Friday, May 28, 2010

Abbott rescues Pacific solution

May 28, 2010, Editorial

TONY ABBOTT sees himself as John Howard's political heir; in announcing that he will bring back Howard's ''Pacific solution'' as Australia's policy on asylum seekers, he has emphasised the connection. Yet it says a good deal about Tony Abbott's view of his own party in the post-Howard era that he chose to announce the policy without submitting it to a full party-room discussion first. It is hard not to conclude he wanted to sidestep the internal opposition he knew he would face. Far better to ambush his own MPs and then hope for the best, as he had done earlier with parental leave. Liberal MPs will be wondering why they went through the trouble and pain of ditching Malcolm Turnbull for his lack of consultation.

Abbott announced four parts to his policy - temporary protection visas, offshore processing (which he called ''rigorous'' several times), good relations with source and transit countries - and a fourth element, which can be paraphrased as: send 'em back. Turning boats around is not new: "It was done quietly in co-operation with other countries through the extraordinary professionalism of our armed forces,'' he said. ''Now, I don't see why it can't be done again.'' What is new, however, is the explicit promise to repeat it.

Abbott analyses the problem in simple terms - as a problem of markets. People smugglers under the Rudd government's more humane policy have ''a product to sell''. He is going to deprive them of their merchandise.

We believe action against people smugglers is certainly called for - but not at the expense of refugees, whom the policy ignores.

With its emphasis on rigour and toughness and its simplicity, Abbott's policy is pure populism. It may curry favour with some sections of the community; what it will not do is reduce the number of illegal immigrants and visa overstayers in the country. It is well-known that far more illegal immigrants enter Australia by air. According to the Immigration Department, there were 48,700 illegal non-citizens in Australia last June. Compare that with the 6000 seaborne arrivals Abbott cited. The four biggest source countries - China, the United States, Malaysia and Britain - contributed more than a third of the total. It is the boats, though, that must be stopped, because although they carry the most desperate individuals fleeing the worst circumstances, they evoke a visceral fear in some Australians. His policy amounts to looking tough by punishing the most vulnerable. They are to be a symbolic sacrifice on the altar of xenophobia.