Sunday, May 08, 2011

Australia's Asian Solution

The Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, has announced a deal with Malaysia to receive and process 800 asylum-seekers. These asylum seekers have paid people-smugglers to send them to Australian territory by boat, and frequently travel illegally through Malaysia and Indonesia.

The 800 boat people will be processed by the UNHCR, but will join the end of the queue to be processed. In return, Australia will take 4000 refugees from the UNHCR in Malaysia.

The in-principle agreement is designed to
  • be a public deterrent to people arriving by boat, rather than through established UNHCR programs.
  • provide a partial solution to the number of asylum-seekers arriving by boat that are self-funded, paying money to people smugglers.
  • improve populist public perception of the Government's policy on asylum-seekers. This is an important area for the ALP (in and out of Government), and one where it has historically trailed the Liberal-National Coalition.
  • avoid the Labor Government having to use Nauru, which was used by the former Coalition Government under John Howard, and about which the then Labor Opposition was very critical.
The Coalition has repeatedly called for Nauru to be used as an off-shore processing centre. Labor has consistently refused, but has not argued its case, apart from earlier statements about Nauru not being a signatory to UN Conventions on Refugees. Neither, though, is Malaysia. This gives Tony Abbott and the media the freedom to speculate and question why not, other than embarrassment such a reversal would cause.

Not that Nauru is an ideal country, nor was it ultimately effective for the Liberal-National Coalition government, which included Tony Abbott. ALL of the people they sent there were ultimately granted asylum in Australia, and it cost Australian taxpayers $2m /day even when empty!

Other reasons for it being less than ideal include:
  • it has had an ongoing history of corruption and incompetence within the government and public service
  • it had a reported history of allowing money laundering and tax evasion
  • it is not a party to the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime 
  • it is not a party to the 1988 UN Drug Convention
  • it is not a party to the UN Convention against Corruption
Julia Gillard's Labor Government learnt from its mistakes with its proposed East Timor processing centre, which was announced during the election without having consulted the Government of East Timor. This time, the Government has reached an in-principle agreement before announcing it. But it has not yet learnt effective communication and how to lead policy debate in Australia.

As with most Federal, and state, politics, there is no debate among the political parties; just press releases and spin from both sides, and negativism from Tony Abbott and the Liberal-National Coalition.