By now we have had a couple of days to let both major political parties' Asylum Seeker policies soak into our consciousness and consciences. I believe that I can safely say that the new policy as enunciated by PM Julia Gillard in her speech on Tuesday morning to 'The Lowy Institute' showed Labor's still more compassionate attitude with respect to this issue as compared with the Coalition's policy, released on the same day.
Now, what is open to discussion is whether you believe, with this new policy, Labor has 'lurched to the Right', as Kevin Rudd said they would, in order to harness the 'Redneck vote', as Julian Burnside termed it, in the outer suburban marginal electorates, or whether a fine line has been successfully walked between the, as I see it, unrealistic, bleeding-heart approach of The Greens, who would accept anyone who turns up on our doorstep claiming to be a refugee, ignoring the People Smuggling industry that has been established in Indonesia to feed people in boats to our shores; and the hard-hearted approach of the Coalition, who do not want anyone turning up to ask for shelter and a room at our Inn, 'Hotel Australia', with ways prescribed to make that happen and to make them go away... Just as well Jesus, Mary and Joseph aren't floating across the water on their donkeys to Australia nowadays, isn't it?
In other words, do you think this new Gillard government policy has found the Rosetta Stone to unlock the secrets to a successful Asylum Seeker process for this country or not?
I have my own opinion, but I am not going to foist that upon you now. Instead I thought that we should examine the two approaches side by side, compare and contrast them, and see what others directly involved in the process and more expert and relevant in their opinions have to say. Then we might be able to come to a conclusion.
Firstly, the essence of the Labor policy is as follows:
- Set up a regional processing centre in East Timor.
- Send all unauthorised arrivals to the centre for processing under UNHCR guidelines.
- Increase penalties for People Smugglers.
- Fund eight new Patrol Boats.
The Coalition policy is:
- Restore Temporary Protection Visas and the 'Pacific Solution'
- Turn back boats “when circumstances permit”.
- Refuse entry to people who destroy identification papers.
- Give Minister greater oversight in refugee decisions.
- Priority to offshore camp applicants.
- Buy three aerial patrol drones.
- Introduce pilot scheme for sponsoring refugees.
Let me start out by saying that the East Timor Regional Processing Centre will be no 'Pacific Solution Mark II'. It may well be, as Abbott snidely put it, “A way-lay for refugees on the way to Australia.” But even if that's so it will be one which is more humane than the Coalition alternative on Nauru or Manus Island. This is the fact that Abbott refuses to admit to, that is, that the Pacific Solution simply served as an expensive and draconian 'way-lay' for refugees in the Howard era, on their way, ultimately, to Australia too.
Also, as Lenore Taylor so succinctly put it, in the Sydney Morning Herald:
"Abbott rushed out an even 'tougher' policy to gazump Gillard. Under a Coalition government there would be a 'presumption against' people turning up to claim asylum without identification papers.
"But he didn't have answers either - he couldn't say how he would distinguish between genuine refugees (who often have to travel without papers because they are fleeing, or because they fear persecution) and those who discard them. Nor could he say how he would 'turn back' a boat that had been deliberately disabled and was sinking, nor where he would return it to.
"And the Coalition hasn't yet said to which country it would try to send the asylum seekers, only that it wouldn't happen in Australia. And Abbott was tapping into voters' fears, too. The Coalition, he said, would do 'whatever it takes to keep our borders secure and our country safe'. He didn't explain how asylum seekers pose a threat to our safety."
Thus we can see that at least Julia Gillard is proposing to do the right thing by the Asylum Seekers, even if she has had to adopt an element of the Coalition policy, offshore processing, in order to assuage the fears that the community has had inculcated into them over many years by the Coalition. However, I think that she has had similar thoughts to the outgoing Secretary-General for Amnesty International, Irene Khan, who said:
“A fair response to refugees is not to punish them for using people-smuggling channels or burning their documents...The emphasis should be on why these people have left their countries,...and do they need protection?” “
"Any arrangement to put people in a transit centre should take into account how to process people quickly, identify genuine refugees, find a solution for them and then arrange for safe return of all those found not to be refugees. It should be seen as a fast, effective process and not just a deterrent or a dumping ground.”
Is that not in essence what we should be aiming for if we in Australia are to maintain our tradition for compassion? Every latter-day evangelical Christian speaks about compassion and emulating the example of Jesus Christ. So isn't it funny how it is our avowedly atheistic Prime Minister who seems to have found the compassionate solution to finding room at the Inn for the itinerant homeless who wash up on our shores, without seeking to feed the exploitative people-smuggling trade; as opposed to the cruel solution of 'Captain Catholic', who wants to put up the 'No Vacancy' sign when he sees them approaching?
What do you think?