Refugees sent back to the future

It was, everyone agreed, a disaster. The urgent issue of asylum seekers remained unsolved, stuck in the political too-hard basket.

Days of impassioned debate had ended in a standoff. Parliament had failed, producing nothing of substance - a devastating stalemate.

Well, in the short term that's how it looks. But from a slightly wider perspective, it can be seen as a spectacular political win for Tony Abbott.

At the time of the 2010 election, his mantra of "Stop The Boats" was dismissed as a brutal and simplistic three-word slogan, unworthy of serious consideration. But now, less than two years later, it is unchallenged bipartisan policy, accepted by the government and the received political wisdom of the mainstream commentariat.

And in the process it has turned its original meaning upside down. From being a racist dog-whistle with the clear message of "Keep the towel-head bastards out" it has become a caring and compassionate plea: "Save the poor wretches from drowning at the hands of the evil people smugglers."

Last week the stalwarts of the Labor left lined up to recant: they had been wrong to resist off-shore processing, but now they saw the error of their ways and would vote for a course that only a couple of weeks ago had been an utter anathema.

The remnants of the Liberal moderates, those who had stood up against John Howard's original Pacific solution, actually contemplated voting with Labor to put in place a regime potentially tougher and nastier than anything Howard had proposed.

And amongst this turmoil was Tony Abbott, incredibly occupying the high moral ground, posing as the last defender of the United Nations Human Rights Convention against the barbarians who would tear it to pieces. There has seldom been a more astonishing transformation.

But unfortunately, like most such transformations, it was the stuff not of reality but of a fairytale.

It is true enough that the Labor government has succumbed, although it actually did so a long time ago, when Julia Gillard defied Kevin Rudd and lurched to the right on the pretext of fixing the asylum seeker issue for good. Having failed with East Timor, she fell back on the Malaysian solution, which was rightly torpedoed by the High Court and then opportunistically rejected by Abbott, who did so purely to gain political advantage.

His purported stance - that he would never, ever, send asylum seekers to any country which had not signed the United Nations Convention on Refugees - is simply preposterous; as a member of Howard's government he enthusiastically sent thousands to Nauru long before that country signed anything, and his current policy involves returning boats to Indonesia, which still hasn't, and won't, sign the convention either.

And his respect for the convention does not extend to observing it in Australia, either; he intends to re-introduce temporary protection visas, which clearly violate the provisions of the convention which govern freedom to travel. And of course the convention derives from international law, which rules out off-shore processing altogether.

If Abbott is really so keen on becoming the United Nations' champion, he will immediately start voting with the Greens, who may be, as their opponents sneer, impotent, but are still the only members of our parliament whose position has remained consistent throughout this whole shemozzle.

But of course, that's not the point: the imperative is, as it has always been, to Stop The Boats. And to do that, all we need to do is go back to the policies of the Howard years, because they worked. This, like all of Abbott's simplifications, is not entirely true.

There is ample evidence that the temporary protection visas, with their ban on family reunion, actually led to more women and children accompanying their husbands on the boats, with consequent loss of life. But even if they did play a part in easing the flow of boats, that was then and this is now. It has now been established that Nauru was simply a staging post for the asylum seekers. More than two thirds of those sent to the island ended up in Australia anyway, and most of those who didn't were taken by New Zealand.

The people smugglers are perfectly aware of this and so are their prospective clients. Ten years ago Nauru may have been seen as a deterrent, but the trick won't work a second time. That, at least, is the view of all the experts, including the head of the Department of Immigration, Andrew Metcalfe.

Nor will turning the boats around work as a threat, as was occasionally done in the Howard years and remains a plank of Abbott's platform. Indonesia simply won't wear it any more and even to try it would bring on a diplomatic meltdown.

In Metcalfe's view, the Malaysian solution is the only real card on the table; it would at least go some way to devaluing the people smugglers' product, the avowed aim of all parties. But Abbott will never, ever subject the little kiddies to such trauma. He was happy to allow them to be locked away behind razor wire at Woomera until some quite literally went insane, but Malaysia is simply barbaric.

And he is not interested in anything anyone else has to say, and especially not what Gillard's desperate panel of experts might come up with. He has his policy, and he's sticking to it. And just to show he's fair as well as firm, he'll increase the refugee intake from 13,500 to 20,000 a year over three years - when he becomes prime minister. But until then, of course, he'll oppose any such reckless move.

After all, you have to stick to your principles, whatever they may be at the time. It's certainly worked a treat on asylum seekers. And just look at the polls.

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