This is Rudd’s Tampa moment

Focus, Normal

The National, Thursday July 25th, 2013


AUSTRALIAN Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has moved ruthlessly, decisively, to neutralise what is arguably the biggest card still in Tony Abbott’s hand, and allay voter concerns about what the Opposition leader calls a ‘’national emergency’’.

His trump is to not only transfer new asylum seeker arrivals to Papua New Guinea for processing, but to leave them there forever if they are found to be refugees.

This is more ambitious – much more – than John Howard’s Pacific Solution that saw asylum seekers banished to Nauru and PNG’s Manus Island and told they would never set foot on Australia, only to ultimately be resettled here because no other country would take them.

The question is whether it is Rudd’s “Tampa moment”, the equivalent of Howard’s plan that helped the Coalition win the 2001 election and ultimately worked. 

Or is it the Malaysian people-swap cubed, an idea that stacked up on paper but came to nought? 

We’ll know soon enough.

The message is that if you get on a boat to Australia, you will never get to live here. Ever. 

The aim, in the vernacular of politicians, is to destroy the people smugglers’ business model. 

If it is implemented as planned, it could do just that, at least in the short term, but at enormous human cost.

The sugar has been taken off the table, and replaced with arsenic.

Will it stop the boats? 

That’s the political test of Rudd’s revamped policy to deter asylum seeker boat arrivals. 

The policy test is more nuanced, but devilishly challenging – to achieve this goal in a manner consistent with Australia’s obligations as a model global citizen.

Having vowed not to lurch to the right on asylum seekers before he was toppled in 2010, Rudd has now done just that – big time – justifying his actions on the grounds that the problem would continue to grow exponentially if he failed to act.

But it is high-risk, with many unanswered questions. 

What processing regime will apply? Will they have appeal rights? What of those with sons and daughters, fathers and mothers in Australia? Will there be scope for family reunion? Presumably only if those in Australia moved to PNG.

The prospect of legal challenge is real because of grave doubts about whether obligations under the Refugee Convention and other treaties, like the Convention on the Rights of the Child, will be honoured.

Port Moresby’s citizens struggle to access the most basic of services, so how will Iranians, Afghans and Sri Lankans cope? 

This is also a violent place where, according to a UN document, gang crime is frequent and “often directed at foreigners’’. How will their safety be guaranteed?

PNG is a signatory to the Refugee Convention, but with long-standing reservations about key provisions that concern the right to work, to housing, to education and to freedom of movement. 

The promise is that these reservations will now not apply to this group. Can it be delivered?

Then there is the question of whether Australia is shifting the burden of responsibility for asylum seekers to a country with such endemic problems that, in comparison, make our border protection challenge the equivalent of a cryptic crossword. 

Having persuaded PNG to play the key role in solving our border protection problem, what leverage will we employ in nudging them towards essential reforms?

Rudd says he consulted his Cabinet, but the impression is that this was a product of the PM, Immigration Minister Tony Burke and a handful of bureaucrats, without the input of key policy people from the Immigration Department and outsiders who have been relied upon in the past.

Certainly, this is not what was contemplated by the expert panel that reported to Julia Gillard last August, or the direction agencies such as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees would recommend.

The best that can be said is that it is a short-term shock tactic to stem the flow, to be coupled soon enough with tougher processing of the claims of those already here.

Rudd expects his will to be challenged by the people smugglers, and you can expect them to try to overwhelm a country whose capacity to treat just a couple of hundred asylum seekers has already been found wanting by the UN refugee agency.

It is in the medium term that his other measures have more potential to achieve enduring change. Indonesia’s decision to deny Iranians access to its automatic “visa on arrival’’ service should discourage asylum seekers from that country, especially those with weak protection claims. 

They will now have to produce their return ticket and passport before being issued with a visa in Tehran.

This is a product of measured diplomacy, a credit to Rudd, and a contrast to the megaphone turn-back-the-boats alternative of the Coalition. 

Clearly, it won’t have any impact on the thousands of Iranians currently in Indonesia, but it does represent a significant gesture by Indonesia that could reduce the flow of Iranian tourists to Indonesia.

Indonesia’s offer to host a meeting of ministers from source, transit and destination countries next month is another positive step, which could lead to similar approaches in other transit countries and closer co-operation on other fronts, including policing.

Similarly, the separate conference proposed by Rudd could result in developed economies taking more refugees who are processed in transit countries and further the cause of a regional solution.

What was missing was any initiative to tackle the reasons asylum seekers continue to flee and seek protection, regardless of obstacles. As Professor William Maley, director of the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy at the Australian National University, told me: ‘’Both sides of politics are so locked into the notion that it’s pull factors that lead people to come here, that they systematically and routinely underestimate the role that push factors play.’’

Indeed, rather than preempt decisions on whether claims are legitimate, Carr would be better deployed pressing the new Iranian leadership to stop human rights abuses and the Sri Lankan government to do the same.

The irony is that, despite the Coalition’s determination to make this a, if not the, key election battleground, the difference between the parties is in the detail, not the direction of policy. 

It’s all about deterrent – and punishing one group of asylum seekers in order to change the behaviour of others.

As the opposition’s Scott Morrison expressed it before Rudd’s bombshell: ‘’If we go past this election and do not have in place the resolve and policies to get this job done, then three years from now we may very much have passed the point of no return.’’

Well, we have passed the point of no return all right, but not in the way Morrison envisaged. – The Age

  • The “Tampa moment” refers to an incident in 2001 when former prime minister John Howard sent special forces troops to board the Norwegian tanker, Tampa.
  • The Tampa picked up 438 asylum seekers and crew from a sinking fishing vessel and tried to enter Australian territorial waters to deliver the passengers to safety. Denied permission to land, Captain Arne Rinnan steered his tanker into Australian waters. Howard ordered troops to board , declaring: ‘’We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.’’
  • Howard was re-elected that year.