Rudd risks all with a lurch to the right

Focus, Normal

The National, Friday August 2nd, 2013

 JUST before he was dumped as leader of the Australian Labor Party and prime minister three years ago, Kevin Rudd warned his colleagues against “lurching to the right” over asylum-seekers arriving in Australia by boat. 

Less than four weeks after he seized his old job back, Rudd ditched his own advice. 

With Peter O’Neill, prime minister of Papua New Guinea (PNG), at his side, Rudd (right) declared on July 19 that all boat people pitching up on Australia’s shores from now on would be sent to PNG.

Even if they prove to be “genuine refugees”, they will have “no chance” of a new life in Australia. 

Instead, they will be resettled in PNG, one of the Pacific’s poorest countries.

Facing an election this year (and with Labor trailing in the polls), Rudd has set about clawing back support over two issues that had damaged Julia Gillard, his predecessor: a carbon tax to deal with climate change, and rising numbers of boat people.

So far this year more than 16,000 asylum-seekers on 220 boats have arrived, almost as many as in all of last year.

Opposition leader Tony Abbott has scored points in Labor’s heartland with two slogans: “Axe the tax” and “Stop the boats”. 

If elected as prime minister, the conservative leader pledges to turn boats back to Indonesia, their main embarkation point.

On July 16, Rudd declared that the government would “terminate” the carbon tax next year and switch to a floating-price emissions-trading scheme, a year earlier than first planned. 

On the boats, he admits his “regional resettlement arrangement” with PNG is a “very hardline decision”. 

Some refugee law experts go further.

James Hathaway, of the University of Melbourne, calls it the “most bizarre overreaction”. 

He reckons refugees are paying the price for Rudd’s “wanting to appear more butch than Julia Gillard and more reactionary than Tony Abbott”. 

Australia does not have an asylum problem, says Hathaway. 

“It has a political problem.”

The figures bear him out. 

Political leaders of all stripes tend to underrate Australia’s capacity to absorb outsiders. 

Last year the country admitted almost 200,000 immigrants.

Most of the 47,000 boat people of the past five years were found to be “genuine refugees”. 

In 2011 Australia received 3% of asylum applications lodged in industrialised countries, a proportion roughly in line with its population.

The corrosive politics over asylum started with John Howard, (bottom, right) a former conservative prime minister ousted by Labor.

In 2001 he opened camps for boat people in Nauru and on Manus Island in PNG and hailed it as a “Pacific Solution”. 

In his first stint as prime minister, Rudd closed the camps.

Australia has since processed most boat people on its Indian Ocean territory of Christmas Island, near Indonesia. 

But Gillard, when prime minister facing opposition alarm over the boats, grabbed a lifeline offered by an expert panel. 

The panel suggested reopening the camps in a bid to deter boats and save lives. 

The lifeline neither saved Gillard’s prime ministership nor stopped boats and drownings.

Just recently, at least nine people drowned, 180 were rescued and an unknown number were missing after a boat sank off the Indonesian island of Java. 

Over 1,000 people are thought to have drowned trying to reach Australia in the past ten years. Iran, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Pakistan are now the main sources of asylum-seekers.

Since their hasty reopening last year, the camps have proved politically more explosive than ever. 

Much of the Nauru one burned down in a riot among its 544 detainees on July 19.

And after an outcry earlier this year about the children held at the Manus island camp, Australia moved them and their families to Christmas Island and the Australian mainland. 

After a visit to Manus in June, the UN’s refugee agency reported that conditions were still below international standards. 

On July 23, Rod St George, who used to work there for G4S, the security company managing the camp, told Australian television that men had been sexually and physically abused by fellow detainees.

Hathaway calls Manus, “the hellhole of PNG”. 

With Rudd’s PNG idea, Australia plans to expand the camp’s capacity fivefold to hold about 3,000 asylum-seekers.

It will also give O’Neill’s government more aid, on top of the A$500 million (about K990 million) a year Australia already provides, for health, policing and university education. 

Ben Saul, a human-rights lawyer, reckons the PNG solution could breach the spirit of Australia’s obligations under the UN’s refugee convention, which stipulates that countries capable of dealing with refugee flows should not shift responsibility onto others. 

For Rudd that seems of less importance than shoring up votes at home. 

He calculates that the prospect of living indefinitely in PNG will stop the boat people, where earlier lurches to the right have failed. It is a gamble. – The Economist