01 January 2010

The sinking boat

Tony Abbott's claims that he will turn back refugee boats are rubbish.

For a start, it's not a pledge:

"If the circumstances permit it, you've got to be prepared to turn boats around," Mr Abbott told The Australian yesterday. "John Howard was fiercely criticised for this.

If the circumstances permit it. What a weak qualifier that is. If the circumstances supported action against carbon emissions for the sake of the environment, would you support an ETS? What about arts funding? What about abortion? Abbott's statement is now clear as a mealy-mouthed person's way of appearing tough. Pauline Hanson and the knuckleheads in the Coalition parliamentary party who are to blame responsible for Abbott's ascent in the first place would not have been so equivocal.

Mr Abbott acknowledged that turning boats around could provoke asylum-seekers into taking dangerous measures, such as scuttling their vessels.

"But the fact that it was prepared to do it, I think let people in these countries know that trying to come to Australia illegally was a pretty risky business," he said.

This assumes that people with nothing left to lose are risk-averse. No wonder the press gallery regards him as an intellectual.

The ABC, less desperate than The Australian to confuse boofhead rhetoric against the vulnerable with genuine toughness, has Abbott to rights when it had him turning some boats back:

"It can't be a boat that's going to sink ...

No, it can't. Mind you, a snap judgment on seaworthiness will be difficult and you can be sure that if a turned-around boat suddenly does sink, Abbott would not hesitate to blame the junior officer responsible for such a decision. What if a boat is structurally sound, but overloaded? What if its engine has failed but everything else is OK?

... and you've got have the kind of relationship with the source countries that if the boat goes back the people will be accepted," he said.

These would be the same countries which these people are trying to flee.

Besides, what action is taking place on building those relationships? What is the foreign affairs spokesperson, Julie Bishop - who has been in that office since before Abbott became leader - doing in terms of realigning Australian foreign policy to that end? The Attorney General would be ultimately responsible for the Federal Police and the intelligence services - is the shadow AG doing anything toward recalibrating these organisations toward people-smuggling rings? What about the shadow immigration minister?

Opposition spokesman on immigration Scott Morrison says the only thing deterring people smugglers from Australian waters is the weather.

"With the monsoon season approaching that makes it an even more hazardous voyage and as a result we would expect to see some of the boat arrivals dissipate over that period of time," he said.

If policy development is too hard for you Scott, meteorology won't be any easier.

This vacuousness over policy shows Abbott hasn't made the transition from commentator to leader. It should have been a proper announcement, with high-level strategy spelled out and the promise of further details closer to the election. Instead, it's just a brain-fart of the day.

This is how a proper government considers issues. Apartheid Malaysia may want to abandon refugees to monsoons, pirates and other perils, but Australia must not. We still bear responsibility for closing Australian borders to Jews seeking to flee various anti-Semitic regimes during the 1930s, and we cannot be sure that refugees today are not in similar peril. This takes time and fusty bureaucracy, and while that's better than towing people out to sea this does not mean it's the best option available.

Clearly, Rudd has learned the lesson that dealing with refugees is not as simple as declaring that you'll tow people out to sea. That is the story The Australian has missed here in pursuit of junior-minister-shirtfronts-PM-shock.

Mr O'Connor said he was satisfied with the current policy of taking asylum-seekers to Christmas Island for processing.

And the fact that there isn't enough room at Christmas Island is of no concern, to O'Connor or Abbott or anyone else ...? What about the seasonal lesson of "no room at the inn", lost on Abbott and other self-professed Christians too?

A spokesman for Mr O'Connor, when asked if he supported a policy of towing boats back out to sea, said the minister was "confident the existing policy is correct".

"That existing policy is that when boats are intercepted, we take them to Christmas Island where their refugee status is processed."

The remarks amount to an effective rebuff of the Prime Minister, who in the last days of the 2007 election campaign promised tough measures to deal with refugee boats.

"You'd turn them back," Mr Rudd said in November 2007.

The then opposition leader went on to say that such measures formed an effective deterrent.

If his actions since have truly diverged from his words, the question is why. It could be plain old hypocrisy, say anything to get into office and then repudiate it. It could also be that government demands more detailed and nuanced consideration of issues than is possible with the five-second-grab, which is the more interesting story. What's to say that Abbott won't bend to this logic too?

Such complexity and political heavy-lifting may also explain why GetUp! is nowhere to be found here.

Yesterday, former prime minister Malcolm Fraser, whose government in 1979 welcomed thousands of Vietnamese boat people despite fears of public opposition, led a chorus of criticism directed at the two leaders.

Fraser criticised Rudd and Abbott, others criticised them, but this does not mean that Fraser "led" them necessarily, nor that such criticism constitutes a "chorus".

Mr Fraser, whose government accepted more than 200,000 refugees, said refugee policy remained skewed against boatpeople, who were consistently shown to be genuine.

Then and now, boat-borne refugees tend to be genuine refugees. Time to treat "boat people" the same as "plane people". This may require reframing the media debate on this issue, or ignoring the media entirely: so much for all that "fourth estate" crap.

Nobody who voted Liberal in 1996, 1998, 2001 and/or 2004, but who voted Labor in 2007, will vote Liberal in 2010 on account of Abbott's statement. It's silly, it's ill-considered, it's a nostalgia trip through the sorts of policies that appeal only to Liberal nostalgics and which repel swinging voters (which now include moderate liberals, as Howard gave them no reason to remain with the Liberal Party). Hell of a way to start the new year - but they say you should start the year as you intend to go on.

1 comment:

  1. "a snap judgment on seaworthiness will be difficult"

    I agree.

    Wasn't that the core of the Tampa incident where both the Norwegian government and the owners of the ship refused to overrule the judgement of the captain?

    That a container ship was not seaworthy with container loads of passengers living on the open deck and sharing very limited facilities?

    The practice for hundreds of years has been that the captain is responsible, and for that reason has near absolute authority.