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Published in The Canberra Times and Online Opinion 5 July 2012

The solution to the processing of asylum seekers attempting to come to Australia by boat is to process them on Indonesia. The legal requirement under international and Australian law is to process them on shore, but neither of the major parties seem to have the, wit nor wisdom to do that.

Asylum seekers arriving by plane are processed according to domestic and international law.

Processing on Indonesian soil would eliminate people smugglers putting people on boats. Asylum seekers could be processed in an orderly fashion by Australian Immigration and UNHCR officials and whilst waiting to come to Australia they might be provided with language and other training and children could begin schooling. They could be provided with basic but adequate housing and health care.

AFP resources directed at disruption operations could be put into financing the above as well as the money now spent on Christmas Island and detention facilities in Australia.

The policy of deterrence now being employed is drowning people. The above measures may lead to an increase in numbers but surely that is preferable to drowning. In any case the numbers are small – only a quarter of the asylum seekers that arrive by plane.

Try as you might you can’t make a politician feel compassion or empathy with the plight and distress of others, particularly, if by doing so, they fear losing their seat. Compassion is defined as the deep awareness of the suffering of another, coupled with the wish to relieve it. You either feel it or you don’t.

We have allowed the media and politicians to reduce asylum seekers to an abstraction. How can we sit comfortably with the pain, suffering and death of men, women and children, underpinning opinion polls and swaying elections ,which in turn rewards indifference rather than compassion?

It must be obvious in Canberra’s hallowed halls that the Australian public want the processing of refugees arriving by boat to be carried out without political point scoring. How many of our elected representatives have visited detention centres, or actually spoken with those who arrive by boat? Is it only those who have suffered that can truly understand suffering?

The Coalition hasn’t lost its pub brawl mentality. It has failed to learn the lessons of a brutal and intolerant past, its recent history marked by the Howard Government’s wrongful detentions, lies about children overboard, discriminatory interventions and the cunning but ill-founded linking of the threat of terrorism and border protection.

WikiLeaks US embassy cables reveal the true agenda that lurks beneath the ‘stop the boats’ rhetoric; “A key Liberal party strategist told us the issue was “fantastic” and “the more boats that come the better” but his research indicated only a “slight trend” towards the Coalition, contrary to a local media poll which showed a big cut to the Labor party’s lead”. And there was a 2009 cable which said in part; “This was an issue that worked for Howard in 2001 (refugees). It drove a wedge between the ALP’s ‘working families’ and its middle-class Left constituencies. However, working against Turnbull is that national security as a major issue has declined in relation to economic concerns, and the ALP has the resources of government to demonstrate it is working to address the problem. Turnbull, a social Liberal, doesn’t appear comfortable pursuing this issue, but is way behind in the polls and needs an issue to try to erode Rudd’s formidable poll numbers.”

In panic the Labor Government has lashed out at the judicial system and now turns to ‘the experts’. Who are these experts? It is obvious that the government and opposition are neither seeking the advice of, nor consulting with, refugee lawyers, refugees, and the raft of other Australians who have experience in this area of human misery.

Cock-about policy such as the so called Malaysia Solution came from a politicised Department of Immigration. Who is the piper? The Malaysia ‘solution’ is no solution for as long the country is governed by a regime that ill-treats democracy and human rights.

And how could it be that our politicians were caught so unaware by the recent tragedies? What about the Australian Federal Police Officers on the ground in Indonesia? Didn’t they know anything about the latest spate of unseaworthy vessels to leave Indonesia? The joint AFP and Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) People Smuggling Strike Team (PSST)”provides a centrally directed, highly mobile investigative capability against organised people-smuggling syndicates operating in Australia and overseas. The team consists of investigators as well as intelligence and financial analysts. The AFP is committed to a multiagency approach to combat people smuggling and acknowledges the effectiveness of this model.” It was established in May 2000 with the strike team receiving funding of $4.3 million a year ($17.4 million in total from 2004), and from 1 July 2009, the AFP received a further $48.4 million directed toward combating “a surge” in people smuggling activity (again, over four years). All that money and not an inkling of these boats setting off?

Or are they part of the problem? Making claims for surveillance that do not exist, so that they do not know when ill-prepared vessels are departing or wilfully watching and helping them to depart, in the hope the hope that there sinking will act as a deterrent to others?

Prime Minister Gillard has appointed Angus Houston to lead an expert panel to find a way forward on asylum policy. Mr Houston undoubtedly is a well known Australian, but a WikiLeaks cable titled ‘Australian Defence Chief’s Concerns Over the McChrystal Report’ raised serious questions about the propriety his management of military information for political purposes.

Appointing serving or former senior military officers, to undertake sensitive humanitarian investigations, smacks of the militarisation of the government process. Until the military can get its own act together it should be kept well clear of assisting such undertakings. The military does not have clean hands when it comes to boat people. The other members of the panel, Paris Aristotle and Michael L’Estrange give confidence that they will support Gillard’s Malaysia Solution. Aristotle has been involved with refugee issues for many years and defends them with a velvet glove. L’Estrange, a former Howard staffer, is now the Executive Director of the National Security College at the ANU.

There are many eminent ‘civilians’, persons of intelligence and character such as Professor Fiona Stanley or Petro Georgiou that could head up an expert panel.

The media coax people into believing that we are experiencing a refugee plague, that our safety and security are being threatened even if we are not being overrun; many of our elected representatives respond with policies of indifference, all the while carefully professing their own personal humanity, and the self-perpetuating frenzy leads us as a nation to ignore the international humanitarian obligations we have agreed to uphold. Why do our political parties permit, let alone encourage, such xenophobic propensities?

It would do all of us well to contemplate human indifference and crass, destructive political point scoring. And we are talking not only about those who use the misfortune and suffering of others for their own ends without ever genuinely trying to alleviate them, but the vastly greater number who stand mute and do nothing while this callous inhumanity is played out in.

The cowardly and callow handling of this issue by the federal parliament defines it and goes a long way to explaining why the average person holds politicians, the parliament, democratic institutions and indeed democracy with such contempt.

Bruce Haigh is a political commentator, former Member of the Refugee Review Tribunal and a retired diplomat.