That Tony Abbott is actually running an election campaign with a pledge to stop the refugee boats is a clear sign of just how low Abbott and mainstream politics has sunk. But the road to Abbott’s racism was paved by Labor.
After the 2007 election, Labor established permanent protection for refugees but maintained Howard’s policies of mandatory detention, keeping Christmas Island excised from the Migration Act and processing asylum seekers offshore.
Instead of standing up to the hysteria when boats of Tamils and Afghan asylum seekers arrived, Rudd resorted to a coded slogan of “tough on border protection, humane to refugees”. Rudd even tried to establish an Indonesian Solution, leaning on Indonesia to intercept and detain asylum seekers as a way to stop the boats. Then in April this year, the Rudd government froze the visa applications of Sri Lankans and Afghan asylum seekers, and re-opened Howard’s hellhole detention centre at Curtin.
The East Timor solution—a plan for a regional processing centre for all asylum seekers intercepted on their way to Australia—means Labor has turned its back on any commitment to a humanitarian refugee policy.
The East Timor Solution is Howard’s Pacific Solution with East Timor substituted for Nauru. It may be in tatters already, but it has already served its purpose.
Gillard’s method for neutralising asylum seekers as an election issue is not to counter Abbott’s xenophobia, but to agree with him.
Her “Moving Australia Forward” speech to the Lowy Institute outlining her position on asylum seekers was a disgrace. Her attack on political correctness about refugees opens up the space for Abbott and the racists in the same way Howard did over Pauline Hanson. She resorted to all the stereotypes and myths about asylum seekers that have allowed Abbott to make so much ground—the suggestion that refugees get special treatment (“an inside track to special privileges”) and that they are subverting orderly migration programs.
In one final, disgraceful appeal to the right a few days before she called the election, Gillard told the National Press Club that Abbott’s policy was now close to Labor’s, and there was “a growing consensus between the two sides of politics… there’s more agreement around these things than perhaps might seem at first glance.”
Timor Solution rejected
Until now, Immigration Minister Chris Evans has boasted about abolishing the Pacific Solution. In 2008, he said that, “The Howard government sought to outsource our international protection obligations to less developed countries when we should have been shouldering them ourselves”.
Evans’ claims that there are two differences between the East Timor Solution and the Pacific Solution—that the third country must be a signatory to the Refugee Convention and that the UNHCR must be involved in administering any regional facility—are spin. Papua New Guinea and East Timor have signed the Convention but this cannot hide Labor’s intent to outsource its protection obligations to less developed countries.
The UN has already said it would not be interested in a UNHCR facility if it were about Australia avoiding its obligations. It is in no hurry to re-open a version of the Galang Refugee Camp that was used to process Indochinese refugees from 1979 to 1996 on Galang Island, Indonesia.
Although Gillard arrogantly dismissed the vote, a majority of East Timor’s parliament has rejected the East Timor solution. Despite President Ramos Horta saying East Timor would consider Gillard’s proposal, the leader of Xanana Gusmao’s party opposed it.
The New Zealand Refugee Council has opposed any involvement of the government in the East Timor Solution, while the New Zealand government says that it would not increase its refugee intake. Ten days after Gillard’s speech, Indonesia all-but-completely rejected the idea, with Indonesia’s Foreign Minister saying only that Indonesia would “consider it”. Not surprisingly poverty-stricken Nauru put its hand up, saying it would even sign the Refugee Convention if that would put it in the running to host the mega detention facility.
Gillard’s regional processing centre proposal is about Australia avoiding its obligation to process and resettle asylum seekers arriving in Australia. Both Gillard and Immigration Minister Chris Evans have said that Australia would only take its “fair share” of those from any regional facility found to be refugees. If Gillard was serious about taking Australia taking its “fair share” of refugees, there are 2000 UNHCR refugees in Indonesia, who have no secure future, waiting for the chance to re-settle in Australia.
To stop Abbott, the refugee movement will have to be just as determined to fight Gillard during, and after the election to let the boats land. Offshore processing is not acceptable—on East Timor, Manus Island, Nauru, Christmas Island or anywhere else.
By Ian Rintoul