Least-worst option and minimising PNG. John Menadue

Jul 29, 2013

In my blog of July 20, I referred to the Regional Settlement Agreement with PNG. With some reservations I described it as the least-worst option. Some were surprised at my comments. I wish it were otherwise, but in the toxic and poisonous political debate over refugees since John Howard’s time, we have had to face up to many unpalatable facts.

The coalition has been the principal cause of this toxic situation. It broke with bipartisanship on refugees because it felt it was to its political advantage to focus our fears on the foreigner. I don’t think the coalition has genuinely wanted the boats to stop whilst ever it was in opposition. It was political manna from heaven to have the boat arrivals continue.

The Greens have taken a “holier-than-thou” political position and have sided with Tony Abbott in the Senate on the key issue of the agreement with Malaysia. The Greens and many NGOs have wanted the government to undertake a political ‘mission impossible’.

The government has failed to provide political leadership or rebutted the crude politics of the coalition. So paralysed by boat arrivals it has failed to develop effective ‘upstream’ policies to reduce boat arrivals on our doorstep. These upstream policies offer the best prospect of success. I will refer to them below.

What triggered the RSA with PNG was that the government was told that on present trends, boat arrivals could top 40,000 to 50,000 persons a year. That projected figure of up to 50,000 would invite a tough response from any Australian government. Rightly or wrongly, the Australian community would just not cop it. That is a fact of political life. From time to time I wonder what planet some refugee advocates live on.

I understand that all wings of the Cabinet and the ALP caucus – left, right and centre – agreed that boat arrivals at these projected levels could not continue. That doesn’t imply that the position taken on PNG is necessarily “correct”. But it does say a lot about the political situation when all factions agree.

I have always been of the view that firm compliance/border protection is essential if we are to have public support for a substantial and growing humanitarian/refugee program. For example if we had today the same scale of intake that we had during the Indochina outflow, adjusted for our population increase, the program today would be about 35,000 p.a. rather than the present program of only 20,000. I was involved with Malcolm Fraser and Ian Macphee in what is now regarded as the most successful refugee settlement program in our history. My view is that it could not have been sustained if we had then had boat arrivals at the present or projected levels we now have. In the years when the Indochina program was at its peak, there were an average of ten boats a year and an average of 340 boat people a year. The high point was in 1977-78 when there were 43 boats and 1423 boat people. Today it is infinitely greater than that. Even with the small number of boat arrivals during the Fraser period we were very anxious to minimise publicity about the threat of boat arrivals. Furthermore Malcolm Fraser had Gough Whitlam and Bill Hayden broadly in support. It is very different today with Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison.

But before I discuss ways to minimise the PNG arrangement, let me say something further about the PNG arrangement.

  • When Kevin Rudd announced the arrangement he said ‘many other steps lie ahead’. He was dead right, particularly now in light of the UNHCR response. The PNG arrangement must be improved and detailed in many respects. It must be regarded as work in progress. There will be no quick fix.
  • I said in my earlier blog that there were two key issues concerning the arrangement with PNG – they were effective protection and implementation. They remain the key issues to be addressed today and in the days ahead.
  • The PNG government obviously sees a financial and economic benefit in the arrangement
  • The bashing we had of Malaysia earlier over its human rights record and judicial canings is now being repeated in the bashing of PNG for its shortcomings.
  • Our sense of superiority in these matters is not very convincing when we consider the mote that is in our own eye; mandatory detention in Australia with suicides, self-harm, mental trauma, riots and burnings.

How best to minimise PNG

Together with others, I have been urging for over a decade two particular actions ‘upstream’ to reduce boat arrivals. Malcolm Fraser referred to these in his guest blog of July 15.

The first is that we must share the burden of asylum seekers with regional countries. In cooperation with UNHCR we need to work urgently with Indonesia and Malaysia to establish regional processing centres in those countries. This would need to be on the understanding that those countries will safely hold asylum seekers for processing and that resettlement countries such as Australia, Canada and New Zealand, will largely finance these processing centres and promptly agree to resettle those found to be refugees. These were the key features in the management of the Indochina refugee program.

We have been far too slow in focusing on doing this through the Bali Process. Unfortunately regional countries often regard us as fair-weather friends, running to them when we have a problem and not working to share the burdens in a long-term relationship. We have spent a lot of our political capital in Indonesia on drug smugglers. This regional processing is urgent. Hopefully the meeting that PM Rudd and President Yudhoyono have agreed on can give regional processing a major boost.

The second key to ‘upstream’ processing is to negotiate Orderly Departure Agreements with key source countries – Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan. We did it with Vietnam in 1983 and brought 100,000 Vietnamese to Australia in safety over many years. ODAs provide a means for persons facing discrimination or worse within their own country to find an orderly way to come to Australia particularly if family members are in Australia. As the civil war in Iraq worsens and the end of Western occupation of Afghanistan draws near, we are likely to see many more people in those two countries facing a grim prospect. We have contributed to the breaking of society in both Iraq and Afghanistan with our own counter-productive military occupation. We will be obliged to help mend what we have helped break.

The government has been paralysed like a rabbit in a search-light over boat arrivals when it should have been energetically pursuing through diplomatic means upstream processing to minimise pressure on our borders. It is essential now to minimise what we face with the arrangement with PNG.

The RSA with PNG has been described as a ‘solution’. But it is not a solution. The best we can hope for is to manage the situation better in the future. Dealing with human beings facing a desperate situation will always be messy. They will not necessarily play by the rules that we determine.

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