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Published: The National Times

Get used to it refugees, climate change and economic uncertainty are here to stay. There are too many variables at play for it to be otherwise. None are issues that should be spun for domestic political gain. Turnbull’s proposal to reintroduce TPV’s for those seeking protection, has taken the heat off Rudd and put it back on himself. Not the most adroit politician, Turnbull is struggling to find credibility and it will not be found by putting the boot into the dispossessed.

Australia holds its breath while two little girls from Bangladesh are separated at the head and at the very same moment in time both political parties are prepared to see refugee women and children incarcerated in the hell holes of Indonesian holding pens. Where is this country at?

The issue of refugee boat arrivals should be handled on page 6 of the newspapers. Arrivals by plane do not rate a mention. Yet Rudd was unable to put Howard’s policies to bed and his inaction or perhaps belief in the value of those policies has come to haunt him.

On all major issues there is little to separate the government and opposition, whether that be the need for fundamental water reform, sustainable and logical climate change decisions, a no nonsense refugee policy which adheres to Australian and International law and an early end to the our military involvement in Afghanistan.

The Australian public are more mature and down to earth than their elected representatives, who are driven by polls which never ask the right questions. Why should we be asked to rate the better of two equally bad leaders or policies? Australian politicians are on a trampoline, plenty of eye catching movement, but not going anywhere.

The Prime Minister, with a modicum of leadership, might have explained the difference between a migrant and a refugee as enshrined in Australian law. He has been irresponsible to bracket people smugglers as the scum of the earth. They respond, for payment, to the needs of the desperate. The regional people smuggling syndicates he refers to, invariably have close links to the police and armed forces.

Rudd should have been aware, as a former diplomat, that his selfish Indonesia solution would use scarce credit. It has done so and Indonesia is now fed up with Australia and unlikely to do anymore favours for some time to come.

Rudd has little credibility in India, which is a shame as it was an open book for him when he came to power, but he overplayed his China card with respect to picking favourites for uranium sales and other events have conspired, in the absence of any credit with India, to keep the relationship struggling. And raising and dashing Chinese expectations has landed him with the embarrassment of Stern Hu.

Australia received displaced persons from Europe at the end of the Second World War, as well as some refugees. The first major test for Australia was refugees arriving by boat from Vietnam and Cambodia. Australia has been accepting Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka for the past 20 years. It made a bad judgement in backing one side in the civil war and was therefore unwilling to make the necessary humanitarian response when Tamil resistance was crushed.

Throughout the region Australian has created a problem by dealing uncritically with corrupt regimes with the notable and laudable exception of Fiji. Despite democratic trappings the government of Sri Lanka is no better than the government of Fiji.

Suppression of legitimate aspirations and grievances, by less than well intentioned governments, will lead to asylum seekers. Failure to address the loss of productive and habitable land as a result of climate change will force the movement of people, as will the inequitable distribution of wealth.

Australia cannot address these issues through the maintenance of fortress Australia, unless it does not care for the human consequences of vessels sunk and the warehousing of people.

Australia needs to take a lead within the region and establish a forum where issues of the current and future needs of people can be openly discussed. The region needs a Canberra Plan similar in form and intention to the old Colombo Plan, where issues of agriculture, fisheries, conservation of rain forests, nurturing the increasingly scarce resource of potable water can be addressed as well as canvassing support for economic and political reform.

The CSIRO needs to provide a major input to such a forum.

Australia should return to a program of providing scholarships to the bright and needy, rather than rely on privately run schemes.

The appointment of veteran diplomat John McCarthy as Special Representative to Sri Lanka was a good move. McCarthy has extensive regional experience and might be considered suitable to establish and run a regional program of confidence building and mutual assistance.