The human suffering that lead to the recent boat people making a run for Australia and the physical and psychological trauma many of them have suffered in the explosion off Ashmore Reef, sadly is now being overshadowed by the politicisation of the event with predictable divisive effects in our community.
We’ve been all through this before, the Tampa, Kids overboard, the Pacific Solution, Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs), harsh and prolonged detention, and so on. Do we need to go through it all again? [more]
The coalition thinks so. Opposition immigration spokeswoman Sharman Stone was quick to lay blame for the deaths squarely on Labor, citing ‘softening’ of immigration policy which gave the ‘green light’ to people smugglers that Australian was again ‘open for business’. “You can't slash funds, you can't take your eye off the ball, you can't announce a softer policy and then expect people not to lose their lives through people-smuggling," she insisted.
Home Affairs Minister Bob Debus, who has made the running on this tragedy, asked her to withdraw her comments, saying "The last time people tried to make politics in an incident like this we had a most unpleasant circumstance in Australian national life.” He insisted that the Rudd Government was not going to be playing politics with such incidents. And so far it hasn’t. Kevin Rudd’s has voiced strong condemnation today of people smugglers and promised a tough response.
Initially Malcolm Turnbull took the high ground, expressing sympathy to the victims and their families, but refraining from sheeting home blame to Labor, saying he did not want to make political points over the tragedy. He sounded statesmanlike.
Then Colin Barnett, WA Liberal Premier said he’d received information from up-the-line that the explosion and fire had been deliberately lit. Shades of the demonizing of asylum seekers we’ve heard before. He was joined by former immigration minister Kevin Andrews in blaming Labor.
Last night on Lateline Sharman Stone confirmed her view that the Rudd Government changes had resulted in more people smuggling, more boats arriving off Australian shores, and the tragedy off Ashmore Reef. The changes of which she speaks comprise discontinuance of the Pacific Solution and TPVs, a new maritime arrangement for surveillance of Australia’s northern shores – the Border Protection Command – and reduced funding. Asked whether the Coalition would reintroduce the Pacific Solution or TPVs, Stone said no to the former, ‘because we now have Christmas Island’, but did not address TPVs.
This morning on AM Malcolm Turnbull had a testy interview with Tony Eastley in which he took a more assertive approach than yesterday, talking over Eastley to make his point, that of Stone, that ‘softer’ Government policies had resulted in more boat arrivals, and all the dangers that involved. When Eastley reminded him that Debus had said, and also the UNHCR is saying, that worldwide there has been something like a 12% increase in the number of people seeking asylum, and an Afghan refugee and former detainee had told the ABC it is not government policy but the increase in fighting against the Taliban that is forcing people out of Afghanistan at the moment, Turnbull retorted "Well, Tony that is the position. The position of the Rudd Government which you've just faithfully recited there …" to which Eastley responded "Well I am not reciting there. I am telling you what the facts are that we know from the UNHCR and a refugee." Turnbull continued to insist that Australia's laws do have an effect on the level of unauthorised boat arrivals, and that recent changes had encouraged more of them. David Manne of the Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre is just as adamant that Australian Government policy bears no relationship to boat arrivals. To put boat arrivals into perspective, of the people in immigration detention on 30 June last year, around 400, only 1% were boat arrivals. 7% were illegal fishermen, and almost 90% arrived by air or overstayed visas.
Of course it’s impossible to be certain about which of the multiple factors resulting in more boat arrivals carries the most weight. For the Coalition to single out one cause ‘the Rudd Government policy softening’, and discount a myriad of others, points to politics points-scoring as its primary motivation, rather than a desire to have a balanced debate on the subject, although Turnbull has today offered ‘bipartisanship’ so that both sides of politics in Australia can ‘agree on a tough line on people smuggling’. That’s not going to happen now that the Coalition is so far down the partisan track.
Columnists have taken varying viewpoints some leaning one way, others leaning the other, but generally reasonably balanced. Andrew Bolt has gone to the extreme in condemning Rudd’s policy. You’ll have to find his piece in today’s Sun Herald to read what Crikey’s editor described as ‘witless and contemptible’.
So much for the facts, which are to be found in abundance in the media. Let’s ask how Turnbull is now in a politically dangerous adversarial position he might have avoided. Clearly the Government is avoiding politicising the issue, so how did it come to this?
What follows is speculation, but based on observations over the last 24 hours. At first Turnbull sounded conciliatory and indeed is still saying that the Government is not responsible for the deaths and injuries at Ashmore Reef, unlike Stone. My view is that it was Stone, not Turnbull, who set the pattern and pace of the Coalition response. It seems as if Turnbull has been dragged by her comments into a more aggressive and condemnatory position than he had intended. Add to that the comments of Barnett and Andrews, and this morning of Barnaby Joyce who, not unexpectedly, took a hard line, and Turnbull finds himself trapped, with no obvious escape route. The only contrary voice on the Coalition side has been Russell Broadbent who was so outspoken against Howard Government policies on immigration.
But is Turnbull’s position politically dangerous? Ardent supporters of the Coalition are probably applauding it. Supporters of the Howard approach are bound to be pleased to hear similar rhetoric from Turnbull today. But what will the electorate think? The Coalition will be hoping that this event has opened up a chink in Rudd’s armour that will reflect against him, and for the Coalition in the polls. Judging by the talkback this morning, an old wound in the Australian psyche had been re-opened, with many passionate comments coming from both sides. What a shame it’s on again, because the opposing strongly held views seem as irreconcilable as ever.
Whether the Coalition will gain advantage from this event will depend on how the Government responds, how it strikes an acceptable balance between sensible border protection and humanitarian concern for those displaced, dispossessed and damaged by civil unrest and war. My impression is that this nation has moved on from the Howard days and the events that characterized them. Although Howard’s ‘we will decide who comes to this country and the manner of their coming’, helped him win an election, although the ‘kids overboard’ event probably did the same, the public, having discovered post-election that it had been duped about the latter, and attracted to the more compassionate approach of the Rudd Government, is nowhere near the position it took in the Howard years.
Turnbull may find that public sympathy is not with him and the Coalition’s hard line response to yesterday's tragedy, and that once again he has misjudged the politics, aided and abetted by some of his impetuous and imprudent colleagues eager to score a point at any cost.