There is more than a faint whiff of hypocrisy about Kim Beazley and federal Labor’s opposition to the just-announced Howard government plan to have all illegal arrival asylum seekers, even those who make it to the mainland, processed offshore and assessed by UNHCR rather than Australian officials. The Howard government plan is almost indistinguishable (although see postscript) from the policy the ALP took to the last federal election under Mark Latham and then Immigration spokesperson and current leadership aspirant Julia Gillard:
Advocating a new world wide system is a bold step. To lead the world requires leading by example and, in this policy, Labor outlines the following five ways in which it will.
1. Labor will maintain the excision of Christmas Island in order to pilot the processing regime it will advocate should be adopted globally. Christmas Island will be the prime asylum seeker processing and detention facility.
2. Labor will put its processing regime to the ultimate test by monitoring the return of failed asylum seekers.
3. Labor will increase funding to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to $25 million per annum in order to better assist those who live and too often die in refugee camps overseas.
4. Labor will boost aid to address the issues that cause people to move such as poverty, natural disasters, conflict and environmental degradation.
5. Labor will increase aid to countries of first asylum. Such aid is desperately needed and is important to facilitate the development of a system of return of asylum seekers.
Moreover, the current Howard government plan for the Papuans is nowhere near as obnoxious as what the Keating government (of which Beazley was a senior Minister) did to Sino-Vietnamese boat people in 1995, as UNIYA (Catholic Church refugee agency) lawyer Kerry Murphy explains here. Back in 1995 Keating was just as concerned to appease China as Howard now is to kowtow to Indonesia. Keating enacted legislation (with Coalition support) deeming China to be a “safe third country” for the Sino-Vietnamese, even though they had just fled from there after their houses in Beihai were bulldozed and burnt by Chinese authorities. They were denied even an opportunity to make a refugee claim and summarily deported back to “safe” China.
Howard’s plan is hardly best international refugee practice, but at least asylum seekers will be assessed by an independent UN agency and not just “refouled” arbitrarily. And processing in the not unpleasant environs of Christmas Island is arguably an improvement on housing them at the Baxter facility in South Australia.
We certainly shouldn’t sacrifice our international humanitarian obligations to cynical political expediency, but equally no responsible government can afford to ignore the fact that Indonesia is in a position to cause major damage to Australia’s security merely by failing to take active steps to combat drug smuggling, illegal fishing, terrorism or the passage of transiting asylum seekers aimed at Australia. President Yudhoyono has already indicated a willingness to take such steps.
Oppositions and minor parties can afford to seize the high moral ground gratuitously. Governments have no choice but to make difficult pragmatic decisions that balance a range of real world consequences. Howard’s response to Indonesia in 2006 is markedly more moderate and principled than Keating’s response to Chinese pressure in 1995.
PS – There is actually one respect in which the new Howard plan is a significant extension on what Latham and Gillard proposed before the 2004 election. Vanstone says that “People found to be refugees will remain offshore until resettlement to a third country is arranged.” This is what the previous Immigration Minister Phil the Mortician tried with the Tampa asylum seekers. He was eventually forced to capitulate and let them into Australia, because nearly all of them were genuine refugees and no other country would take them (after New Zealand initially took a small bunch).
Unsurprisingly, other countries regard refugees who have arrived in wealthy Australia as Australia’s own problem and responsibility. This aspect of the plan simply won’t work any better than Ruddock’s previous attempt. They will eventually have to do a quiet backflip again. Nevertheless, the announcement itself will probably succeed in appeasing immediate Indonesian resentment and may also stem the enthusiasm of other Papuans thinking about taking to the boats.