I watched on television much of Wednesday’s proceedings in the House of Representatives on Rob Oakeshott’s ill-fated ‘Bali Process’ private member’s bill.
During the debate over an amendment proposed by the opposition, seeking to remove the government’s ‘Malaysia Solution’ from Oakeshott’s bill, shadow treasurer Joe Hockey spoke for the amendment. At times almost blubbering and choking with emotion, he loftily declared:
I will never, ever support a people swap where you can send a 13-year-old child unaccompanied to a country without supervision — never. It will be over my dead body. [Source: Hansard.]
Leaving aside that the government has ruled out sending any minors to Malaysia, it may be noted that Mr Hockey has not publicly expressed any objection to the Coalition’s proposal to tow boats back into international waters. This policy would almost certainly involve sending minors back to the point of departure in Indonesia, which is not a signatory to the Refugee Convention.
Hockey went on to relate how,
I fought with the previous Prime Minister [John Howard] ... about Nauru. I opposed it until the moment he assured me ... that those most vulnerable would be protected. That was when I agreed with him. I was prepared to cross the floor in a previous government with an absolute majority in this place because I disagreed with the treatment of those most vulnerable by my Prime Minister.
We may assume, then, that Mr Hockey will cross the floor to oppose boats with children on board being towed back to open waters. If he’s successful in modifying the Coalition’s policy, then it will create an incentive for people smugglers to place more children on these unsafe boats, with real potential for more tragedy.
In fact, it’s not true that people would, under the government’s scheme, be sent to Malaysia without humanitarian protections. The government had negotiated humanitarian protections with Malaysia, such that the United Nations High Commission for Refugees has expressed support for the deal. (Simon Crean had spelled all this out much earlier in the debate.) Whether those protections are in any way credible is now a question to which we’ll perhaps never know the answer. Thus, while the Malaysian Solution is a rotten deal, I’m not convinced it’s so much more rotten than dumping people on Nauru.
At some point on Wednesday, Senator Christine Milne for the Greens proposed an amendment to Oakeshott’s bill which I considered had a number of proposals for a constructive, longer-term approach to the issue of unauthorised boat arrivals (basic outline here). It’s worth noting that the Greens’ proposals would seem to some degree complementary of the bill in relation to…
The Bali Process — codifying in domestic law the good bipartisan work started by the former Howard Government in 2002, which provides a border protection and humanitarian framework on people smuggling, people trafficking and related transnational crime. This process is co-chaired by Australia and Indonesia and involves nearly 50 countries, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and the Red Cross and Red Crescent.
I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the advisory group now being convened by the Prime Minister, to be headed by Angus Houston, proposes some very similar options, among others. But they won’t get up, of course, because they can’t be distilled into the precise three word formulation: Stop The Boats.
Of late it’s supposedly been all about “saving lives”. But Stop The Boats had political potency way before the pivotal Christmas Island tragedy of December 2010. It was crystallised in John Howard’s “We Will Decide” mantra from the 2001 Tampa election. And it didn’t shift to being about “saving lives” even after the 2001 SIEV-X tragedy with the loss of 353 lives.
“Saving lives” is a cloak of respectability for what both major parties are now agreed and resolved upon: Wiggling out of Australia’s obligations under the Refugee Convention.
From playing Alice-in-Wonderland croquet with our “migration zone”, to a Pacific or a Malaysia ‘solution’, it is and always has been about that.
Because:- The piddling arrivals at our borders, compared to say Europe or even the US, would seem to make tough, resourceful Aussies fall apart and wee into our collective little soft cock knickers.
I’d have liked to see Oakeshott’s bill get up; but with (perhaps) the Coalition’s amendment to drown the rotten Malaysia swap deal; and with Andrew Wilkie’s ‘sunset’ clause, but for no more than 6 months rather than 12; and with some rigorous monitoring of outcomes in the interim; and with serious consideration for longer-term proposals along the lines mooted by the Greens.
Of course, that’s all with 20/20 hindsight of the last few days in the comfort of my own armchair. And unencumbered with the partisan obstruction of Abbott and (to a somewhat lesser degree) Gillard. Forget the ‘purist’ Greens, they’re not the real power here.
The Prime Minister, of course, should have known, and probably did, that Oakeshott’s unamended bill would never get up.
Because it’s clear that the Coalition was absolutely terrified that the Malaysia deal might just work, delivering the ‘deterrence value’ that Nauru (it’s been said) has lost.
As Graeme Richardson wrote on this in a column today...
It would appear, however, that no matter what she [Gillard] offered Tony Abbott, if the Malaysia Solution was still on the table, he wasn’t having a bar of it.
Abbott won’t budge, won’t compromise and won’t lose a wink of sleep over it...
All in all, a collective failure and a crying shame, but inevitable due to the partisan obstruction, particularly, of the opposition. As John Howard’s biographer, Peter van Onselen, wrote on Tuesday:
One well-placed Liberal source told The Australian that Abbott would rather see Labor continue to bleed politically with ongoing boat arrivals. If that means deaths at sea continue, he said, so be it. Perhaps Abbott thinks such tragedies reflect more badly on Labor than his own side because the government appears responsible for the mess courtesy of changing John Howard's asylum-seekers policies in the first place. [My emphasis.]
If true, then Mr Abbott deserves to sink into oblivion.
Labels: Australia, politics