Labor’s plan to shut out asylum seekers completely and finally fulfils the project started by John Howard and the Immigration department in 2001—to create a Fortress Australia that denies asylum to anyone arriving by boat.
That a Labor government would be so callous and so totally politically bankrupt has galvanised pro-refugee sentiment and brought thousands of people to demonstrations in cities across Australia.
The circumstances of Rudd’s announcement are uncannily similar to Howard’s Pacific Solution announcement just before the election in 2001. Howard used the SAS to prevent asylum seekers on the Tampa being sent to Christmas Island. The navy was then used to send them all to Nauru, with Howard declaring that no refugee from Nauru would ever set foot in Australia.
Rudd has extracted an agreement from Papua New Guinea’s (PNG’s) government that anyone found to be a refugee will be imprisoned on Manus Island, and then resettled in PNG. Rudd is desperately hoping this brutal Refugee Resettlement Arrangement (RRA), an attempt to outflank Abbott on the right, will get him over the line at the election.
Whether Rudd (or Abbott, if he wins the election) can actually implement the “PNG Solution”, however, is another matter. The RRA is not a legal document, and it only says that anyone arriving after July 19 is “liable” to be sent. It is the same wording used in the Pacific Solution, under which only a small number of arrivals were sent.
Even though Rudd insists that there is no cap on the numbers that can be sent, PNG’s Prime Minister Peter O’Neill has made it clear that PNG does have limits on how many people it can or will take.
Immediately, there is no room on Manus to send many asylum seekers. The government has been shifting people off the island, but that still means there is only room for 300 to 400 people. And since the riots on Nauru destroyed the centre, there is no capacity there either!
It is likely that asylum seekers now arriving by boat will be held in Australian detention centres. If boats keep arriving, the government could be overwhelmed just as it was when it announced the Pacific Solution 2.0 in August last year.
The government has been trying to build a permanent facility on Manus for almost a year, but nothing has started because of arguments between vested interests about who is going to profit out of it. The Manus Member of Parliament says it will take two years to build a permanent detention centre, and he wants it on another island, not Manus.
All this is good news for the campaign. The RRA is vulnerable to political pressure, here and in PNG. It is only valid for a year. The proposed mega-detention centre for 3000 won’t be built in the next year. Tony Abbott is not even willing to commit the Opposition to Rudd’s PNG solution.
Shamefully, both the left and right of Labor are using the cover of deaths at sea to justify their support for this policy. This is an appalling attempt to cover the scale of the human rights abuses they are inflicting. If they really cared about saving lives they could process more asylum seekers in Indonesia and resettle them directly in Australia. They could use the planes that are flying people to detention on Manus Island to bring these asylum seekers to safety in Australia.
Welcome the boats
At his press conference alongside PNG Prime Minister O’Neil Rudd declared that, “the Australian people will never accept boat arrivals”. But this is simply not true.
In 2007, when Rudd was elected, a majority of Australians were in favour of refugees. But rather than stand up for refugee rights, first Rudd and then Gillard, have spent the last four years introducing anti-refugee policies—first opening Christmas Island, then Curtin, accompanied by endless tirades about people smugglers and restarting the Pacific Solution—feeding anti-refugee sentiments. Labor has handed the political initiative to the Liberals and is now desperate to out-flank them from the right.
In 2001, John Howard announced that all boat arrivals would be sent to Nauru and none would ever set foot in Australia. But Australia did end up resettling most of the refugees from Nauru. This can be won again.
Following Howard’s announcement, concerted campaigning and protests by the refugees and the movement in Australia shifted Labor policy, and began creating divisions in the Liberal Party. Opinion polls slowly but surely began to shift in favour of refugees. By 2004, the Liberal Party had released all women and children from detention and by 2006 had released all long-term asylum seekers. Labor won office in 2007.
Obviously, the election outcome won’t stop the PNG solution. And there are tens of thousands of asylum seekers in Australian detention centres and on bridging visas who are not being processed and do not have the right to work. Both the Coalition and Labor are committed to offshore processing. A concerted campaign going beyond the election can make sure that Rudd’s PNG “solution” is beaten and stop the downward spiral on refugees.
By Ian Rintoul