04 November 2009

Seeking refuge

Peter Costello has produced another of those columns that give some comfort both to those who admire him, and those who don't; which have at their core a desire for self-justification, with attempts to disguise this with a bit of partisan swingeing. This one is about border protection.

If they are admitted to Christmas Island and the passengers are successful in their claims to enter the country, the number of boats and the number of passengers will only increase ... The volume of the traffic is in direct proportion to the chances of successful entry.

The number of people seeking to enter Australia by whatever means is not solely a function of how easy it is to get in.

Costello does himself no favours by ignoring the push factors, reasons that cause people to abandon their homes and communities in search of better lives. The sheer hardship of a seaborne journey with internment along the way, not to mention persecution beforehand, suggests that this is not done for the light and transient reasons that might cause Australians to seek "a change of scene" from time to time.

It is also true that those who arrive by boat are judged to have legitimate grounds for refugee or asylum-seeker status 70-85% of the time. By Costello's own standards, this alone should mean Australia would be inundated by refugee/asylum applications. Why would anyone arrive by plane, where refugee applications are much less successful? Why would people consent to stay in refugee camps, where dithering bureaucracies are flat out providing food and shelter let alone information on emigration and professional processing of applications? Why would anyone stay at home and suffer persecution from a hostile government? Back in the day, Costello used to talk about private enterprise and individual effort.

One day, someone is going to come ashore off a cruise liner or a merchant ship and claim asylum, and the whole sea-versus-air distinction will be seen for the nonsense that it is. Either your claim is legitimate or it isn't.

Costello is trying to create the impression that any issue not mentioned by him is unworthy of his gaze - yet it is also possible that he has overlooked it from a vantage point no less comfortable than those he ascribes to his opponents. It's one thing to follow a party line in government, particularly when it affects issues outside your portfolio; to stick to the same line in Opposition suggests a lack of perspective, an unwillingness to embrace new ideas, and an inability to read a popular mandate.

Critics of the Howard government complained that its policy was too harsh, inhumane and brutal. If only the government were more welcoming, they suggested, the whole problem could be managed. The claims were of course nonsense - the kind of claims only people with no responsibility for the outcome could make from their comfortable vantage points.

The second sentence reveals Costello's view that nobody outside of government can legitimately criticise policy. If you think like that, you've been in Canberra too long.

The fact that Australia has an immigration program at all means that, to some extent, this country and its government welcomes new migrants. In tourism and other promotional campaigns (including the response to in 2005 tsunami) we present ourselves as a generous and inviting people. Our history is one of accepting migrants in significant numbers. Against all that, the idea that we might not be welcoming to some people is incongruous.

When presented with incongruous information the first temptation is to ignore it. When you have experience of overcoming insurmountable odds, you will be tempted to try your luck.

The most humane way to assist asylum seekers make claims in Australia would be to use Qantas to airlift claimants from Sri Lanka or Iraq or Afghanistan direct to Christmas Island. That way no one would have to board a boat and everyone would get their asylum claim dealt with in an Australian territory.

But I have never heard anyone argue for this.

This is a standard Costelloism: set up a straw man and blame others for not helping prop it up. He's trying to ignore those who fly to Australia (on whatever airline), not to Christmas Island but Sydney, Melbourne or elsewhere, and who either blend into the community or who seek refugee/asylum status and fail. His argument is the weaker for that, a deficiency that could have been remedied with less straw-man work.

If an airlift is out of the question, the next best thing to do is to stop the sea trade and insist all claims for refugee status be made offshore, with humanitarian visas granted to those who have observed the rules and waited for lawful entry.

The next best thing to do, as I said earlier, is to redirect foreign policy to address the movement of people around the region. This will also improve the speed of information flow - and hence of applications (successful or otherwise), which will reduce internment expenses (monetary and otherwise).

There are people still interned in our region who were forced to flee the Vietnam war and the idea of getting in line behind those who have waited for decades is appalling, to refugees/asylum-seekers and those who sympathise with them. There is no queue to jump.

Why "humanitarian visas", anyway? Why not straight-up, come-and-join-us get-a-job residency? I'm not going to accuse Costello of callousness for proposing this, just a dull-witted lack of imagination of what refugees'/asylum-seekers' predicaments must be like.

Hannie Rayson even wrote a play designed to show how ministers in [the Howard] government had connived in the tragic deaths [of those aboard SIEV-X].

This isn't some by-the-by, he's been waiting years for this: nursing the grudge and burnishing it until he could sling it back - not just at Rayson directly but at all those Age readers who helped stage Two Brothers, who paid to see it, who wrote articles on it in The Age, etc. Hopefully he's gotten it off his chest now and won't descend into some Nixonian abyss of bitterness over this. Hopefully he's not there already. It wasn't that good a play and persists only for political reasons.

No Australian minister would welcome having to deal with this issue. There is no easy or soft solution. The public has an instinctive understanding of that. The object must be to dissuade people from attempting to reach Australia by unauthorised boats.

Stuff the boats. People who are not acceptable to this country must not come, and everyone else is most welcome to - as we say in Australia - have a go. That's what the objective must be: part of a consistent and overarching policy on immigration, tourism, defence and foreign policy. To use such language might make you sound like Kevin Rudd, but he's not exactly putting such a framework together.

It's just a pity that Costello was not big enough to see, let alone pull off, such a policy. Neither is Rudd: this is one for the statesmen. This is one tragedy you can sheet home to the man, and the others whom he leaves behind in the various "camps" from which Canberra correspondents report.


  1. derrida derider5/11/09 11:23 am

    I despair of my fellow Australians sometimes. Costello and the rest (Rudd, Howard, etc) are scurvy politicians and we can expect no better from them - it's malice, not ignorance, on their part.

    But they only do this because the average Australian really does have "a dull-witted lack of imagination of what refugees'/asylum-seekers' predicaments must be like". Though of course if said boat people were white Zimbabweans then we'd be hearing a lot more about their guts and enterprise.

    None of which, of course, argues for an open door policy - that's just another straw man these turds keep putting up. But gee, you don't have to treat poor and desperate people like scum.

  2. I'm still not convinced that people want to turn the screws on boat people, and are looking for a way up and out if only one were available.