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CT August 2013

The ‘policies’, recently announced by both major parties, do not make us feel good about ourselves.

We are a nation of volunteers; we give help where help is needed. We give generously to charitable causes including children in Third World countries. We encourage and applaud the underdog and we don’t kick a person when they are down.

This does not apply to asylum seekers arriving by boat. We now have two classes of asylum seekers those who arrive by boat and those who arrive by air. It is a discriminatory policy, it is racist, it is our own version of Apartheid.

Under Apartheid both sides of white politics sat on the same side of the fence. Both agreed with the separation of blacks from whites. The Afrikaners were more hard line than the liberals whose concern was to ease the burden on blacks of Apartheid but not to give the black man equal rights.

Both major parties in Australia sit on the same side of the fence with respect to refugee policy, one side is more extreme and hardline than the other, although they are converging. Both are feeding off the bottom. They are not concerned with people drowning on boats they are concerned with domestic politics.

Our political process has been poisoned by an artificial crisis created by John Howard and milked by him and his successor Tony Abbott for everything it is worth. To try and cut Abbott off at the pass Rudd has had to resort to tactics that dive lower than Abbott. But how low can we go.

So overwhelming has the political imperative of people arriving by boat become that the issue is now poll driven. In the Australian political process polls have replaced God. Do pollsters get it right? Do they ask the right questions? Just how reliable are they? I wouldn’t know I have never been polled.

And even if the polls are correctly reporting trends on attitudes to asylum seekers arriving by boat, why should they be followed when the issue requires courage, compassion and leadership?

None of this matters because polling has replaced policy and leadership. In the lead up to the election the issue of refugees will smother debate on all other important issues, such as water, health, education and infrastructure in the run up to the election. This suits the opposition LNP, because they have little in the way of policy on major issues. And the polls do not indicate how many people are fed up with the major parties, which might find expression at the polls.

Despite what Foreign Minister, Bob Carr, and other Canberra spin merchants say, the majority of people arriving by boat are genuine refugees. They are not ’economic refugees’, ‘illegal’, ‘irregular’ or ‘queue jumpers’. From my own experience in conjunction with genuine asylum seekers, economic hopefuls and hardened criminals arrive by plane. Boat people are, by and large, desperate risk takers and that includes Tamils from Sri Lanka. Refugees create the market not the people smugglers.

The Labor Party PNG and Nauru policies are unworkable. Dumping traumatised refugees onto poverty stricken nations without the social support networks, health and education infrastructure and the prospect of employment is a prescription for renewed human disaster, both for the refugees and the local population, already trying to cope with corruption, restrictive cultural practices and curtailed economic opportunity.

Trying to have us believe that Nauru could be the recipient of refugees is simply bizarre.

Fearing they could be out manoeuvred by this latest Labor policy lurch, the opposition LNP initially appeared to incorporate the PNG solution as part of their evolving refugee policy. However apparently nervous that the PNG proposal has too many pitfalls and determined to undermine Labor ‘policy’ they announced on 30 July a plan to create a tent city on Nauru to house 5,000 asylum seekers deemed to be refugees as a clearing centre prior to them being relocated anywhere but Australia.

None the less these dynamic and well crafted policies could change at short notice if political advantage were seen to have been lost by further creative refugee policy initiatives by either of the so called major parties.

The LNP may have lost their nerve with respect to the PNG solution in the face of strong criticism of the proposal by the Fijian Foreign Minister, Ratu Inoke Kubuabola, on 29 July. He was scathing claiming that Australia was using its economic muscle with poor Melanesian states (Vanuatu and the Solomon’s have also been mentioned as refugee dumping grounds) to solve a domestic problem. He deplored the lack of consultation and said settling refugees in Melanesia would upset delicate cultural balances. He described the Labor Party proposal as “prescriptive, high handed and arrogant.”

Equally the LNP proposal for a senior army officer with the rank of Lieutenant General to help co-ordinate policy and operational responses is not a good idea.

Other than themselves and uniform bedazzled politicians, who credits the military with a superior capacity for organisation? Anyone who has been in the military is well aware of the infinite capacity for the military to stuff up.

It is the doctrine of military exceptionalism peddled most recently by retired Major General Jim Molan. It is a doctrine embraced by John Howard, Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott and the Opposition spokesperson on Immigration, Scott Morrison. None of whom have served in the military.

Why have we got to the point of allowing a right wing former general to attempt to dictate policy with respect to asylum seekers? Jim Molan got it wrong on Afghanistan. This knock it down, smash it up proponent of towing the boats back, shares much in common with Scott Morrison.

There is little support amongst the most senior serving military officers for Molan’s proposal. The head of the Defence Association, Neil James, can be assumed to be conveying the views of these officers, including the Head of the ADF, General Hurley, when he rejected the proposal.

Morrison leads with his mouth. He believes in Deterrence with a big D, whatever the cost in human suffering. He eschews the big P of the Push factor. He listens only to those who share his own cruel views. His smirking and intemperate public advocacy is doing the LNP more harm than good. He is not converting swinging voters and neither is Abbott who is looking and sounding increasingly defensive.

Former Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, is right to call for a Royal Commission into the Department of Immigration. Their maladministration of detention centres and their indifference to their shortcomings and failure of duty of care, is as callous as similar failures in the detention system of South African Apartheid. Fraser referred to the detention centres as gulags and he was right.

Morrison says that the revised LNP asylum seeker policy will put the AFP in charge of disruption operations. They are already conducting these operations. What are these policies, how do they go about them and how closely are they working with people smugglers?

No one believes Australian politicians when they say they are concerned about asylum seekers drowning at sea when they are the architects of policies which send asylum seekers mad.

People fleeing oppression is not a problem that can be solved, it can however be managed. Regional processing of asylum seekers on Indonesia, if such an agreement can be hammered out, is a managed response. It is the only response if politicians in this country are serious about preventing people drowning on hazardous boat journeys.

Bruce Haigh is a retired diplomat, political commentator and former member of the RRT.