What dreadful news …


Apparently thirty or more asylum seekers drowned as SIEV sinks under Christmas Island cliffs.

It’s bound to have huge domestic political ramifications. Andrew Bolt is already fulminating and demanding Gillard’s resignation. He’s an odious twerp but has a point at least in so far as the voyage to Australia in small leaky boats is incredibly dangerous, and a policy mix which deters decisions to chance it has at least that to recommend it.

However, Bolt’s argument contains an assumption that continuation of the Pacific/Nauru Solution would have resulted in ongoing low arrival numbers. As I argued in my previous post canvassing abolition of universal mandatory detention, that assumption is highly dubious given that it only became general public knowledge shortly before the Howard government was defeated in 2007 that most of the Nauru detainees were being progressively granted protection visas and allowed into Australia. We can’t be certain that numbers of boat arrivals would have risen inexorably from that point irrespective of which party was in power, but it’s a reasonable suspicion that demagogues like Bolt fail even to mention let alone seriously consider.((The extent to which the Howard government feared precisely such an upward trajectory is demonstrated by a dodgy deal they did only months before losing power whereby “asylum seekers detained on Nauru can be sent to the US once their claims are approved, while US-bound Haitian refugees detained in Guantanamo Bay can be resettled in Australia.” It was clearly hoped that this might somehow maintain for a while longer the illusion that enlisting with the people smugglers was not a shortcut to permanent residence in Australia. How they imagined that conveying a message that you might get permanent residence in the US instead would be a deterrent is less evident! ~KP)) Far better for circulation to foment simplistic fear and loathing.

In any event, it’s looking like an ugly political debate in the lead-up to Christmas. Meanwhile let’s hope most of these people have been rescued.

Update – It sounds likely to be substantially more than 30 killed. Meanwhile, and on the opposite side of the ideological divide from Andrew Bolt, the aptly named refugee activist Pamela Curr seems to be rehearsing a Tony Kevin imitation by implying the likelihood of a conspiracy between politicians and military personnel to allow the asylum seekers to drown. There’s a certain sad irony in the fact that this sort of contemptible imputation is now being visited on the Labor government, given that some of its members happily colluded in the Senate Committee into SIEV X failing decisively to reject similar imputations against the Howard government. Disasters bring out the best and worst in human nature. Oh yes, and Tim Blair predictably combines the Bolt “blame Julia” line with (justifiably) sledging David Marr for joining the Tony Kevin imitators and suggesting a navy/government conspiracy to let them drown.

Ian Rintoul of the Refugee Action Coalition has a slight variation on the blame game. ”The Australian government are to blame.  They should be processing people in Indonesia. …”  Well, er, the Howard government tried that, spending $25 million on a refugee processing centre at Tanjung Pinang.  It didn’t work.  So too did the Rudd government, eventually persuading the Tamils on board the Oceanic Viking to disembark and go to Tanjung Pinang on a promise that they would be accepted into Australia within 12 weeks if found to be refugees.  Twenty five of them were still waiting 9 months later.  As Fairfax’s Lindsay Murdoch observed at the time: “Jakarta’s military and political elite are adamant that Indonesia will not become a major transit point for asylum seekers.”((Here’s the latest on the Oceanic Viking asylum seekers ~KP))

Some of the axe-grinders who seek to mislead Australians that there is some magic solution to the asylum seeker issue may well be sincere, but they’re certainly not helping to engender rational debate aimed at achieving a workable if unavoidably imperfect policy.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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19 Responses to What dreadful news …

  1. Mel says:

    I think we need to accept that there is no solution to the asylum seeker problem.

    If Australia makes it easy for asylum seekers to gain residency, people will die in droves on leaky boats whilst those who do not die will be at a high risk of being raped, beaten and otherwise brutalised by pirates.

    If Australia makes it hard for asylum seekers to gain residency, those who still come here will be driven mad in punitive detention centres while those who stay put will continue to be oppressed or killed by oppressive regimes.

    That leaves only one other option, attempting to improve the circumstances of people living under the yoke of oppressive regimes. But history teaches us that meddling in the affairs of other states will as often as not produce a very messy and unmanageable situation rather than the desired result, so this isn’t a good option either.

    It’s like a game of chess, we are cornered and all possible moves will result in check-mate.

  2. Ken Parish says:

    Yes I agree, there are no easy answers, certainly none that don’t involve side-effects almost as appalling as the problems they’re designed to solve.

