Pursuant to my article yesterday, asylum seekers and illegal boat arrivals continue to dominate political discourse; finally — with one ill-advised, incendiary and rancorous remark — the Labor Party’s moral posture on these fraught issues has been obliterated.
I can’t call it a debate; the Coalition position has been consistent ever since the arrival of the MV Tampa in 2001 signalled a determination on the part of the Howard government to deal with illegal asylum seekers, unauthorised boat arrivals, and people smuggling generally once and for all.
And it did: the boats — and their pitiable cargo of trafficked human beings — stopped coming, and the scum who trafficked them were stopped in their tracks.
Bleeding hearts, chardonnay swillers and the C
ommunist Party Greens were outraged. How dare people be locked away in mandatory detention, or issued Temporary Protection Visas? How dare Australia send people to places like Manus Island or Nauru?
The fact is that the Pacific Solution worked; it stopped the boats, genuine refugees who came by boat were granted — once their claims were processed — asylum in Australia, and deaths at sea virtually ceased.
ALP Parliamentary Secretary Mark Dreyfus scraped a new low in political standards today, accusing opposition leader Tony Abbott of “(seeing) political advantage in people dying” after Abbott refused to entertain any further talks with the Gillard government aimed at a compromise to find a bipartisan solution to the asylum seeker problem.
And why wouldn’t Abbott refuse?
As I wrote in this column yesterday, Abbott and his Immigration spokesman Scott Morrison have been shrewd to avoid being sucked into a trap: the overtures of “bipartisanship” from Labor are simply an endeavour to spread the political pain from this issue, and thus neutralise it; there is no reason whatsoever for Abbott and the Liberal Party to agree to anything of the kind.
Let those who criticise Abbott reflect that in a little over a year from now, he is likely to win the Prime Ministership in a crushing electoral victory; to do anything other than he is doing now would be to trash — in advance — whatever credibility as Prime Minister he may have on immigration policy.
The sticking point seems to be the adherence — I would call it slavish, without irony — by the government to its so-called “Malaysia Solution;” let’s have a quick review of that half-baked plan.
It calls on Malaysia to take 800 of our asylum seekers in return for 4,000 of their “processed refugees;” Australia would abrogate all controls, screening and standards over the people it would consequently be obliged to admit to this country.
It obliges Australia to pay Malaysia some $300 million for the privilege of a 5 to 1 swap that serves the interests of Malaysia far better than it does of Australia.
It is unimaginably short-sighted — there’s neither mention nor debate about what happens after boat arrivals 801 onwards are supposed to do.
It formalises the outcome for those asylum seekers who get to Malaysia — legitimate refugees, queue jumpers and less desirable types alike — to bypass several other countries in which they could resettle, and get to Australia instead.
And it has been ruled unconstitutional by the High Court.
Shall I go on?
The “Malaysia Solution” represents a deal struck by the government with Malaysia — which knew the Gillard government to be, proverbially, over a barrel — in the wake of the equally ill-conceived “East Timor Solution” which the East Timorese had never heard of when it was announced.
The “Malaysia Solution” offers no disincentive either to people smugglers nor their customers; if an asylum seeker happens to be at least the 801st arrival, there’s an excellent chance they’ll never set foot on Malaysian soil anyway — and so the whole thing starts again (although I’d wager the ALP is betting it may be back in opposition by then, should such a scenario ever arise).
And whatever else the Labor Party says it proposes, or will concede to the Liberals, it is a stated non-negotiable that the government will not agree to anything that does not include the “Malaysia Solution” at its core.
In light of all of this, it’s no wonder at all that Abbott and the Liberals refuse to negotiate with the government; indeed, they should be commended for that exact refusal. As Abbott said on Fairfax radio this morning, there is no point in negotiating just for the sake of negotiating.
But the comments by Dreyfus, implying that Abbott sought to gain politically from drownings at sea, are so insidious as to barely warrant comment.
Yet I do so on account of the fact that Dreyfus has betrayed the true spirit of Labor’s approach to this issue: carry on like a petulant child, and then — when things don’t go to plan — get really, really nasty.
On one level, though, Dreyfus is right: these matters directly concern and affect people’s lives in an actual sense; not to resolve these issues is to virtually guarantee more asylum seekers will die en route to Australia.
Which is why the Liberal Party position is the principled stand, and the Labor position flawed on just about every level imaginable.
Despite my political differences with them — and those differences, obviously, are considerable — I refuse to believe that the vast majority of Labor’s federal MPs are anything other than decent well-meaning people, even if they are wrong.
Even if a small few show themselves up from time to time to be Neanderthals and grubs, as Dreyfus did this morning.
And I would point again to the Greens, Labor’s supposed coalition partners, and simply ask why the government can’t deal with them? Why does it have to be the Liberals who must capitulate to the ALP and its useless policy, when they have their very own coalition partner at hand?
The answer lies in the fact that really, at the end of the day, the agenda of the parties of the Left is as much about denial of the Howard government and its legacy as it is about anything rational, practicably useful, or remotely constructive.
And as much as Gillard likes to rattle and drone on about “getting something done” (there’s another of those descendant slogans of “moving forward” again), if she simply got on and did something — with the support of her party’s ally, the Greens — there wouldn’t even be a continuing debate.
But there would certainly be a policy failure, and one that couldn’t be wiped on the Liberal Party as collateral, and it is this which motivates the political conduct of the Labor Party on this issue as it seeks to avoid yet another strike against its record in government.
And so, on the one hand, we have a policy that worked effectively as intended for seven years until it was abolished; the reinstatement of the Pacific Solution carries a guarantee of Coalition support in Parliament to bring this issue to conclusion.
That policy is opposed by Labor and the Greens for no better reason than the fact John Howard presided over it.
On the other hand, we have this half-baked, unworkable, impractical and downright naive “Malaysia Solution” which will do nothing in the longer run to resolve the boat/asylum seeker issue.
And now — courtesy of Dreyfus — the Coalition may be even less inclined to bail Labor out than ever; for it is one thing to retrospectively vilify a Liberal ex-Prime Minister simply for winning four elections, but it’s another matter altogether to effectively accuse the presumptive Liberal Prime Minister-in-waiting of welcoming the deaths of asylum seekers in the name of political profit.
It’s pretty sordid stuff. Not edifying. Not stylish at all.
Suddenly — as it has on account of so many other issues the Gillard government has mishandled — Labor’s job to fix this mess got that much tougher today.