A ‘200-year-old boat people problem’

Editorial, Normal


THE fiction of 18 years past has illuminated itself these past weeks: Blanche d’Alpuget’s Turtle Beach – a 1991 Australian film set in Malaysia’s east coast state of Terengganu – may not have been as innocent as the more generous of spirit might be prepared to accept.
Footage of Malaysian authorities of the 1970s and 1980s turning back Vietnamese boat people at gunpoint may not have been officially sanctioned in Australia, but it would have served Canberra’s purpose – then and now.
It was – and is – an easy political sell to “outsource” Australia’s problems before they reached its shores. Turtle Beach would make for popular viewing in the cinema.
Self-preservation, selfish gain, appeal to base human instinct. Border protection, border security, is ingrained in the Australian psyche.
From the “reds under the bed” parodied paranoia of Robert Menzies’ 1950s, successive governments of both mainstream persuasions have pandered to the politics of fear of invasion.
One tongue-in-cheek letter to the editor takes the instinct back into history: “Australia has had an illegal immigrant problem for more than 200 years,” it said. “Just ask any Aborigine.”
Increasing waves of boat arrivals over this past year have brought the periodic ebb and rise of the phenomenon to shrill hysteria.
A boatload of 255 Sri Lankans  diverted to Indonesia last month, has plunged politicians in government and the opposition to the most vituperative of rhetoric in recent times.
Border security is the base argument of opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull and his conservative Liberal-National coalition. Tough, but humane, counter prime minister Kevin Rudd and his social democrat Labor, of their policy.
“The key is to have a balanced policy,” Rudd told the 7.30 Report of national public broadcaster ABC, “one which is both tough but humane”.
On commercial (populist) talkback radio, the message just comes across as “tough … tough … and tough”.
Scare-mongering is a potent political tool.
“We decide who comes into this country, and the circumstances in which they come,” was the repeated assertion of John Howard, predecessor to Rudd as prime minister, in the 2001 campaign that returned him to his third of four terms in government.
The celebrated statement of Rudd’s today is: “I make absolutely no apology whatsoever for taking a hard line on illegal immigration to Australia.”
It is the palatable message.
Every poll since 1977 confirms that at least a third of Australians want every single boat person kept out, The Age in Melbourne reported.
Rudd is reasonable on the 7.30 Report. “(We have) an orderly migration programme … which deals with humanitarian considerations and our obligations under the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR),” he says.
“It’s (about) having effective arrangements with so-called transit countries like Malaysia and Indonesia. Effective also (is) engagement with source countries, in this case Iraq, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka.
“It is the entire … spectrum from source country, transit country, people on the high seas, as well as proper processing arrangements and dealing with asylum-seekers if they had established to have that status.”
Immigration minister Chris Evans puts the pressure on Australia in a global context. It is a global phenomenon, as desperate people flee war and persecution.
“The facts are that there has been a global spike in irregular people movement around the world,” Evans writes in the online National Times. “The UNHCR 2008 Global Trends Report released in September stated there were 42 million people forcibly displaced worldwide, driven from their homelands by insecurity, persecution and conflict.”
Of that, arrivals in Australia are minuscule, says human rights specialist Prof James Hathaway, dean of law at the University of Melbourne. “Even with those resettled affirmatively from overseas, Australia receives only about one-tenth of 1% of the world’s refugees,” Hathaway tells the New Sunday Times.
That in a country proud that, on the findings of the UN Human Development Report 2009, has the second-best quality of life out of 182 countries surveyed.
Why would Rudd not stake his legacy on taking Australia beyond the tired argument and counter-argument of border security – of all descriptions; military, strategic, economic and environmental?
He has political capital in stacks, his government commanding a primary vote in the order of 47% to the opposition’s 32%.
In two-party-preferred terms, this translates to 58% for Labor to 42% for Turnbull’s coalition.
It would return Labor to government in landslide proportions were an election to be held. – onlineopinion


* K.C. Boey is a former editor of Malaysian Business and The Malay Mail. Now he writes a Letter From Australia out of Melbourne for the New Sunday Times in Malaysia.