  3. Catching up says:

    Mel, are not these people leaving their countries, because we are meddling in them. Maybe we should give some hope to those stranded in Indonesia, so they do not feel compelled to make the hazardous journey. It would be fairer for them and cheaper for us.

  4. Tel says:

    Jacques regularly reminds us of the LDP solution (allowing people to buy their Australian citizenship). It must be admitted that the LDP policy would have saved somewhere between 30 to 50 people’s lives in this instance.

    Current policy may be better, but it needs to be sufficiently better in other aspects to make up for the difference in human life.

    Mel, are not these people leaving their countries, because we are meddling in them.

    I would suspect that at least some Iranian refugees are trying to escape the ever hardening Islamic regime (and arguable whether that hardening is coming from our intolerance or their intolerance). I would not be surprised to find that these people are Sunni Muslims who feel they are not welcome in either Iran or Iraq (controlled by Shia Muslims) but probably got on reasonably well in Indonesia. We certainly aren’t responsible for the Sunni/Shia split, nor the animosity these people have for one another. We did stir up the nest by breaking down the stable (but undemocratic) power structures in Iraq, and yes I agree that both Australia and the USA would be better off learning to systematically mind our own business rather than interfering with other people.

    Then again, the mindset of deciding that you can manage other people’s lives better than they can manage their own is huge and widespread, I doubt there’s anything I could say to make it go away.

  5. conrad says:

    “Mel, are not these people leaving their countries, because we are meddling in them”

    Actually, lots of them are leaving for reasons we have essentially nothing to do with. There will always shitty places in the world, some of which we help create part of (e.g., Iraq), and some which we don’t.

  6. Alan says:

    The LDP policy would have saved a number of lives, but only of those who could afford citizenship. There is no reason to think those who could not would not attempt to arrive by boat.

  7. Tel says:

    Alan, you think the smugglers offer passage to poor people?

    Maybe they take IOU’s perhaps… seems unlikely somehow.

  8. “I think we need to accept that there is no solution to the asylum seeker problem.”
    There are solutions to most problems but it is usually political sensitivity that stands in the way of enactment.
    “If Australia makes it hard for asylum seekers to gain residency, those who still come here will be driven mad in punitive detention centres…”
    That is until they finally accept the plane ticket to return home. And if not, why on earth is that our problem?
    “… while those who stay put will continue to be oppressed or killed by oppressive regimes.”
    Perhaps the money they would otherwise spend on a voyage to Australia could be spent on AK-47s to fight off the oppressors. Perhaps the money we now spend on detention centres could be used to sponsor discount sales of weapons to these oppressed people.
    It’s insane to think the problems of these people are our problems. For two reasons: First, unless we did something to cause them, then they just aren’t. The fact that we have a history of giving foreign aid does not imply that we are morally obliged to help foreigners less fortunate. And secondly it is totally, totally impractical. Of the six billion people on earth probably 500 million to one billion live under some type of oppression. Our help can never be anything more than token help focused on those who happen to wrangle to get here first.

  9. RCon says:

    This half way policy of Labor doesn’t strike me as a good compromise. Either switch back to a punitive “keep them away” position, or start processing more in the camps.

    LDP policiy sounds like its based on this maybe?


  10. Tel says:

    The LDP policy is easy to find and clearly written.


    This idea has been championed by the Nobel Prize winning Professor Gary Becker. Becker explains that the tariff approach is always preferable to a quota approach on efficiency grounds. Additional benefits of the immigration fee is that it acts as a form of self-selection as only people with high expected income will apply, it acts as a form of payment for Australia’s public goods that are already in place, and it adds to the economic benefit that the immigrant is providing Australia.

    Becker has given lots of speeches on the topic, but his blog is probably as good a place to start as any (for a great thinker, he is too important to have paragraph breaks but just grit your eyes and get over it):


  11. Ken Parish says:


    I think you and Jacques may be misreading the LDP’s policy. It doesn’t on my reading propose any significant change to the current way we deal with unlawful arrival asylum seekers:

    Following health and security checks the unauthorized arrival can then apply for PR either by paying the immigration fee, applying for an “immigration scholarship” or “immigration loan” or by applying for humanitarian consideration. The process of determining genuine refugee status will be limited to a tribunal of first instance and a single court of appeal. Both will be open to the public.

