All Aboard The Australia Solution


Australia is returning to onshore processing of asylum seekers.

Frustrated by the High Court and by its lack of support on the floor of Parliament, the Government is abandoning its plan to send seaborne asylum seekers to Malaysia in a complicated swap with refugees there. It is also giving up on its plan to amend the Migration Act, lest it lose a vote in the House of Representatives — and become the first government to do so since the ill-fated government of Stanley Melbourne Bruce in 1929.

Instead, the Government will now be issuing more bridging visas and letting more asylum seekers be detained and monitored in the community. Mind you, it’s also building yet more detention centres, this time in Wickham Point in Darwin and at Yongah Hill in Western Australia, in order to house the roughly 5000 people now entangled in the tentacles of Australia’s growing immigration gulag.

As a result, many in the media are calling the new paradigm the "Australia solution". For refugee groups and sensible policy advocates, it is merely what the government should have been doing all along. It seems as though the Government is trying to make a virtue of a vice by embracing bridging visas and community detention, while trying to turn the blowtorch back onto Tony Abbot and Scott Morrison, who it is rather fancifully trying to claim will be responsible for future boat arrivals.

What does "onshore processing" mean anyway? In essence, it means assessing the claims of asylum seekers on Australian soil, rather than deporting them to a convenient island somewhere outside of Australia’s so-called "migration zone". In the past, the excision of territory from the migration zone had been thought to prevent asylum seekers from pressing their cases in the Australian courts. That tells you right away how morally odious the entire structure of Australian migration law has become. But the recent High Court case means there is not much left of the Government’s preferred plan for offshore processing anyway, so Gillard and her advisers have clearly decided this is the next best option.

As Chris Bowen said yesterday, "the bridging visas are currently used as a matter of course, particularly for people who have arrived irregularly by air. They are used less frequently for people who arrive by boat. I’m indicating that you could imagine and expect that they would be used as part of the suite of measures to respond to pressures on the immigration detention network going forward."

There was a lot of talk from Julia Gillard and Chris Bowen in last night’s media conference about how this problem is all Tony Abbott’s fault. In truth, it is a mess of the Government’s making. If Labor had stuck to its principles — or what many on the left would hope are its principles — then it would never have proposed a complex and risky deal such as the Malaysia swap in the first place. While the High Court’s intervention wrong-footed the Government, it should have been clear to any clear-eyed observer that the proposed Malaysia deal had a limited lifespan anyway, catering for only 800 people arriving by boat in Australian waters, a figure we have already reached in the months since the deal was first announced.

For reasons of political expediency, factional power-plays and general bloody-mindedness, it has taken the events of this week to convince the Government to take the pragmatic and sensible policy option. If it had pursued this policy from the beginning of Julia Gillard’s prime ministership, the government might not be in its current malaise.

Politically, the Government must also be ruing the never-ending ability of immigration policy to overshadow its manifest achievements. This should be a week in which Labor can bask in the glow of a massive victory over climate change policy: the passage of the carbon tax package through the House of Representatives. But barely 24 hours after that milestone, the Government is again embroiled in the febrile and unprofitable politics of boats and queues.

I have always argued that the impasse over asylum seekers is illusory. If, four years ago, the Government had stayed the course with its initial policy of trying to depolitiicise the issue and address the climate of fear that the very mention of the word "boats" summons, it would be a much stronger position now. But Julia Gillard came to the office of Prime Minister surrounded by an atmosphere of panic about asylum seekers in many sections of the New South Wales backbench. She is still paying the price for taking counsel of those fears.

And yet — for all this — Australia has ended up with a slightly more humane asylum seeker policy, a move which may help the Government re-engage with the progressive forces that have abandoned it, or at the very least, remove the temptation for striking yet more self-inflicted wounds. It is probably too early to spy a shift to the left on significant policy issues, but even if this change of tack was forced on the Government by circumstance, it is still a better deal for asylum seekers. Ultimately, this may prove to be a blessing in disguise for the Government, which performs better when it is actually trying to do the right thing, and always seems to struggle whenever it tries to scrap with Tony Abbott in the arena of political combat.

After all, in big picture terms, this week has been a triumph for Labor, especially for Gillard and climate change minister Greg Combet, who look to have achieved what Penny Wong and Kevin Rudd — and for that matter John Howard and Malcolm Turnbull — couldn’t.

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.