Sometime between the fourth of August and the eight of December 2007, Australia will go to the polls for the next federal election. Prime Minister John Howard will again most likely turn to his tough border policy to confirm his status in the community as strong on security. But the policy is becoming discredited. Security comes at too high a price.
Under Howard’s watch, Australia is well on its way to a status of international pariah. In ten years, Howard has closed doors and smashed windows on the world stage in order to win elections at home. His stridency is a hollow echo of the Bush doctrine. He has projected a pre-emptive strike policy that has enraged neighbours. He has reneged on the international rule of the UN to take part in an illegal and ill-conceived war in Iraq. He almost single-handedly rejected a world process for climate change (Clinton’s US agreed to sign Kyoto). Above all, he threw away human decency and locked the door on the very people that most needed his help. John Howard, with the help of a vigilant and compliant Navy, freed Australian waters from the fleeced and powerless refugees of the war-torn countries of the world.
Australians, alarmed by talk of being “swamped” by another Yellow Peril, supported this action, in the main. Howard used the confluence of 9/11 and a boatload of Afghans to tap the fearful mood of the country to devise a new immigration policy on the fly. Refugees were not wanted, unless invited. And in the homeland itself, Australia frittered away hard-won freedoms in name of Anti-Terrorism and the need to protect itself from invisible enemies. But staying in a fearful mood is not healthy over a long period of time. The moral panic of terrorism will pass and Australia will have to live with the consequences.
The new immigration policy was a mallet used to crush a peanut. Bill Heffernan, a farmer and the Government’s hatchet man with a penchant for homely metaphors, described it as a “firebreak”. He told Jesuit priest and author, Frank Brennan, “You have to choose someone’s property as a firebreak. In destroying their property, you will save the neighbourhood”. His Government chose the Tampa as the firebreak. But his cute analogy doesn’t stand up. Refugees are not property, the boats are not a bushfire and the only thing destroyed in the neighbourhood and the world at large is goodwill towards Australia.
It is not entirely the fault of the current Government. Labor in power been equally unsympathetic to refugees. Mandatory detention was introduced in 1992 under the Keating Labor Government. While they have softened this stance lately, they have not entirely renounced it. Yet they and the Liberals know mandatory detention is unnecessary. It is ineffective as a deterrent and merely clogs up prisons creating prologued human agony. It remains in place merely to "send a message" that Australia is not a soft touch.
The “Pacific Solution” was one of Howard’s addition to the hard touch. It was done to keep the boats and their human cargo out of reach of interfering lawyers. Australia outsources its immigration problems to poor and compliant countries such as Nauru and Papua New Guinea at great cost and with total loss of due process. The Australian locations are remote from the big cities and the overseas locations are almost inaccessible. Yet it too is a totally unnecessary action. It not only increases the tension between the executive and judicial branches of government, it denies the refugees any appeal process. Much to the Government's annoyance, the Australian courts rule fairly on most immigration matters before them.
The third plank of the strategy was the 1999 introduction of Temporary Protection Visas. This was a Pauline Hanson idea adopted by the Government to offer a three year visa that would not apply to family. The law’s failure to protect family members caused an increase in women and children in the 2000-2001 wave of boat people and explains why there were only 65 men among the 353 who died when SIEV X sank in October 2001. It also meant that of 1,609 people held offshore since Tampa, 368 of them have been children.
While such positions seem unfair, inhuman and abhorrent (not to mention expensive and inefficient), the hard stance played to the Government strengths on security. It also played on an almost feudal fear of invasion by boats. It failed to take into account that most overstaying immigrants arrive in Australia by air. But the wider community is unconcerned by an airborne invasion. Meanwhile Labor ducked for cover while the Government came down hard.
Australia’s three year election cycle means that governments spend almost as much time campaigning as governing. Governments turn to slick public relations, making themselves look good at taxpayer expense. Advertisers paint a picture of a prosperous nation, the lucky country. The people held in Nauru, Manus Island, Christmas Island, Port Hedland, Woomera and Baxter wanted a small slice of that luck. They wanted a safe environment free from trauma; they wanted medical treatment, schools, adequate water, food, toilets and housing. But Howard’s Australia just wanted them to go home and looked the other way. Australia now needs to face up its responsibilities. Its time to start acting like a decent neighbour again.