If there’s one issue in federal politics at the moment that boils my blood, it isn’t the carbon tax; it’s not the recent Cabinet reshuffle; it’s not Wayne Swan’s characteristically inept mini-budget; and it isn’t Peter Slipper or Kevin Rudd. It’s asylum seekers.
And the mess — and it is a mess, for want of a far stronger term — is something the Labor Party is completely and directly responsible for.
In 2001, faced with rocketing numbers of illegal boat arrivals — most notably, the arrival of the MV Tampa — the Howard government instituted a drastic but highly effective policy aimed at stamping out illegal boat arrivals and, with it, the insidious practice of people smuggling.
Islands were excised from Australia’s migration zone; offshore detention facilities established on Nauru and Manus Island; Temporary Protection Visas were issued; and wherever safely possible, illegal boats were turned back.
In short order, the boatloads of illegal immigrants stopped coming.
Kevin Rudd and his sloganeering “Kevin ’07” ALP surfed the jingoistic waves from empty campaign slogans into government six years later; it’s debatable whether the Labor Party has actually achieved anything meaningful in its years in office, but one thing it has achieved it to roll out a virtual welcome mat to anyone who wants to come to this country in flagrant disregard of the proper protocols.
And so here we are: today, hundreds of boats containing thousands of illegal immigrants arrive here every year; it has blown into a colossal political storm, and for reasons best known to the fairies in the garden, it’s all the fault of Tony Abbott.
Can I just say that the terrible tragedy off the Javanese coast at the weekend — when up to 200 asylum seekers drowned when their boat sank — is just that: a tragedy.
But the responsibility lies at the feet of the present government and the architects of its immigration policies. Tony Abbott is blameless.
Shortly after taking office in 2007, one of the first things the Rudd government did was to dismantle Howard’s so-called Pacific Solution. Borders were opened, criteria relaxed, many of the more punitive aspects of the Howard policy abolished altogether.
And the compassion babblers and the elites and the chatterati applauded.
Julia Gillard was given an early warning of the current political firestorm around this issue at last year’s election; whilst mining taxes and broken promises and bad campaigning and knifed Prime Ministers all played their part, the vast majority of the regions and electorates that swung most heavily to the Coalition last year also happened to be those most affected in some way by illegal immigration.
Bear in mind, Gillard actually lost last year’s election: her majority comes from the Greens and Independents on the crossbenches.
Labor — half way through a term of government that increasingly appears to precede its return to Opposition — is panicked; most of the sources for that panic have been self-inflicted, and this one is no exception.
Rather than heed the warning shot across her government’s bow that the electorate delivered, in this area Gillard has thrown all caution and good sense to the wind entirely.
From the ridiculous and merit-free idea of a processing centre in East Timor that the East Timorese didn’t even know about, the government moved on to the abominable concept of a system with Malaysia by which Malaysia would accept 800 illegal arrivals from Australia in return for 4000 — 4000 — “processed” asylum seekers over which Australia had no right of veto and no actual control over their vetting.
All the while, the boats have arrived faster and fuller; the tide of public opinion has swelled further and further against the government on the issue; and the rising wave of panic in government circles over what to do has reached its crashing crescendo.
Now, the government blames Tony Abbott; after all, they say, had he allowed the Malaysia Solution to pass Parliament, tragedies like the one-off Java in recent days would not occur.
But Tony Abbott is responsible to his party, to its policies, and to the people who vote for them; the Liberal Party has been resolutely opposed to the Malaysia Solution ever since its half-baked details were first devised.
And besides, it is a bad policy. As Opposition leader, Abbott has a responsibility to the country to oppose it.
The fact is that Labor has worn many different coats on this issue; every one of them has cloaked disastrous policy.
And the government steadfastly refuses to countenance the one policy that worked: the Pacific Solution, which the Liberal Party is committed to reintroduce.
Labor has learnt the hard way that far from simply being a nasty bastard, John Howard led a government that actually fixed this issue.
Rather than admitting its mistake, it would prefer to pursue any available course of action other than to reinstate the policy it so foolishly overturned.
So which way forward?
The ALP now says it wants to negotiate a solution and has been pestering Tony Abbott to agree to a series of meetings to this end, even going so far as to leak confidential correspondence in which it virtually begged the opposition leader to come to the table.
It is true Abbott has refused to do so, although he has left the door slightly ajar, saying that if the government wishes to negotiate it must first put a new policy proposal on the table.
I’d have thought that was fair enough; but the government has refused.
The entire tenor of the rhetoric coming from government circles is that Tony Abbott should agree to pass their cack-brained Malaysia Solution into law and — if he doesn’t — they, the Labor government, stand blameless for any future catastrophe along the lines of what occurred so recently in Java.
This argument is akin to a thug beating an old woman in the street, telling her that if she doesn’t hand her handbag and money over, the thug is thenceforth absolved from any further injury he might cause.
Today, of course, Labor tried a new tack, suggesting they would be open to a compromise “solution” of their Malaysia Solution operating in tandem with a reopened detention centre on Nauru.
This reeks so badly of desperation I just wonder if whoever dreamt the idea up was so panicked as to be incapable of seeing the sheer absurdity and unworkability — to say nothing of the contradiction inherent — in such a scheme.
Can I just say that no matter how this issue plays out, the ALP has only itself to blame for the utter mess this issue has become.
And on a more basic point: Gillard wanted to stay in office so, so desperately without the numbers after last year’s election; if she can’t govern, and if the Parliament is unworkable, there is an option open to her…
…but silly me, she’d never do something as drastic as calling an election.
Whilst the Left like to rattle on about the heartless Howard government, about how mean-spirited and cruel it was, and how its policies were some sort of humanitarian disgrace, it conveniently overlooks the fact that Howard presided over an immigration program that saw net immigration to Australia, in real terms, at its highest level ever.
And what it also ignores is the fact that to varying degrees, in the past ten years the Australian Left has advocated an open border policy when it comes to this issue, be it overtly as the Greens do, stating our borders should be open to anyone who wants to come here; or on the sly, which is what Labor has done, abolishing all of the protections in Howard’s regime, and rendering the enforcement provisions it retained toothless.
The Labor Party holds office in order to govern.
In this area, as in so many others, it is out of lockstep with the overwhelming weight of public opinion.
Further, the agreements negotiated by Julia Gillard in the aftermath of last year’s election were specifically designed to ensure the Coalition was incapable of controlling either of the Houses of Parliament.
In other words, to ensure the government controlled both.
You can’t have it both ways.
If this issue can’t be resolved, it is the fault of the government and its allies in the Greens and the Independents, who not only have the numbers but have written agreements that stipulate as such.
No no no, this is one mess that the ALP can’t squirm out of; and nor should it be allowed to do so.
Make no mistake, even if Abbott does cut some sort of deal, it will be to save lives, not to get the government off the hook.
And especially given that in this area of policy, the Australian Labor Party — once again — has shown its complete unsuitability for office, and that it is totally unfit to govern.