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Cruel and ineffective or firm and fair?

By Andrew Bartlett - posted Friday, 30 October 2009

Two consecutive questions on the asylum seeker issue during House of Representatives Question Time last week demonstrated the shifting fault lines that are occurring on this issue.

We are now facing the curious situation of Liberals starting to criticise Labor for the poor conditions asylum seekers are being kept in - including the "keeping kids behind razor wire" refrain - while still complaining about Labor's "softened" policies.

I get the feeling that there is a significant realignment happening here, and lots of people across the spectrum are feeling their way rather tentatively trying to find some solid new ground. The language and the policies are still in a state of flux, and it's hard to be sure precisely where either major party will end up. Even the final position of the Greens may be hard to predict, as the detail of the (I think badly named) "Indonesia Solution" will continue to unfold over time. It is hard to see how the debate and the policy decisions could turn as toxic as the post-Tampa environment in 2001, although with the history this issue has, it is unwise to be complacent.


The Question Time exchange looked to me like both sides were as keen to paint the other as cruel and ineffective as they were to paint themselves as firm but fair.

The first of the questions came from Labor's Member for Petrie, Yvette D'Ath, seeking the government's response to people smuggling. Over about eight minutes, Kevin Rudd basically outlined why the Liberals' old policies were inhumane, how these policies didn't work anyway because it was push factors in other countries that slowed the flow of boat arrivals, and how even the Liberals didn't want to keep any of their old policies that Labor had changed since coming to government (but the Libs were still inhumane anyway).

This was followed by a question from Malcolm Turnbull, asking who would be detaining and processing the asylum seekers intercepted in Indonesia, whether they would take longer than the 90-day limit in Australia and where they would be resettled. In effect, he was asking whether refugees would get a tougher deal in Indonesia than they would if they were processed in Australia. Unmentioned but relevant was the fact that the 90-day goal for processing asylum claims of people in detention was introduced by the former Liberal government (after a lot of arm-twisting). Rudd responded by making "no apology whatsoever for ... expanding cooperation with the Indonesian Government in the area of people smuggling".

Commentators, politicians and other partisans know who they are meant to be on the opposite side to on this issue. They just can't figure out quite where the other side is at, so they're not sure exactly what they should be opposing or how. The reverse also applies, although the government has the major incumbency advantage of being able to set the policy direction, and to some extent the tone, just as John Howard could eight years ago.

Adding to the uncertainty are the internal divisions within the parties. The Liberals' divisions are obvious, but there are undoubtedly some strongly varying views within the ALP too - they just have the good sense and discipline to stay mostly quiet about them.

Labor is wanting to simultaneously portray themselves as just as tough as the Opposition, while also being humane. The Liberals want to own the fact that a low number of boats arrived for a few years after 2001, while not wanting to still be tied to the policies that were in place at that time. The position - contentious but arguable - that the Howard era policies stopped the boats is inseparable from the other widely recognised (and totally undeniable) consequences of those policies, which were kids behind razor wire, the children overboard fiction, Cornelia Rau, etc.


However ironic it may seem that the Liberals are expressing such concern for the welfare of people seeking refuge it is still a good thing that attention is finally being paid to the living conditions of asylum seekers in Indonesia and elsewhere. If that level of attention lasts beyond the current media cycle, there is a real prospect of a significant improvement occurring in the speed of processing and the treatment of asylum seekers intercepted in countries to our north.

Meanwhile, there are key differences between the Pacific Solution and the so-called "Indonesia Solution". A major one is that, at Australia's behest, Nauru kept almost all journalists, lawyers and advocates out of the country so they couldn't see what was going on. Another improvement over that old situation is that Indonesia is not a bankrupt country willing to house refugees in return for financial support. Indonesia will stand up for its interests and we will have more chance of seeing how the refugees in its care are treated. However there are still plenty of reasons to be concerned over what that treatment could look like in Indonesia.

The big challenge will be to convince countries such as Indonesia and others in our region that a cooperative approach based on a humane and rational attitude to asylum seekers in the region is in all our interests. Malcolm Fraser achieved something along these lines with the influx of Vietnamese refugees over 20 years ago. There are different factors at play this time, but the principles are the same as they were then, and as they were when the Refugee Convention was first established back in 1951.

The parties would do well to remember that convincing others that a rational approach is the best way is impossible when we don't follow our own advice.

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First published in New Matilda, as "Even when they agree with us they're wrong", on October 26, 2009.

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About the Author

Andrew Bartlett has been active in politics for over 20 years, including as a Queensland Senator from 1997-2008. He graduated from University of Queensland with a degree in social work and has been involved in a wide range of community organisations and issues, including human rights, housing, immigration, Indigneous affairs, environment, animal rights and multiculturalism. He is a member of National Forum. He blogs at Bartlett's Blog.

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