Australians held their collective breaths last week, when another asylum seeker boat capsized and our political leaders were forced, to at least appear as adults, and try to work at a real solution.

After a marathon two days of parliamentary deliberation, grandiose speeches and crocodile tears, we are, in the words of Sinitta, right back where we started from.  Like a released balloon, the Oakeshott Bill, filled with the hot air of the House of Reps, blew around making farting noises, before finally, after two days, dropping to the floor in the Senate – empty, exhausted and having achieved nothing more than passing entertainment for political news junkies.

A name perhaps no longer apt for the island

So what happened?

Many are blaming the Greens for the impasse and they have come out of this latest battle more bruised than usual.  Their fundamental opposition to offshore processing has bemused many, especially when the Coalition and ALP were at least appearing to give some ground.  The Greens should be applauded for resisting in the heat of the debate.  Others, mainly from the ALP, caved in, on their correct disdain for offshore processing.  Surely our memories are so short that we have forgotten the cruelty of Nauru, the international shame and condemnation we received and the disgusting waste of money that it was.  Offshore protection may have provided some deterrent factor, but that deterrent was based on the fact that those who did make it to Australia had their lives ruined, by years of mandatory detention and mental breakdown by that system.

The Coalition also managed to force Labor’s hand and consider the reintroduction of TPV’s – Temporary Protection Visa’s.  Once again, have we forgotten the reasons why we scrapped TPV’s in the first place?  Someone is either a refugee and worthy of our protection, or they are not.  You do not leave them languishing for years, hoping the situation in their home country improves so you can send them home.  You give them the protection they are entitled to under the 1951 Convention.  A TPV is nothing more than a ‘Get out of Jail [UN Convention] free’ card for the government.

The other key policy of the Coalition is turning the boats back, oh, of course only when it is safe to do so.  When will that ever be?  Most of the boats that come now are only held together by dried paint and barnacles anyway.  Implementing a ‘turn back the boats’ policy will see even more derelict boats sent out from Indonesia and set ablaze or destroyed at the first sight of the Australian Navy.  It is as hollow an idea as any.

Australia does not deal well with criticism, especially from Asia

Speaking of hollow, that brings us to Joe Hockey.  Big, cuddly, Uncle Joe moved many with his impassioned speech at the House of Reps.  After of course mentioning that his father was a refugee, but one who ‘waited his turn’, Hockey climbed upon his moral soapbox and rallied against a non existent ALP policy of sending a ‘13 year old boy’ back to a country that is not obliged to protect him.  While the ALP has stated that children would be exempt from the Malaysia Solution that fact missed the radar of Joe.   What also missed his moral radar was the fact that Hockey’s own party would happily tow the same mythical child back to Malaysia if the boat was deemed safe enough – or in the days of the Howard Government they would have happily had him locked up in Woomera or some other hellhole.  Oh how compassionate you are Joe.  Never mind that offshore detention and the Malaysia Solution are cruel practices whether it be men, women or children, but I guess the idea of children being deserted in Malaysia will move more peoples hearts.  Hockey’s speech was nothing more than political spin dressed up as compassion for asylum seekers.

A Tandberg cartoon from 2005

So what about the Malaysia Solution?  It is as corrupt and cruel a policy as any out there.  The High Court was absolutely correct in ruling it unlawful and Bob Carr disgraceful in condemning their decision.  To introduce effectively, a trade, in the lives of asylum seekers who have sought our protection, is not only going against a Convention we have pledged to uphold, but against the essence of what means to be a position of power, power to help those in need.

Therein lies the problem.  Does Australia really want to help those in need?  Is it too politically costly?  Offshore detention, TPV’s, turning boats back, people swapping – all these policies shirk our full responsibility of protecting asylum seekers.  What is presented as concern for people dying at sea seems more like a problem of people coming here in the first place – undocumented and uninvited ‘queue jumpers’.  Well, they are not trying to enter a nightclub on a false ID, they are here seeking protection.  If Australia does not want them, let us simply withdraw from the Convention and see the boats cease.  If we do want to offer these people protection then are more humane ways to go about it.  Julian Burnside QC, one time Liberal voter now refugee advocate, raises the idea of processing people in Indonesia, giving them a ticket and asking them to wait to transport for Australia.  While not ideal, it is certainly a step in the right direction if stopping the boats, because they unsafe, is really the concern.

Will trade 800 for 4000

Of course with the ALP unable to come up with any ideas since the defeat of the Malaysia Solution, they have asked the former Defence Chief Angus Houston to head a panel and provide them with a ‘border protection’ policy.  Anyone else see the implicit message there?

The final point, one which failed to come up in all the hoopla of last week, is this.  Who are we, in our safe, cosy and comfortable first world country to say whether or not someone should take the risk of getting on a leaky boat for a chance at safety and protection?  It may be their only chance.  We cannot even begin to relate to their lives, whether our parents or grandparents were refugees or not.  It is the right of asylum seekers to choose whether they get on a boat to come here.  If our leaders cannot come up with an effective and humane policy to deter them, or a plan to get them here safely, then they have no right to criticise them and punish them with inhumane policies and practices.

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