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Refugee policy: Iím not feeling good

By Bruce Haigh - posted Tuesday, 30 July 2013


The ‘policies’, recently announced by both major parties, do not make us feel good about ourselves.

We are a nation of volunteers; we give help where help is needed. We give generously to charitable causes including children in Third World countries. We encourage and applaud the underdog and we don’t kick a person when they are down.

This does not apply to asylum seekers arriving by boat. We now have two classes of asylum seekers those who arrive by boat and those who arrive by air. It is a discriminatory policy, it is racist, it is our own version of Apartheid.

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Under Apartheid both sides of white politics sat on the same side of the fence. Both agreed with the separation of blacks from whites. The Afrikaners were more hard line than the liberals whose concern was to ease the burden on blacks of Apartheid but not to give the black man equal rights.

Both major parties in Australia sit on the same side of the fence with respect to refugee policy, one side is more extreme and hardline than the other, although they are converging. Both are feeding off the bottom. They are not concerned with people drowning on boats they are concerned with domestic politics.

Our political process has been poisoned by an artificial crisis created by John Howard and milked by him and his successor Tony Abbott for everything it is worth. To try and cut Abbott off at the pass Rudd has had to resort to tactics that dive lower than Abbott. But how low can we go.

So overwhelming has the political imperative of people arriving by boat become that the issue is now poll driven. In the Australian political process polls have replaced God. Do pollsters get it right? Do they ask the right questions? Just how reliable are they? I wouldn’t know I have never been polled.

And even if the polls are correctly reporting trends on attitudes to asylum seekers arriving by boat, why should they be followed when the issue requires courage, compassion and leadership?

None of this matters because polling has replaced policy and leadership. In the lead up to the election the issue of refugees will smother debate on all other important issues, such as water, health, education, infrastructure in the run up to the election. This suits the opposition LNP, because they have little in the way of policy on major issues. And the polls do not indicate how many people are fed up with the major parties, which might find expression at the polls.

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Despite what Foreign Minister, Bob Carr, and other Canberra spin merchants say, the majority of people arriving by boat are genuine refugees. They are not ’economic refugees’, ‘illegal’, ‘irregular’ or ‘queue jumpers’. From my own experience in conjunction with genuine asylum seekers, economic hopefuls and hardened criminals arrive by plane. Boat people are, by and large, desperate risk takers and that includes Tamils from Sri Lanka. Refugees create the market not the people smugglers.

The Labor Party PNG policy is unworkable. Dumping traumatised refugees onto a poverty stricken nation without the social support networks and health and education infrastructure is a prescription for renewed human disaster, both for the refugees and the local population, already trying to cope with corruption, restrictive cultural practises and curtailed economic opportunity.

Fearing they could be out manoeuvred by this latest policy lurch, the opposition LNP have adopted the PNG solution as part of their evolving refugee policy.

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About the Author

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator and retired diplomat who served in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 1972-73 and 1986-88, and in South Africa from 1976-1979

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