If only the Greens and many refugee advocates would also admit that they got it wrong. They allowed the perfect to become the enemy of the good.
My strong conviction for several years is that the Malaysian Arrangement – it was not a Malaysian Solution – would have been an important building block in regional cooperation to manage the movement of displaced people. It would also have avoided the tragedy that is unfolding in Manus and Nauru. That tragedy will be on Australia’s conscience for ever.
In his speech to the Samuel Griffith Society in Adelaide on 12 August 2016, Tony Abbott said
‘I wonder though about the former government’s people swap with Malaysia. … I doubt it would have worked. Still, letting it stand would have been an acknowledgement of the government-of-the-day’s mandate to do the best it could, by its own lights, to meet our nation’s challenges. It would have been a step back from the hyper-partisanship that now poisons our public life.’
At the time of the proposed Malaysian Arrangement, Tony Abbott did his best to deliberately poison our public life by demonising asylum seekers and attacking the Malaysian Government. There was a battering of Malaysia for weeks. Tony Abbott, the Greens and refugee advocates attacked Malaysia’s human rights record and ‘canings’. Point-scoring was easy, but it did not help those most in need.
As Prime Minister, Tony Abbott later apologised to the Malaysian government for his intemperate behaviour. But the damage had been done to our relations with Malaysia as well as dashing the prospects of a workable regional refugee policy.
As Peter Hughes and I pointed out in a joint blog in September 2015 (‘Slogans versus facts on boat arrivals’ Part 1 and Part 2) the opposition by the Coalition, the Greens and some Independents resulted in the Malaysian Arrangement being rejected.
We should recall a few facts from that time.
On 31 August 2011, the High Court found against that the Minister for Immigration and Citizenship’s power to transfer people to Malaysia under the arrangement. In response, on 21 September 2011, the Gillard government introduced legislation which was designed to modify those parts of the Migration Act which caused the problem in the High Court. There was strong opposition to the Bill in the House of Representatives by the Coalition, led by Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison, who were bitterly critical of Malaysia. Bandt (Greens), Katter and Wilkie also opposed the Bill. As the Bill was doomed, the government decided not to proceed with the legislation.
The motives of the opponents varied. The Coalition did not want to stop the boats. It wanted to stop Labor stopping the boats. The Greens and some Independents opposed the legislation because they were opposed to regional processing. They allowed their ideological purity to stand in the way of a workable alternative. As Gough Whitlam put it in a different context ‘Only the impotent are pure’.
As we also pointed out in those blogs referred to, there followed, with the failure of the legislation in the parliament in September 2011, a significant increase in boat arrivals. At the time the number of boat arrivals was running at four to five arriving per month with 200 to 300 people.. But with the failure of the Malaysian Arrangement, people smugglers geared up for the new opportunities presented.
From November 2011, monthly asylum-seeker arrivals began to trend up again. In the month of May 2012, they reached 1,286 and allowing for seasonal variations, kept rising inexorably to a monthly peak of 4,230 on 48 boats in July 2013.
There can be no doubt that implementation of the Malaysian Arrangement would have stemmed the flow of maritime arrivals. It would simply have removed all incentive to make the last trip of the journey. Tony Abbott, together with the Greens and some refugee advocates, must bear responsibility for the more than 32,000 people who arrived irregularly by sea between September 2011, when the Malaysian Arrangement was frustrated, and mid 2013, when harsher measures were reluctantly taken by the Labor government.
In my blog of 25 July 2016, ‘What our next Prime Minister should do on asylum seekers’, I set out what I believe the new Prime Minister should do in respect of the 2,000 people that we are holding and punishing in Nauru and Manus. We should bring them to Australia for processing and final settlement if desired. It would not risk more boat arrivals. Circumstances have changed.
In the longer term, we need a regional framework to manage refugee flows in a humane and efficient manner and in cooperation with the UNHCR. Together with colleagues at the Centre for Policy Development, we have conducted two meetings – in Melbourne and Bangkok – of a ‘Second Track Dialogue’ to try to build a regional refugee framework based on cooperation and burden sharing.
An earlier regional arrangement was critical in managing the Indochina outflow several decades ago. That successful program would not have been possible without offshore processing in the region and cooperation with regional countries.
My experience with that Indochina program was part of the reason why I always felt that the rejection of the Malaysian Arrangement was a tragic mistake. Unfortunately those bearing the price of that mistake are the 2,000 wounded souls in Manus and Nauru.
The Malaysian Arrangement was not a ‘solution’. The initial figure agreed between Australia and Malaysia was 800 people. That did not preclude the number being raised in future by mutual agreement. But it would have been an important step forward in building regional cooperation. It was not perfect and dealing with desperate people will always be messy.
At least Tony Abbott now admits that he should have supported the Malaysian Arrangement. Will the Greens and many refugee advocates acknowledge that their total opposition to the Malaysian Arrangement and offshore processing has caused harm to people we have pledged to help.
Surely the issue is not where processing occurs. The important issue is whether that processing is fair, humane and efficient. Importantly, it must be done in cooperation with the UNHCR.
The Houston Panel saw Manus and Nauru as a short-term circuit breaker. The panel did not envisage Manus and Nauru being permanent warehouses of horror. It saw its proposals as short-term and as part of a jigsaw for a regional solution with regional processing.