10 January 2011

Ferocious limitations

After losing the negotiations that followed the elections last year, Tony Abbott promised to hold the government "ferociously to account". The limitations of that are clear to see, and don't promise much for those depending on the ferocity to put themselves back into government.

Of all issues, the Liberals are weighing into immigration. The government is complying with the High Court judgment that appeals on asylum status should be handled by the courts. Rather than holding them "ferociously to account" for their effectiveness in doing so (including cost-effectiveness), they are questioning that it should be done at all without really indicating what should be done in the circumstances.

First, there's this. The old dissembler can say what he likes but to criticise you've got to operate from a position of superiority.
Mr Ruddock said the court's decision meant Christmas Island no longer served its "intended purpose" as a refugee-processing hub that existed outside the jurisdiction of the courts.

No aspect of Australian government policy deserves to be "outside the jurisdiction of the courts", and the Australian media was lazy in not pushing Ruddock on this when he was putting this policy in place. Given that the High Court has ruled against the practice, he doesn't defend the extrajudicial policy and nor does he offer any alternative that might work within that judgment. As a former Attorney General, it isn't good enough for him to just moan about compliance with a High Court judgment; it's lazy journalism on Maley's part to merely transcribe Ruddock's words and not press him on what he'd do in the face of this reality.

Why is the "National security correspondent" even bothering with such a pedestrian matter as immigration? He may as well cover armed hold-ups in the state court system, there being more "national security" issues there than in immigration, judicial appeals and what have you.

"It's quite clear that we have the worst system in the world in terms of good public policy," Mr Ruddock said. "In public policy terms, it is a disaster."

The worst system in the world. Quite the statement, that. Turning around unseaworthy boats or machine-gunning people at sea would all apparently be better than letting people have their day in court, to question Immigration Department assumptions like 'Afghanistan is no longer a warzone thanks to the Karzai government' and to maintain that failing to treat traumatised children (and referring to one such as 'it') while detaining them is a breach of basic rights.

Ruddock's policies were unsustainable even before last year's judgment on the justiciability of Christmas Island, and his lament for a bygone era offers his party nothing. The old questions about cutting government policy off from judicial review, the idea of a "queue" to be jumped, and the idea that emigration of desperate people slowed because of Howard government policies just hang in the air unspoken, like farts.

Then there was an attempt at reframing the issue here, because a lack of imagination and courage means Laming can't transfer his experience to a change of policy.

The story of Gul Rasul is heart-rending all right, but the reader - the writer - has no idea where to put him in the "queue" that would represent an orderly immigration policy.

It's understandable that Laming fails to criticise Ruddock for closing the Immigration Department post at Islamabad, forcing Afghans to cross fourteen national borders before they can deal with an Australian immigration official. It's still sneaky, though.

The Australian-funded AliceGhan residential complex in Kabul is an ideal resettlement base. It can accommodate 6000 people but is mostly empty. Only when non-refugees are respectfully returned home can they warn others of smuggling's futility.

Australian soldiers can't defend one another, let alone a potential honeypot for every fanatic wanting to take cheap shots at minorities. The only reason the Liberals like AliceGhan is because it's definitely outside the Australian judicial system.

The further from source we determine asylum, the harder and more costly it is to perform.

True enough, but try getting Immigration Department officials to work in Kabul or Baghdad. It would serve them right (can we also send talkback radio presenters there as well?) but it still wouldn't be easy. I bet you can't get this into Liberal immigration policy. Since when did Tony Abbott do policy innovation?

But the federal government can't even finalise an Indonesian prisoner-exchange agreement.

Neither could the previous one, Andrew, and there are no grounds to hope for better from the Liberals (are there?).

Regional instability, and the people it displaces, is a fact of life

So much for Gul Rasul - how does it feel to be a plot device?

When I say "the Liberals" are leading on this issue, I do not mean in the lazy journalistic way of referring to that party interchangeably with "the Coalition". It's telling that the Nationals seem content to leave immigration to the Liberals. These are the people who complain about the depopulation of regional areas and the lack of willing workers for regional employers. Despite successes such as the settlement of European migrants who worked on the Snowy Mountains Scheme in NSW's Eden-Monaro district, or the successful Iraqi community in Shepparton, you'd hope the Nationals would be clamouring for migration to their constituencies. There are obviously more votes in sending wombat-headed whingers to Canberra rather than electing proactive representatives keen to work in the national interest.

This sort of tactic means that the government will get sympathy for plugging away in its dull-witted way, doing the best that it can without being in any way challenged by the Opposition.

Part of the reason why the Hawke-Keating government was so motivated in economic reform was because the Howard-led Opposition had much the same policy, and any slippage in policy execution would advantage the Coalition. Today, Labor can do what it likes and faces little challenge in representing itself as better than the Coalition.

The idea of Opposition policy is a showcase of the intellectual capacity of the potential government, the degree to which it has listened to stakeholders and its ability to attract and utilise quality analysis. As I said in a previous thread, the Abbott-led Coalition has beeen awful in this regard. Immigration Spokesman Scott Morrison is in a difficult position, but the approach he's taken - simply restoring everything pre-2007 - is still wrong, a non-starter recognised even by the most callow Liberal opportunists. The Liberals will stay in Opposition until they learn the status quo ante is not an option, that the only people who find a restoration appealing are Liberal voters already (and if there was an election tomorrow, there wouldn't be the four seats that the Coalition needs).

It's garbage that an Opposition has to be as different as possible to the incumbents and criticise them no matter what: successful Opposition Leaders have their points of difference but they choose them wisely. Nothing enrages an incumbent government more than a smiling Opposition Leader who basically agrees with the general thrust of policy but has a few quibbles here and there, and who is trouncing the government across the polls. Look at how enraged the Coalition was at Rudd in 2007, how ineffective they were in dealing with him: same with Labor and Howard in 1995-96. Tony Abbott is closer numerically but so much further away than the last two successful Opposition Leaders.

He has chosen not to be a successful Opposition Leader, not to press the advantage he gained at the last election, but to entrench the Coalition in a position where uncommitted voters have no reason to expect a Coalition government would be better than the plodding incumbents. Be it on your own silly heads, Liberals - and Nationals.

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