The boat that burned
There was a boat full of desperate refugees making their way to Australia, and it caught fire. Rather than leaving them to die, as John Howard and Phillip Ruddock would have, these people have received medical care. Investigations are underway by the relevant authorities as to how this accident occurred, and how these people came to be in that predicament in the first place.
That's it really. The investigations are proceeding and once the information is available, that information will be made public. This piece started so well:
All critically and seriously hurt patients from the asylum seeker boat disaster are now in Australian hospitals or on their way, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd says.
This is as it should be. The fact that Howard and Ruddock never balanced the tough-guy rhetoric of border protection with compassion for those who've lost everything but their lives means that they can't complain about being 'portrayed as uncaring'.
The MSM have made this story much bigger than it really is. It underreported the SIEV-X but more than made up for it with the Tampa fiasco, and every little boatload that arrived since has been treated with the sort of hysteria worthy of a full-scale invasion. That hysteria explains why people like Ruddock could refer to children as "it", and could refer to people being "processed" when it was merely their applications for asylum that were being processed. It explains why people could be detained in prison-like conditions when they had committed no crime against Australia, while any chav backpacker is free to clog this country's gutters with vomit. It explains why it takes phenomenal moral courage to block this hysteria and reach out to these people behind the wire: For those who've come across the sea, we've boundless plains to share ...
It would be easy just to bag the media for this, especially as they assume that their obsessions match exactly those of the public. However, what's been lacking in this whole debate is some examination of the facts behind the refugee issue, and some leadership based on those facts.
Colin Barnett should have resisted the urge to barge in with something he heard from someone who heard from someone who might have been there. It is always appalling when politicians pre-empt investigations with a silly pronouncement, and Barnett has no excuse for jumping in like that. Neither does Sharman Stone, whose credentials as a silly person are cemented by crawling over three-to-five dead bodies to get her fix of media attention. The Liberals are wrong on refugees, as Mike Steketee points out:
The debate on refugees in Australia is stuck in a time warp. Why are Liberals still talking up the threat of a few boatloads of people wanting to settle in Australia? Presumably because that is how they were conditioned by John Howard and Philip Ruddock in the wake of September 11. Perhaps there is a more venal purpose as well, such as whipping up xenophobia.
With all due respect to Ms Stone: stuff that.
Like the very use of the word "liberal" while hollowing out its meaning, the Liberals need to examine what it means to work with other countries to accept refugees. Accept the UN Refugee Convention 1951 in letter and spirit; or try to imagine what a new and better way of dealing with refugees might be, and work toward that. Propose a law that states explicitly that anyone on Australian territory who isn't a citizen, a permanent resident or a visa-holder is here illegally and can be detained just as other law-breakers are. Either way, this takes the issue onto a new and higher plane, which maximises your chance of controlling the debate - and that's how parties win government, as we saw with Rudd in '07.
This is one of the best articles in the Australian MSM about the refugee issue, the very sort of quietly informative article that is forced out in a tsunami of media hysteria. It describes an actual person and their experience of the very process that creates outcomes that, it would seem, we regard with distaste and seek to stop:
After receiving death threats and being chased through the streets of Kabul by gunmen, Mr Fahim first went to several embassies in Kabul seeking protection.
None was forthcoming, so he engaged the services of an "agent", a broker in a people-smuggling syndicate who promised him a passage to a safe country in exchange for money. Unlike many Afghans, Mr Fahim had the resources to pay the agent.
"There are agents in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Malaysia and Indonesia," he said. "They offer a service. They are promising a better life so people are prepared to pay them a lot of money — 5000, 10,000, even 20,000 (US) dollars," he said. "We are told by the agents that they can co-ordinate everything, but it doesn't happen like that."
The problem here is that people don't get valid information about what it takes to get to Australia, and to stay here. You can get from Australia to almost any point on the globe for A$5000, so the thought of paying "agents" multiples of that seems crazy - unless you have no other alternative. Appointing an immigration ombudsman makes no difference to people who have no idea what an ombudsman is, or why this official is any different to any of the other officials, "agents" and who-knows else stand between an asylum-seeker and their asylum.
