. Underplayed in the media, but a key component is that Indonesia will no longer let in travellers without a return ticket. Till now, it has been open slather. That should break the cycle further. More importantly, there needs to be another avenue for these people to get here.
One of the big arguments against boat arrivals is that they’re jumping the queue. That’s roughly true. There are thousands of legitimate refugees across the world who go through proper channels in an attempt to get here. Every time someone ‘jumps the queue,’ someone else misses out. This is plainly unfair.
Two things need to be done to my way of thinking, and perhaps a third.
Firstly, our refugee program needs to be re-considered. As I’ve said many times, we’re a mighty big country with great swathes of it barely populated. I’m sure we can take more – especially to turn the conversation around so that we embrace, rather than spurn, the poor people who have endured so much. I believe, in fact, that we will ultimately benefit from letting these people seek a second chance. Thankfully the government has begun this process by increasing the number of refugees we will accept. More needs to happen.
Secondly, a regional solution must be investigated. We must work in co-operation and not, as Abbott’s policy would have it, in isolation and against the interests of others. Why not set up processing stations across the region to review immigration applications? Take away the need to get in a leaky boat by implementing an orderly, civilised scheme in which foreign governments work with us? Surely there is a better way?
That comes to the third proposition. Refugees tend to be either economic – seeking a better life or political – fleeing an oppressive and violent regime. Can we do more within the region to mitigate these oppressions? On a diplomatic level, can we not work with some of these countries to remove some of the causes of people leaving as refugees? It’s a tall order, perhaps, but something that should be considered.
Unlike many, I’m very sympathetic to the majority so desperate they’ll risk the lives of their family to get here. They’re people, like us, only many times less fortunate. As traditionally we have been, we should be more generous – a fair go for is part of the Aussie way. Whilst I am sympathetic, you’d have to be blind Freddie not to see that something has to change. Too many deaths and untrammelled entry are inhumane and unreasonable. There is no easy solution, something that the liberal left has to accept. There is no happy ever after resolution. Drastic action is called for, but within the parameters, we set as a civilised society. As it stands right now, this solution proposed by Rudd appears to be the most satisfactory in satisfying both criteria. It will deter, but it does not oppress.
Footnote, March 12, 2014
I’ve meant to write an addendum to this piece for some time. As events have transpired, much of what I wrote above has proved to be nonsense. Far from advocating the so-called PNG solution, I now abhor it as much as any decent Australian does.
My mistake was that I presumed that the refugees when taken to Manus Island, would be treated humanely and with the decency you would expect of a civilised nation like Australia. Further to that, I sincerely believed that the refugees would get an opportunity to resettle in PNG to continue their lives as citizens. As it turns out, none of that has been the case.
The critical turning point was the election of the LNP in the September federal election and the subsequent implementation of hardline, indeed harsh, refugee policies. With the election of Abbott and the ascension of Scott Morison as immigration minister, any refugees seeking sanctuary in Australia were effectively criminalised. They were shipped off to Manus Island, where they were advised that they could never be accepted into Australian society. Furthermore, it was later revealed that nor would the PNG accept any of them into their population. It’s no surprise that conditions quickly deteriorated within the Manus Island camp and that those shipped there rapidly became demoralised and angry. With the effective demonisation of these people by our government and compliant press, it’s no surprise that the treatment of refugees within the camp appears largely cruel. When people are portrayed as something less than human and unworthy of our compassion, then that’s how they will be treated by anyone without the strength of mind to understand different. Official policy gives a virtual carte blanche to the rough and ready treatment most of the refugees seem to have been subjected to.
All of this culminated in riots last month and the murder – by someone other than a refugee – of one of the inmates. It seems likely that poor Reza was murdered by one of the local PNG camp staff, though that has not been definitely established. Regardless this is an outrage and a stain on our country as it is. As for Abbott and Morrison, who justify ever excess, they are a blot on our cultural history.
By any measure, I no longer support the PNG solution. I hope for a swift dismantling of it, though I don’t know how that is possible under the present regime. I yearn for a return to the values that Australia once epitomised – compassion, a fair go, sympathy for the underdog. Among the many crimes of recent governments and the tabloid press who act like vultures, it is the subversion of those ideals and that idea of Australia I find most disturbing. My heart would break if I believed that is a permanent condition. I know there are still many decent Australians, though with little voice. They are largely unrepresented by our politicians, and sadly there appear many other Australians either on-side, ignorant of, or oblivious of the evil policies ‘our’ government has promulgated.
The winners write the history, but I suspect that Abbott and Morrison will be recognised for what they are one day. In my heart, I would hope one day there is a place they could be tried for crimes against humanity – but then we’re the ‘good guys.