The past week has brought home that the Labor government can’t claim a shred of principle on asylum policy any more. It has shamed itself repeatedly and in a most hypocritical way. Those who condemned the Pacific solution have embraced a Malaysian one. The people who said Nauru was unacceptable for offshore processing in part because it wasn’t signed up to the UN convention on refugees aren’t worried that Malaysia is also outside it.
If the government wasn’t desperate, it would be embarrassed. If its backbench wasn’t frightened of the electoral backlash over boat arrivals, it would be up in arms.
Last week the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, lashed out at the deal and Malaysian human rights activists attacked it. Pillay, visiting Australia, toned down her initial criticism after government briefings but still declared the bilateral agreement would need to be scrutinised carefully for its human rights guarantees.
Meanwhile, Malaysian activist Eric Paulsen from that country’s Lawyers for Liberty wondered how Australia could achieve what others could not. ”All of a sudden, without any changes to Malaysian immigration laws and policies, will asylum seekers suddenly become immune to their day-to-day reality of arbitrary arrest, detention, harassment, extortion, jailing and whipping? We doubt that very much.”
Former federal human rights commissioner Sev Ozdowski reinforced a point the opposition has pushed, when he said at least in Nauru ”we were able to control the conditions in the detention centre” – Malaysia would be a ”much worse solution”.
It does seem a leap of faith to believe Australia can be sure the asylum seekers we send there under the ”swap” deal won’t be badly treated, given the country’s record. It will take some formidable monitoring.
The only way the government can get out of its imbroglio is if the deterrent – the fear of being sent to Malaysia and the back of that long ”queue” – discourages the boats quickly. Then perhaps, the government hopes, it won’t have to send too many people to Malaysia. Or, at least, if the boats slow dramatically, criticism of the nastier aspects of the deterrent will fade. The end will be regarded as justifying the means.
No wonder Immigration Minister Chris Bowen and Foreign Affairs Minister Kevin Rudd are out spruiking the ”don’t come” message, as the government has been working frantically to bed down the formalities of the Malaysian deal, so implementation can start. On another front, negotiations with Papua New Guinea for a processing facility there crawl along.
If the boats keep coming, and the Malaysian 800 quota is filled, the government’s border protection political disaster will continue. If the people smugglers are discouraged, on the other hand, Tony Abbott will find a potent issue rapidly subsiding.
Julia Gillard’s hope and Abbott’s nightmare goes like this. Come end of next year, the frighteners have been put on the asylum seekers and the arrivals are no more than a trickle, with the few that do come sent to PNG or elsewhere, out of sight and out of voters’ minds. And on that other big issue, the carbon tax, Gillard dreams a wonderful dream: the plan has started, the compensation is generous and industry has been shut up. Unlikely as this seems, two of the main pillars of Abbott’s attack are kicked away. And would that be Malcolm Turnbull saying ”amen”?
Michelle Grattan is Age political editor.