It's incumbent upon Australia to provide that information - up front, in easy-to-understand language and in different languages. The web is an excellent means of providing that, and there should be people who can deliver this message in person, simply and directly to whomever might seek it in the language(s) they understand. You can hunt down those "agents" house-by-house, or you can strip them publicly of the perception that they offer any value whatsoever.
It also reinforces the brand perception of Australia: up front, no bullshit, what you see is what you get.
There was an Australian immigration post at Islamabad and Ruddock closed it - the nearest Australian immigration advisory to southern Asia is in Bangkok. Every Australian diplomat and trade advisor in that region should be trained in the basics of the immigration program (and if it's too complex, simplify it).
Yeah, it costs money - but how much does it cost to have warships patrolling the northern coast for pathetic bands of ripped-off and desperate people, only to get tangled in legal and PR issues when they find them, then detain said people and hose down the media shitstorm that ensues?
Besides, if you warn people up front that there are penalties for breaking the law, and they come anyway, then both the "illegals" themselves and the bleeding-heart activists here have less grounds to complain about the penalties that follow.
See, we're not just whingers here at the Politically Homeless Institute. Occasionally we come up with constructive suggestions and clamber up to the high moral ground, from which we make pronouncements like this:
While boat arrivals are increasing, we are talking hundreds, not the thousands of earlier years. And the rise reflects a worldwide trend. It's a long bow to make too much of Kevin Rudd's limited changes removing the harsher edges of earlier policy. But this has been a hot-button issue that worked against Labor in 2001 — although it turned against the Coalition later.
Guess who wrote that sensible piece? I was surprised to find it was Michelle Grattan, too, using her experience for good (not getting caught up in quotidian hype) rather than ennui or getting swept up in trivial, evanescent nonsense.
If you can accept that the current Federal Government is not solely responsible for the Global Financial Crisis, you can accept that it is not responsible for the global upsurge of refugees. Unless, of course, you're an imbecile:
There is no doubt the Rudd Government has been widely reported internationally as softening Australian border controls. That must act as a magnet for illegal immigrants.
Greg Sheridan is never weaker than when he makes definite, declarative statements. He thinks that Australian immigration policy must be reactive, never proactive; that the most expensive option (financially, emotionally, politically, legally and every other way) is the only way to go. He even ended with a bit of sneaky revisionism:
It is understandable that the navy, after the children overboard incident in the Howard years, does not want to broadcast any information that it does not know for sure to be true.
This implies that the Royal Australian Navy was responsible for the claim that refugees on boats threw children overboard, rather than the Howard government and in particular, then-Defence Minister Peter Reith. This is not true: it was Reith, Ruddock and Howard who are to blame for this perception. Sheridan should be ashamed of himself, but probably isn't; he might declaim his motives as pure reportage and proclaim his fondness for Air Marshal Houston, but here we call him out for attempting to skew history.
Then, he does a Crabb-like theatre review:
But there was something shambolic and Inspector Clouseau-like about the joint press conference of Home Affairs Minister Bob Debus and Rear Admiral Alan Du Toit.
They seemed barely able to recite their name, rank and serial number. They certainly didn't look as though they were in charge.
In charge of what? And what's with the "name, rank and serial number" crap - did you put a government minister and a rear-admiral under arrest, Greg? Now that would be a story.
People were injured, missing, dead, and solid information hard to come by; it's so much easier, too easy in fact, just to dehumanise those who seek asylum and parade your reputation as a tough guy. That's the soft option, Greg, and we voted against that.
The way to put people-smugglers out of business is to be up front about what Australia will and won't accept. When the "agents" are being called out or ignored by those who are now prospective customers, then and only then will their market disappear. Taking action against people-smugglers without further damage to those who have suffered more than enough - this will require more than Greg Sheridan or Sharman Stone have done so far, and more imagination than they are capable.