New approach needed on asylum seekers

THIS week will see yet another deadline for asylum seeker policy arrive: Julia Gillard's expert panel will report on its efforts to find a way to break the policy impasse.

And it promises to produce yet another crisis of indecision, yet another time for prevarication and wrangling. Unless the panel of former air force chief, Angus Houston, foreign affairs boffin Michael L'Estrange and refugee advocate Partis Aristotle has come up with a Eureka moment rivalling anything that Archimedes produced, we will be back to the same old stalemate, the same old standoff, and the status quo will continue.

And the status quo is, quite simply, untenable. The influx of boat people, apparently rushing to beat some future crackdown, has reached such proportions that just carting them to Christmas Island and beyond is seriously affecting both the efficiency and morale of the navy, which was never trained nor designed for such a task to begin with. The numbers are such that they have blown a big hole in Australia's normal humanitarian program, designed to rescue some 6000 refugees a year from the UNHCR camps and about the same number under special arrangements of urgent overseas cases and family reunion for those already here. This year the arrivals of boat people have been such that there will be very little room for anyone else.

And of course the dangers of the trip have, if anything, increased along with the passengers applying for it. Public opinion is demanding action - any kind of action, just get on with it. Among the politicians themselves there is total unanimity: something, everyone agrees, will have to be done.

The government, on the best advice available, wants to proceed with its people-swap with Malaysia as the only effective deterrent on the table. And in order to get it through parliament it is prepared to implement Tony Abbott's demand for the reopening of Nauru, which it has been told wouldn't work, and even to consider the return of temporary protection visas, which it has been told not only don't work, but could make matters worse by increasing the number of wives and children on the boats.

Abbott himself has ruled out Malaysia and insists that it is his way or no way: Nauru, TPVs and turning the boats back, an idea which has been condemned by all involved as both dangerous and unworkable. Then there are The Greens, who have ruled out any form of offshore processing altogether, thus assuming the moral high ground, but also (according to their critics) locating them in cloud cuckoo land. Their own proposal, to increase the humanitarian quota to 25,000, in order to ease the strain, would in fact have the opposite effect; more people would arrive at the starting points in Malaysia and Indonesia, and more would become frustrated at the long delays and uncertain outcomes and opt for the boats instead.

And yet these formal positions, or some slightly modified versions of them, make up the bulk of the submissions handed to Houston's panel. So unless he has come up with some miracle cure we don't know about, one of them, or a mix of the lot, is what he will recommend. In other words we will be back to point A, where the only choice for the government is either to do nothing or to adopt one of the two schemes it has already rejected as ill-advised, ineffective and possibly dangerous. Some choice.

But wait - have we been asking the wrong question? Perhaps we should have listened to the politicians and bureaucrats more closely. Because according to them, the real key to the problem is not simply to stop the boats, to deter the asylum seekers: it is to break the people smugglers' business model.

This insight was brought to me by the author Shane Moloney, to whom many thanks for the revelation: because it brings an entirely new perspective to the debate, one requiring a lateral approach. You may not have realised it, but the bereft fisher folk of the Indonesian islands are not just opportunists out for a quick bonanza - "the scum of the earth", as Kevin Rudd unkindly described them - but serious businessmen who have spent long hours working with teams of consultants to come up with a viable commercial proposition.

Clearly many of them flaunt an MBA from Harvard. They are fluent with the language of the boardroom and adept at wielding a laser pointer as they market-test their presentations on focus groups before attempting to woo their customers. These are sophisticated types - they must be, otherwise they would not have a business model to break. They deserve, indeed demand, a sophisticated response.

So: what do businesses really dread, which government measures cause them to quail?

Fortunately, we need look no further than Australia's own Fair Work Act, which we are told constantly is destroying the business models of local enterprise. So we should immediately insist that that the Indonesian government apply its more draconian provisions to the people smugglers, who undoubtedly have their own business association and lobbyists to pass the message on.

First, people smuggling must be made to observe proper working hours, incorporating strict health and safety regulations. Protection against unfair dismissal will be a key point. Union representatives must be given access to the boats at all times to enforce a compliance code which will entail severe penalties for first offenders and loss of their official government issued People Smuggling Certificate for subsequent breaches. And the taxation office will insist on complete disclosure of all records going back for ten years, and triple-entry bookkeeping henceforth. Right, let's see them make a rupiah out of that! Business model broken - problem solved.

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