Praying That The Boats Don't Come

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It’s been a big week in the media for Kevin Rudd’s Government. With his calculated display of self-flagellation over the weekend, the Prime Minister was able to reset the political narrative, get Peter Garrett off the front pages and clear the air for a series of big announcements.

The tactic has worked. The health announcements are so large and complex that it will keep everyone (including state governments) busy trying to dissect the detail and understand what it means for the nation’s hospitals and clinics.

But one issue the Government won’t be discussing, if they can help it, is border protection. The issue remains highly sensitive for Labor, particularly in the wake of the Oceanic Viking saga of last year. Party strategists still blame the Tampa affair for Kim Beazley’s 2001 election defeat which polarised the nation between generally lower-middle and working-class voters hostile to illegal immigrants, and small-l liberals and progressives outraged at Australia’s lack of compassion towards those in need.

Labor’s need to balance these competing constituencies has seen it try to neutralise the border protection issue in office. Back in 2008, the Rudd Government announced an overhaul of immigration policy. In a speech to the Australian National University, Immigration Minister Chris Evans set out the Government’s new policy on refugees and illegal detention, promising a new commitment to compassion and human rights.

There would be "seven principles" for immigration policy based on "key values" to which the Government would adhere. Evans declared that those seeking to enter the country would only be detained as a last resort and for the "shortest practicable time", and that children would no longer be detained at all. The "inherent dignity of the human person" would be restored, said Evans.

The seven principles outlined in the speech were not exactly warm and fuzzy (the very first one states "mandatory detention is an essential element of border control") but they did at least offer a humane vision regarding the treatment of asylum seekers — one that sat in stark contrast to that of the previous government.

Eighteen months on, it hasn’t quite worked out like that. As last night’s episode of Lateline demonstrated, the Immigration Department is still a callous — and often bungling — bureaucratic beast under Rudd and Evans. The broader conduct of border security policy also appears to be drifting back to the harsh legalism of the Howard era. The Government is still detaining people for what many would consider relatively trivial reasons, and for longer than the "shortest practicable time".

As of 31 January 2010, the Immigration Department had 1,628 "clients" detained in the centre on Christmas Island, 425 of which had been there for a period of more than 120 days. Of these, 61 were what the department calls "unaccompanied minors" — in other words, children. You can see the breakdown of detainees in this document which was tabled during Senate Estimates. Those numbers have now increased with recent arrivals.

Nor are conditions on Christmas Island best suited to ensuring the "inherent dignity of the human person". The detention centre is way over capacity, so much so that tents are being ordered to accommodate new arrivals outdoors. A recent Uniting Church delegation to Christmas Island led by the Reverend Alistair Macrae pronounced conditions "basic but adequate for short-term needs". According to Macrae, "accommodation overcrowding was clearly evident".

The Greens are now suggesting that to resolve the issue of overcrowding asylum seekers should be brought to the mainland. It’s a valid suggestion when you consider that it was for reasons of politics, not practicality, that we began detaining asylum seekers on Christmas Island in the first place. During the Tampa affair, the Howard government "excised" off-shore islands from Australian sovereignty for immigration purposes, thus allowing the government the flimsy legal excuse that asylum seekers had not actually reached "Australia" if they landed there, and therefore didn’t need to be accorded their proper legal rights due under international law.

Of course, there is a broader political context for the Rudd Government to consider here, shaped by constant attacks on its border protection policy by the Opposition. Ever since Rudd took office, the Coalition has mounted sustained and sometimes vicious attacks on Labor, claiming it is "soft on border protection" and that this supposed laxity is encouraging greater numbers of illegal arrivals, particularly by boat.

It’s a noxious argument that doesn’t stand up to any sort of rational scrutiny, particularly when you consider that the Rudd Government has not in fact differed all that much from the Howard government in border protection policy or practice. That doesn’t mean, however, that the "soft on border protection" line doesn’t enjoy a certain amount of sympathy in the electorate.

The Opposition clearly thinks the issue remains a political winner. In early February, Tony Abbott advocated re-opening the detention centre on Nauru, which was built at the cost of several hundred million dollars by the Howard government under its so-called "Pacific Solution". "I’m confident if the message was strong enough then people would heed it," Abbott told ABC1’s Insiders program. There seems little doubt that the Coalition will continue to hammer their "tough" credentials on border security, pushing Labor to the right on the issue in the process.

Labor’s response to such attacks has been to engage in some strange policy gymnastics, most evident in the wake of high-profile incidents such as the explosion on board the SIEV 36 off Ashmore reef and the Oceanic Viking affair. One of the Rudd Government’s most handy policy crutches has been the International Organisation for Migration, an "intergovernmental" organisation that the Australian Government pays tens of millions of dollars a year to deliver services like the "Off-Shore Processing of Australia-bound Irregular Migrants". In practice, this means doing Australia’s dirty work in places like Indonesia. For instance, the IOM has responsibility for the 250 Tamil asylum seekers who are holed up in their boat off the coast of Merak, West Java, after being seized by Indonesian authorities at Kevin Rudd’s request last October.

The IOM is not an NGO, or even an independent UN body like the UNHCR. It is in fact essentially controlled by its member governments, and in the case of its "Oceanic" section activities, almost totally funded by the Australian Government. Australia also pays the Indonesian Government to police asylum seekers departing the archipelago for Australia under a 2002 agreement between the two countries, as this Jakarta Globe story explains.

Meanwhile the refugees in Merak refuse to leave their boat and the Australian Government continues to insist the issue is a matter for the Indonesian authorities. The refugees are continuing to press for a deal similar to the one given to those on board the Oceanic Viking.

Like the Oceanic Viking, the refugees at Merak are a problem the Rudd Government would prefer stayed over the horizon, but, in an election year, border security has a habit of blowing up as a live issue. As ever in Australian immigration policy, the "dignity of the human person" will remain hostage to day-to-day political calculations.

Ben Eltham

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.

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