The asylum seeker debate is in full swing now. The Government can’t get away from it, carefully timed announcements about extensions to the Education Tax Refund notwithstanding. And the Opposition doesn’t want to get away from it. The events of the last week have been exceptionally useful in that regard.
After Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s announcement on Tuesday that she had been in talks with East Timorese President Jose Ramos Horta and New Zealand Prime Minister John Key about a ‘regional processing centre’ for asylum seekers who arrive by boat, the Opposition pounced. They zeroed in on the fact that there had been no firm announcement of policy, adding the accusation that Gillard was attempting to ‘pass the buck’ to East Timor without even a firm agreement from our northern neighbour. Almost as an aside, they pointed out that she had contacted a Head of State rather than of Government for this talk – rather like US President Obama ringing up our Governor-General to discuss policy. It was, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott asserted, ‘policy on the run’ and proof positive of the Gillard Government’s incompetence.
The situation was further complicated by an apparent series of backflips from the government. They never said the centre would be in East Timor. They had talked to the Government of Papua New Guinea. East Timor was always their first choice. Then, last night, the news broke that the East Timorese Parliament had unanimously passed a resolution rejecting any idea of a refugee processing centre in their country.
That appeared to be the final nail in the coffin for the Government’s proposal. Certainly, the Opposition thought so. Shadow Education Spokesperson Christopher Pyne last night on QandA was quick to say it, and Abbott confidently declared the policy ‘sunk’ in a press conference this morning. Abbott went on to repeat his earlier declarations of incompetence with barely concealed glee, while trying to reassure the press gaggle that he didn’t ‘want to get personal’.
But what’s actually going on here? Let’s look at it.
Gillard’s policy announcement said that she had talked with East Timor’s President about ‘the possibility of establishing a regional processing centre for the purpose of receiving and processing of the irregular entrants to the region’, and had received a positive response to the idea. New Zealand’s Prime Minister had also affirmed his openness to discussing the initiative. At no point did she ever say that this centre would be located in East Timor – or, for that matter, in New Zealand. It’s worth noting that the Opposition never raised this possibility, given the vagueness of the announcement.
That being said, the implication was clear, especially in the light of her later statements about East Timor being her ‘first choice’ for a centre. So, granting this, what exactly is the problem?
The Opposition has said that East Timor is a poor country, and that Gillard should not be fobbing off Australia’s responsibilities to an area that is still unsettled, and economically very depressed. It’s simply unfair to expect it. Their statements about the state of the country are accurate – we still have troops in East Timor, and by no stretch of the imagination could it be considered a prosperous nation. But look again at Gillard’s policy announcement. There was nothing said about expecting East Timor to shoulder the burden of building, maintaining and operating the centre. In fact, Gillard stressed repeatedly that a regional solution was needed, pointing to Australia and New Zealand as key resettlement countries who should be co-operating in sharing the burden. She also affirmed that the UNHCR would have oversight and East Timor – as a signatory to the UN’s Refugee Convention – would operate under the UN’s guidelines.
The Opposition had an alternative site ready to propose – Nauru. There is already a processing centre on Nauru, they argued. Using it worked well before, and Nauru’s President was ‘just waiting for a phone call’, Abbott said in his press conference this morning. There is a centre on Nauru, built with Australian money under John Howard’s Government as part of the ‘Pacific Solution’ and accompanied by millions of dollars of desperately-needed aid money for the bankrupt nation. Kevin Rudd’s Government closed that centre in February 2008, shutting off the aid. Theoretically it could be re-opened at considerably less expense than it would take to build a new centre in East Timor.
What Abbott didn’t mention, though, was that Nauru has never been a signatory to the UN Convention, and there was no suggestion that it was about to become one. Under the Pacific Solution, Nauru (at the urging of the Howard Government) denied access to UN observers, legal advisors, political scrutineers and the media. Were the Nauru centre to be re-opened, there would be no way to assure that this situation did not repeat itself. Additionally, the centre as it is exists is simply not large enough to function as a regional processing centre – nor could it be considered to meet reasonable accommodation standards. In a tropical country, refugees were housed in poorly-ventilated, substandard housing with hopelessly inadequate sanitation facilities. For more details on Nauru during its operating years, see this submission to the 2006 Inquiry.
As for the East Timorese Parliament’s rejection of the Gillard proposal, there are wildly differing opinions as to just how significant this action may be. The Government assured Australians that the vote was ‘poorly attended’ – less than half the sitting members were present – and in any case, both the President and Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao were still open to the possibility. The Opposition has stated that the parliament’s action categorically puts paid to any possibility of a refugee centre on East Timorese soil.
Both sides are playing a rather disingenuous game. Gillard’s claims, while accurate, ignore the fact that both sides of the East Timorese Parliament united against the proposal. Should the executive decide to accept it, there would likely be an uphill battle to put it into action. Abbott, on the other hand, has obscured the fact that what was passed in the Parliament was a resolution, not legislation, and may have no legal force whatsoever. Although the resolution rejects the proposal and calls on the Executive Government to do likewise, it cannot be considered a definitive statement on the country’s position.
What the resolution does show is that the proposal does not sit at all well with the East Timorese Parliament. The reasons cited for rejection include a fear that people may feel resentment at having to live next to refugees in a well-designed centre with good facilities, when so many in their country live in poverty. They also fear that East Timor will be made to bear expenses that it simply cannot afford. The second reason is easily addressed, but the first is valid, and may well prove an obstacle that cannot be removed. Resentment and xenophobia are extraordinarily difficult to counter – something I will be looking at in my next blog.
So where does that leave us?
The Government says it remains committed to a regional solution, with Foreign Minister Stephen Smith travelling to Indonesia to talk to their government about what role it might take in such a situation. The Opposition declares it is the only one with a ‘concrete’ policy on what it insists on calling ‘border security’.
What neither side wants to look at, it seems, is the idea of building a regional processing centre in Australian territory. The Greens have pointed out that we are the wealthiest and most politically stable country in the region. We are, in fact, the only country to have escaped a recession in the recent Global Financial Crisis. Building such a centre here – or adapting an existing detention centre – would be far less expensive than doing so offshore. If we are prepared to transport asylum seekers from Indonesia (the point of departure for the risky boat journey to Australia) to East Timor or Nauru, why not to our own shores?
When asked this question last night, both Christopher Pyne and Immigration Minister Chris Evans blustered, obfuscated and completely failed to provide satisfactory answers. They could not give even one good reason to reject the idea of an Australian-based regional processing centre – and they were both anxious to have the idea become lost in what amounted to meaningless quacking noises (with the occasional dog-whistle). This is deeply suspicious.
What, then, is going on here? Why does such a seemingly sensible solution drive the Government and the Opposition into lockstep in their haste to avoid it?
The answer is depressingly simple, and very, very ugly. Xenophobia. These are politicians reacting to deep-seated fear and hatred in some areas of the Australian community – and politicians are nothing if not weather vanes.
All of this leads us to the next questions – just what is at the root of this xenophobia, what’s feeding it, and what – if anything – can be done about it?
Stay tuned …