Rudd Caves In On Refugees

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Remember the phrase "Don’t throw the ‘fair go’ out the back window"? As Opposition Leader, Rudd repeated it ad nauseum in the run-up to the 2007 federal election. While Kevin07 was a self-avowed fiscal conservative, he was also a believer in a fairer, more compassionate Australia.

Or so he told us.

Indeed, one of his very first statements as Prime Minister-elect was that he would honour the "spirit and letter" of the UN Convention on Refugees.

That promise has now gone by the board, along with the so-called "seven principles" of immigration policy advanced by Immigration Minister Chris Evans in 2008. Some of those principles included: that detention would be for "the shortest practicable time" and used only as a last resort; that "people in detention will be treated fairly and reasonably within the law"; and that "detention that is indefinite or otherwise arbitrary is not acceptable".

But what could be more "arbitrary" than refusing to process refugee applications from two of the most strife-torn nations in the world? How "fair" and "reasonable" is that?

According to the Government’s media release, "The situations in both Sri Lanka and Afghanistan are evolving." If so, no one appears to have told the Australian military, which is still fighting a war in Afghanistan, or the Department of Foreign Affairs, which maintains a strong travel warning for Australians going there and advises people to reconsider travel to Sri Lanka.

For more than two years, Labor has argued that "push" factors like violence and conflict in foreign lands are the cause of refugee flows. The Opposition has argued that Labor has gone soft on refugees, and that this favourable treatment is "pulling" them to our shores. With its changes on the weekend, the Government has effectively conceded this argument. Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison must be delighted. The boats, of course, will keep coming, and while they do, Abbott and Morrison will be able to keep talking about Labor’s failed policy.

What is with the Australian hysteria about boats? We live on an island continent that has only ever been successfully invaded once — by the British jailers who eventually founded this nation. But throughout colonial history, and again after Federation in 1901, Australian politics has retained a deep paranoia about non-white migration, particularly by sea.

How else to explain the sustained but absurd coverage of small numbers of boat arrivals by our national media, particularly the Murdoch tabloid press? It’s worth pointing out (yet again) that arrivals by boat represent only a tiny proportion of those arriving on our shores. Most immigrants, including most asylum seekers, come by plane. But, for reasons entirely related to deep-seated atavism and xenophobia, it is the boats that grab the headlines.

As the "boat count" this year has spiralled past 100, the Daily Telegraph and the Herald-Sun have enthusiastically kept score, hungrily feeding on the Coalition’s talking points about the Rudd Government "losing control" of border security in articles like this one.

Even the quickest glance at the facts reminds us how ridiculous this claim is. The boats reaching Australia are small Indonesian fishing boats, generally carrying no more than 50 or so asylum seekers at a time. They generally sail for Christmas Island, Australia’s territorial outpost in the Timor Sea. The Australian Government and Navy aggressively patrols the seas around Ashmore Reef and there is a massive detention facility on Christmas Island. The fact that unarmed boats reach Australian waters does not mean our borders are not secured. A few thousand refugees in a year is not a problem that’s "out of control".

Australia is a wealthy, industrialised nation blessed with vast natural resources and one of the strongest economies in the developed world. The idea that we can’t afford to process refugees is laughable. The only real reason this is an issue is that refugees are unpopular in certain parts of the electorate. And, spooked by the climate of fear whipped up by the tabloid press and the Opposition, the Government has buckled.

As I pointed out in March, the Rudd Government has been worried about the number of boats arriving for some time now. In that article, I predicted the Coalition’s line of attack on border security would push Labor to the right. But even I am surprised at how quickly that has happened.

And so, in a cowardly decision, the Rudd Government has decided that claims from Sri Lankan and Afghani asylum seekers "will not be considered" for the next three to six months … in other words, until after the federal election.

This is not compassionate. It may not even be legal. But it is expedient. And in an election year, that is what counts.

This back-flip is nothing less than a broken promise — a policy abandoned for the most cynical reasons of political pressure. It will be difficult to take any future Labor promises to protect the "inherent dignity of the human person" seriously. It appears that, for some asylum seekers, Kevin Rudd’s "fair go" was thrown out the back door on or around the time that the 107th "suspected illegal entry" boat entered Australian waters this year.

Make no mistake, this is about votes in marginal seats. Labor doesn’t need a focus group to tell it that asylum seekers are unpopular. Nor should we sheet home all the blame to a ruthless Opposition or cynical News Limited press. There is in fact a genuine fear of immigrants and refugees in many parts of Australian society, and to pretend otherwise simply blinds us to the reality of racism in our public life. Just ask an Indian cab driver.

As Paul Kelly wrote in The Australian on the weekend, Labor has form when it comes to xenophobic refugee policy. Historically, the party was a strong supporter of the White Australia policy. It was the Hawke government that first introduced mandatory detention for refugees and built the Port Hedland detention centre. Under Kim Beazley, Labor supported many of John Howard’s most regressive changes to the Migration Act.

Kelly says it well when he writes, "Here is the authentic face of the Labor Party under pressure. This is the Labor Party that created the detention system in the 1990s for men, women and children. This is Rudd Labor now extending the detention period."

For those who hoped for a more humane and compassionate government than John Howard’s, Kevin Rudd’s administration is increasingly disappointing. Rather than wind back the Northern Territory Emergency Response, Rudd and Jenny Macklin have extended it. Rather than get out of the war in Afghanistan, Rudd has recommitted to it. And rather than ending the mandatory detention of refugees, his Government continues to arbitrarily jail them.

Ben Eltham

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.

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