Tony Abbott – one-liners won’t work. John Menadue

Sorry if I keep repeating myself, but Tony Abbott keeps repeating his one-liners about stopping the boats. He provides little explanation about how or why his policies will work today.

He tells us that John Howard’s policy stopped the boats and he will do the same. But John Howard’s approach was over a decade ago.  Since then the situation has dramatically changed.

Certainly under John Howard the boats did largely stop, although asylum seekers continued to arrive by air at the rate of about 4,000 persons per annum. Furthermore if we look at the broader picture of asylum seekers around the world at that time we see that the number of asylum seekers fell between 2001 and 2004 as a result of a more peaceful Afghanistan and Iraq. Boat arrivals started arriving again from 2004, mainly because of the state of emergency declared in Sri Lanka and then the withdrawal of the Sri Lankan government from the cease-fire with the Tamil Tigers.

But let us accept that the boats did stop for whatever reason.

Tony Abbott’s one-liners have three elements.

The first is to repeat the Pacific Solution and reopen Nauru and Manus. They were key parts of the Howard plan. Tony Abbott kept saying for a long time that the first thing he would do as PM would be to get on the phone to the President of Nauru and reopen the Nauru detention centre. There are many pitfalls in this one-liner about Nauru.

  • The secretary of the Department of Immigration and Citizenship told the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee of the Senate in October 2010 that the meagre success of Nauru would not work in the future. He said ‘dramatic high profile efforts (Tampa) together with the processing that occurred on Nauru were very much unknown to people (at the time). The people who were subject to it and the people-smugglers who were organising it were not able to predict what would occur. A point that I have often made is that what was unknown prior to the events of 2001 because known in hindsight. It became a certainty (that they would finish up in Australia or New Zealand). The key point is that it (Nauru) could not be replicated.’ He went on to say ‘our view (in DIAC) is not simply that the Nauru option would not work (again) but that the combination of circumstances that existed at the end of 2001 could not be repeated with success. That is the view that we held for some time and it is of course not just a view of my department, it is the collective view of agencies in providing advice in this area.’ What underlay the DIAC view was that 97% of persons on Nauru who were found to be refugees finished up in Australia and New Zealand.
  • Following the Expert Panel report, then-Immigration Minister Bowen and the Government foolishly endorsed its implementation in full, which included the re-opening of Nauru and Manus. What DIAC had advised years before came true. The number of boat arrivals coming to Australian since the reopening of Nauru and Manus has increased dramatically from 1,622 in the December quarter 2012 to 7,464 in the March quarter 2013.
  •  As warned, Nauru has not worked to stop the boats a second time around.

The second one-liner of Tony Abbott is to reintroduce Temporary Protection Visas as the Howard Government had done. Unfortunately for Tony Abbott this policy didn’t work at all for John Howard. More people got on boats after TPVs were introduced with over 6,000 coming in 2001. Further, TPVs which denied family reunion resulted in more women and children taking to the boats. That is why when SIEVX was lost at sea in 2001, 82% of the 353 passengers who were drowned at sea were women and children.

Tony Abbott’s third one-liner is to turn boats back to Indonesia if it is safe to do so. President Yudhoyono warned last week about such unilateral acts. In November 2011 the serving head of the RAN Admiral Ray Griggs told the Senate that turning boats around at sea was highly risky and the Navy personnel were bound by the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea. In 1979 when a similar policy was proposed, Malcolm Fraser rejected it because it would make Australia a ‘pariah’ in our region. Threatened with turn-backs desperate people are likely to scuttle their boats. It is also dangerous for RAN personnel.

The three one-liners which constitute Tony Abbott’s policy on boats – re-open Nauru, introduce TPVs and turn-backs at sea – will not work. Times have changed. He has not thought them through He relies on empty one liners.

My criticism of the Coalition’s unscrupulous policies and rhetoric does not imply acceptance of the government’s asylum and refugee policies. It is very plain that successive ministers have failed. They have not energetically pursued the only policy that will work – a robust regional policy.

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