    That would do nothing to reduce the number of unlawful boat arrivals, in fact it would probably increase them because unlawful arrivals who don’t qualify as refugees will know they’ll be able to buy their way to a visa.

    BTW The idea of a single court of appeal is impractical unless the designated court is the High Court. That is because it is not constitutionally possible to prevent judicial review by the High Court of the legality of executive decision-making. It would be undesirable to designate the High Court as the sole avenue of appeal/judicial review.It is our final court of appeal and we don’t want it swamped with thousands of refugee appeals most of which are unmeritorious.

  12. Patrick says:

    IIRC that was in fact the rock on which the previous (previous previous) Labor gov’s attempt to ban judicial review foundered.. :)

  13. Tel says:

    That would do nothing to reduce the number of unlawful boat arrivals, in fact it would probably increase them because unlawful arrivals who don’t qualify as refugees will know they’ll be able to buy their way to a visa.

    If you had a wad of cash and wanted to get into Australia, would you pay it to people smugglers and face a moderately high chance of death, or pay it to the regular authorities and just buy citizenship? If you don’t have a wad of cash, neither side wants to talk to you so nothing changes.

    Why take risks with your life when you don’t have to?

    The people smugglers would lose customers and lose income so they would be in a worse position to pay the necessary bribes to keep their business, err afloat. The money that would have gone to criminals can go to either fighting criminals or providing services.

    The only difficult issue is pricing (as it is with all of Capitalism), and the LDP would attempt to keep their price around about the same as the people smuggler price (but with much better terms and conditions).

  14. Patrick says:

    To my rather sympathetic mind the real problems with the LDP proposal are:
    1 they are definitely underestimating demand; and
    2 in the current real world, this will just lead to many more doctors, surgeons, lawyers and accountants driving taxis.

    Whilst this latter might seem like a reasonable short-term trade-off (I for one would probably make the trade-off if it meant a significantly reduced risk of death or horrible injury to myself and my loved ones + a significantly improved future for my kids) it sounds to me, particularly coupled with problem 1, like a recipe for a really unsustainable and volatile social mix!

  15. Tel says:

    … this will just lead to many more doctors, surgeons, lawyers and accountants driving taxis.

    Speaking strictly as an engineer, I paid my taxi fare, I’d like a bit of well educated banter thank you very much. A few musicians and poets driving taxis might also be nice, perhaps the odd economist ;-)

    Seriously though, just note that all of the professions you happen to mention have strong unions (am I allowed to call them unions here?) enforcing a policy of scarcity by design. There is no particular reason why education should be in short supply (after all, there are plenty of people willing to learn, and in the modern world training materials can be duplicated at the speed of electrons). Over the fence in software engineering we actually enjoy the tang of a competitive marketplace.

    … a recipe for a really unsustainable and volatile social mix!

    You really think that central planning does a better job of making a social mix than supply and demand? I find it an affront to liberty that any profession should be quota driven, and that valuable skills should even be withheld from the broadest possible access.

  16. Patrick says:

    Don’t worry Tel, I hear you. I would dissolve the AMA tomorrow and liberalise the legal profession the next day. But you have to design policies for the real world, and particularly when the LDP tries to sell this as a ‘shovel-ready’ fix ;)

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  18. Tel says:

    But of course it is a shovel ready policy. We just hope that there is sufficient time to finish the digging before certain people notice that the hole is intended for them :-) Sshhhshsh, don’t mention the shovels.

    Not altogether shocking that LDP policy contains elements making life more difficult for unions. After all, unions represent collusive price fixing in a marketplace — the sort of thing that corporations would get whacked hard for if they got caught doing it (and yeah I know, in a sufficiently corrupt system the corps get away with collusion in broad daylight too, well, at least shovels are cheap). The intended goal of most unions is to fully dominate one particular industry (i.e. achieve monopoly status, and use this monopoly position to get maximum return for members), this is rather uncomfortably similar to the typical corporate goal and IMHO equally dangerous to a vibrant free society, and a competitive marketplace. Two sides of one coin from a libertarian perspective.

    Then again, the Australian Labor Party makes out that they are a great friend of unionised labor on the one hand, and a great friend of migrants on the other hand… at some stage the obvious conflict of interests between those who wish to throttle supply in the labour market and those who want new opportunities to partake in our labour market should become self evident. At least the LDP are reasonably free of hypocrisy. If I remember rightly, the all-important quota was somewhat larger under Howard than it has been under Gillard (sshshsh, don’t mention the quota).

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