In my previous post I took a look at the Liberal/National Coalition’s asylum seeker policy. Now, it’s time to focus on the government. The transcript of Prime Minister Gillard’s speech can be found here.
The ALP tried hard to occupy the centre on this one. In the entire speech, less than ten minutes was given over to actual policy detail. The rest could be characterised as fire-fighting – but it’s worth taking a look at what Gillard actually said.
Her first move was to rap the Coalition over the knuckles for what she called ‘hollow slogans’, and to dismiss their ‘turn back the boats’ stance. This approach would only result in people needing to be rescued when their boats were scuttled, she said, quickly assuring everyone that ‘our nation would not leave children to drown’. She quickly followed up with some statistics. Only about 1.6% of our total migrant intake was from asylum seekers who came by boat, she said, adding that there was nothing to be gained by overstating the problem. Equally, though, she criticised the labelling of ‘concerned people’ as ‘rednecks’ and racists’. This was in reference to remarks made by noted human rights lawyer, Julian Burnside QC, although she misquoted him quite significantly. Burnside’s use of those terms was directed as those who called for asylum seekers to be turned back ‘at gunpoint’.
Gillard missed a huge opportunity here. Although her opening remarks seemed to indicate that she was trying to defuse the xenophobia that all too often surrounds the issue of asylum seekers, she gave tacit approval to it by defending those who – she said – had a ‘reasonable concern’ about a ‘difficult problem’. Rather than try to counter scare-mongering rhetoric, she afforded those who espoused those xenophobic sentiments unexamined legitimacy.
The ALP’s own election slogan may have made an appearance during this speech. Gillard talked constantly of ‘Moving Forward’ (capitalised in the transcript). This was coupled with the idea of ‘sustainability’, another Gillard buzz-word that appears to be settling in for the long-haul. (It’s already been applied to both population and economic growth.)
Gillard linked the idea of accepting refugees to the ALP’s ‘sustainable population’ policy, which has been trickling out over the last two weeks. This is a form of targeted, selected immigration, whereby certain professions are privileged over others, and certain areas (such as heavily populated Western Sydney) become less available as places of settlement. Just how this was linked to asylum seeker policy was never explained, although Gillard assured listeners that this sustainable population was ‘in response’ to increased asylum seeker arrivals – what she called ‘unauthorised people movements’. (Frankly, I’m at a loss to explain what a UPM actually is – possible a rude gestuer at the teacher, or dirty dancing?)
Gillard took pains to point out that there was ‘nothing humane’ about either the risky voyage at the mercy of people smugglers, nor the detention of children and punishment of asylum seekers simply for fleeing persecution. That was a rather slippery bit of political maneuvring there – she effectively linked the almost universally-despised trade of people smuggling with Coalition policy.
After a little bit of flag-waving and appeal to the ‘rule of law’, Gillard finally got to the substance of the policy. And it boils down to this – a motherhood statement without much details, just one very uncomfortable possibility.
Going one step further than the Coalition, Gillard promised to work with other countries to stop people smuggling ‘at the point of origin’. It’s unclear whether she was referring to the initial embarkation, or to the departure of the boats, usually from Indonesia, for the final leg to Australia. She also did not say which countries she was including in that statement. There were promises to put more Coast Guard boats in the water to patrol the borders and tougher penalties for those caught people smuggling.
All that was eclipsed by her next announcement, however.
Gillard stated that she had begun talks with Timor’s President Jose Ramos Horta, and with New Zealand’s Prime Minister John Key about establishing a ‘regional processing centre’. Though she did not state that this centre would be in Timor itself, her implication was clear. The centre would function as a clearing-house for asylum seekers looking to settle in New Zealand or Australia. At this stage, there are no firm plans, but Gillard indicated that she was hopeful of developing them. In effect, Gillard wants to create a queue for the ‘queue-jumpers’.
She hastened to add that she had also spoken to the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, and assured him that this was not a return to the Pacific Solution. On the face of it, though, this policy is very, very similar to the Coalition’s policy of offshore processing. Let’s break it down – asylum seekers who attempt to reach Australia will be ‘encouraged’ to go to the proposed regional centre. Anyone who does front up in Australia will be sent to said centre. Once processed, the (presumably) successful refugee will be resettled, probably in either Australia or New Zealand.
The major difference appears to be that (a) asylum seekers won’t be sent to an island made of bird guano, and (b) Gillard has stated that the UNHCR will be involved in every stage of development and implementation of the proposed centre. I’m not sure that this is entirely sufficient to differentiate it from Abbott’s policy, however.
Having delivered the punch, Gillard almost casually let it be known that the government was resuming processing of Sri Lankan asylum claims (suspended under Rudd’s leadership), on a case-by-case basis. (Sadly, the processing of claims from Afghan nationals is still suspended, for an unknown period.) Really, this should have been the first announcement she made. The suspension of processing claims was proving to be a subject of controversy, with the government attracting a huge amount of criticism – yet the news that it was to end was sandwiched between a speech containing that huge headline-grabber, and an ominously vague assertion that refugees who did settle here would be expected to ‘follow the rules’, with an implied penalty if this did not happen. These ‘rules’ apparently include speaking English, getting a job and sending your kids to school.
Gillard’s language was, on the whole, less inflammatory than Abbott’s. Her favoured word was unauthorised, applied equally to boats, people and movement – although she also referred to irregular migration. She appeared to be trying to cast the asylum seeker situation as a matter of bureaucracy, rather than national threat.
Like Abbott, Gillard used border protection to describe patrolling for asylum seeker boats, but reserved her strongest language for the people smuggling trade. She reserved her fiercest language for people smugglers, saying that people smugglers were nothing humane and evil and that refugees neede to be protected from them.
So what the ALP policy boils down to is – more patrols and an offshore processing centre under the auspices of the UN. There are differences to the Coalition policy (notably, the absence of TPVs and overtly xenophobic rhetoric), but they are nuanced at best.
It remains to be seen what policy the Greens and other minor parties will release on this issue.