Asylum seeker policy betrays Labor's true believers
SMH, December 15, 2011 - 6:48AM
You may have missed it, but the Labor Party made history last week by passing a policy to support, for the first time, the offshore processing of asylum seekers.
But for card-carrying Labor supporters in particular, and fair-minded Australians in general, it was a bitter pill to swallow.
The sweetener - such as it is - was an increase in annual visas for humanitarian refugees to 20,000 a year, on condition of a reduction in the number of boat arrivals.
This increase should be unconditional and not entwined in a quid pro quo formula that turns persecuted and vulnerable human beings into cold statistics as the government bids to make offshore processing Australia's new reality.
Ultimately, offshore processing of asylum seekers – during which some victims may have to wait as long as nine years in detention – will not stop the boats. We now have the harshest and cruellest policy in Australia's history, with more than a third of detainees having been incarcerated for more than a year and many committing acts of self-harm.
Labor's new policy is thus nothing but a political capitulation to the politics of fear and smear waged by Tony Abbott and his opposition.
In his speech to the national conference in Sydney, Immigration Minister Chris Bowen said Labor's new refugee policy was ''compassionate'' and ''pro-refugee'', a balance between a ''soft heart and a hard head''.
He is either delusional or in denial. For how else to read this statement after his performance at the conference. Asked to justify the jailing of Indonesian villagers coerced into crewing boats bound for Australia – some of whom are teenagers and don't even know they are engaging in people smuggling – he simply deferred the issue to the Attorney-General. This was either politics at its cynical best or the best cop out in the book.
Further pressed as to whether it is justifiable to sentence an asylum seeker to life in detention when they have committed no crime, he responded that the High Court had ruled that indefinite detention of asylum seekers is legal. A sidestep to be sure, but hardly outright opposition to such draconian measures.
Worse, arguably, was his cold-hearted retort about the government's right to repatriate failed asylum seekers even when there is a risk of death as the Taliban have made brutally explicit in Afghanistan.
Bowen and the government's spin-masters have tried to sell the public the fiction that its policy, while maintaining a balance between humanitarianism and border security, is a deterrent for people smugglers.
But in reality it smacks of political expediency because the government knows that the Malaysian solution is stillborn – rejected by the judiciary and deadlocked in the legislature.
It may be true to argue that, by dint of a High Court ruling and a hung parliament, Labor is processing refugees on Australian soil and in a more humane manner.
But this is neither morally sustainable nor politically defensible. It's nothing but a false sense of security. For the first time in its history Labor's official policy is now to promote offshore processing as the solution.
And to add insult to injury, the rank-and-file party members were denied the right to a conscience vote on this issue even though they were granted it for the hot-button issue of gay marriage.
Indeed, it seemed Bowen was acutely aware it would be a close-fought battle because two prominent members of the Right faction, including refugee advocate Shane Prince, were denied permission to speak at National Conference.
Nevertheless, Labor For Refugees, with the backing of the Left faction, did manage to secure policy reforms that may improve the lives of asylum seekers processed in Australia. Labor has abandoned the policy of treating those who arrive by boat more harshly than those who arrive by air.
Mercifully, Labor has also committed to releasing children and, where possible, their families from detention centres. And for asylum seekers detained while their health, identity and security issues are checked, Labor will strive to ensure that detention is for a maximum of 90 days.
But striving is not good enough. They should be released within 90 days unless there is evidence of a security risk endorsed by a judge.
Nevertheless, these specific reforms pale into insignificance compared with the government's overarching new policy. Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott are now jostling in their race to the bottom on this critical issue. Former prime minister John Howard must be bemused at how the politics of panic he manipulated so expertly are edging Labor closer and closer to Howard-era policies.
As David Marr writes in his new book, Panic: ''Hearts are hardened. Terrible things are done in the name of protecting the nation. It is not the first wave of boats and won't be the last, but the politics are more rancorous than ever.''
Ordinary Australians should be ashamed that our government supports abdicating our responsibility to a third party. Australians need to deal humanely with refugees on Australian soil without compromising border protection.
By backing offshore processing, Labor has crossed the idiomatic Rubicon. It's a subtle but significant shift – one that alters the party's DNA. In short, Labor has abandoned defending human rights in favour of trading the human rights of asylum seekers with other countries.
Not in my name.
Robin Rothfield is secretary of Labor for Refugees (Victoria).