Assessing the merits of a regional asylum seeker centre as policy

If this election proves anything, it proves that both parties have taken the notion of polling driven strategy to ever greater heights. Once, policies were road tested via focus groups to guage their acceptability and to refine selling points. Now, policy is made to move micro-demographics in marginal seats and to send messages about ‘values’.

An exemplary case in point is the issue of asylum seekers, an issue on which the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, has repeatedly asserted is now one on which there’s much common ground between Labor and the Coalition.

Questions about the merits of a regional processing centre for asylum seekers have largely focused on the feasibility of a regional processing centre, and the manner in which Julia Gillard laid the ground for her announcement in the second week of her incumbency, in a speech at the Lowy Institute.

The debate then moved on the idea that the policy was ‘unravelling’, and quickly got caught up in meta-debate about its capacity to do what it was designed to do – move the polls and neutralise a perceived electoral disadvantage for the ALP on an issue Kevin Rudd was said to have been weak on.

In all this febrile debate, very little attention has been paid to its actual merits.

Frank Brennan, writing in today’s Eureka Street, has now done precisely that. I’d recommend you read his piece in full.

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Posted in federal election 2010, government, immigration
11 comments on “Assessing the merits of a regional asylum seeker centre as policy
  1. paul walter says:

    Typical that Frank Brennan would be the one to subject the proposal to some sort of rational scrutiny.
    I really get the feeling there is some sort of throwback to British Raj times when it comes to how Australia deals with its own region.
    There has to be something in it for Timor Leste; since we need a reason to help this dirt poor country,beyond the obvious; let’s bring in some thing permanent in the way of infrastructure that is going to be useful for it, for a start.
    I think we are too fundamentaly mean to make it work. We can spend half a billion of the Xmass island facility, but baulk at the use of this magnitude of money in a way that might imaginatively value add in humanitarian terms, both for refugees and host countries- this I don’t understand.

  2. Russell says:

    One of Brennan’s conditions for such a centre is:

    “4.Prompt resettlement on establishment of refugee claims”

    which might be impossible – too many refugees for other countries to absorb.

    One of the comments on Eureka St recommends establishing the centres in neighbouring countries (India & Pakistan for Afghani refugees), which sounds like a good idea in that the refugees may be waiting there until it is safe for them to be resettled back in their country. (Of course this hasn’t worked out too well for the Palestinians).

  3. Patricia WA says:

    Interesting that he has not rejected it out of hand. I thought his ‘honeypot’ concept is one that needs some hard headed consideration. In meeting UNHCR requirements on minimal standards for refugee housing, food, sanitation etc. an Australian subsidised reception centre in almost any impoverished area of our region would certainly attract more than political refugees. Thousands looking for more than their current subsistence living conditions would be tempted to get there somehow and plead persecution even if ultimately they are rejected as not bona fide and returned home at no cost.

  4. paul walter says:

    That’s the trouble, isn’t it, Patricia WA?
    Apart from deterrence, they won’t improve the standards for asylum seekers because then they would have to contemplate something useful for locals also doing it very tough.
    The various hidden subclauses in treaty agreements with big friends elsewhere are probably stacked against a more humane policy for asylum seekers and poverty stricken locals alike, anyway.

  5. Ken Lovell says:

    Frank Brennan concludes that any centre will not be in East Timor and that ‘To ‘move forward’ together and ‘take real action’ on this issue, we will need to look elsewhere in the region.’ That’s the rub, isn’t it? Which region are we talking about? The East Indian Ocean region? The South East Asian region? The Africa-Middle-East-Asia-Pacific region?

    Region really means ‘all that part of the world that isn’t Australia’. I mean if Norway took a bunch of the Tampa refugees, maybe the regional centre can be in Oslo or somewhere.

    We spent half a billion dollars on Christmas Island but it wasn’t sufficient, and we’ve run out of islands we can subject to cute tricks like excluding them from Australia for some purposes but not others. But the chances of finding another country that can meet Brennan’s seven conditions, or even most of them, seem remote.

    A socially just response might be to (a) double our refugee intake immediately from the queues everyone keeps rattling on about, and simultaneously (b) withdraw from the UN Convention on Refugees. That goes some way to meeting our moral obligations in a politically feasible way while allowing us to deport all future boat people without them having recourse to law. But it would be bold and innovative, and therefore unappealing to either of the major parties.

  6. anthony nolan says:

    Heard Island. Perfect.

  7. paul walter says:

    He (Ken) will not be happy with that one, Anthony.
    Ken, I agree it would be a wonderful thing if those asylum seekers suffering in Indonesia finally were put out of their egregious and long term misery.
    I accept that our actions re refugees and Indonesia actually DO impose on us a certain duty of care, as to cases like “Merak”.
    But people ar worried they will be forced to carry the can for the appaling errors and misconduct of those creating refugee flows in the first place, nost notably the USA. The establishment won’t admit its liabilities, because apart from being inundated with a welter of compensation claims from the third world, they’d actually have to start spending money on practicalsolutions to humanitarian problems instead of wasting billions on everything from new footy ovals, to defence and wars.

  8. Ken Lovell says:

    ‘But people ar worried they will be forced to carry the can for the appaling errors and misconduct of those creating refugee flows in the first place, nost notably the USA.’

    Well I don’t recall an Australian government criticising the USA’s errors and misconduct; on the contrary, Australia has enthusiastically supported most of them including the provision of concrete military assistance. But your larger point is correct: we have a moral obligation to assist refugees because we have been complicit in causing the plight of some of them. The failure of the ALP to explain this to Australians, patiently and persistently, has been one of the most significant indicators of the Party’s loss of principle in recent years, along with its refusal to distance itself from US foreign policy in the Middle East and SW Asia.

    Howard used Australian military forces to wage aggressive war against a country that posed no conceivable threat to Australia. It was a great moral wrong and an act of incredible stupidity. Yet Labor seems to want to brush it all under the carpet and pretend it never happened, in contrast to the Brits who are painfully unpacking the whole sorry saga – under a conservative government!

    If we want to engage in excellent imperialist adventures with our great and powerful friend in countries half a world away, we will get some blowback. Labor should be explaining that to voters, but it’s too gutless to do it.

  9. paul walter says:

    Ken, you probably watched the former head of MI5 canning the Iraq invasion and its rationale om teev tonight.
    They are all so terrified of offending the USA.
    The factors behind it, running from legitimate state craft to perhaps bribes and blackmail to ensure their (US) view is foregrounded, remain beneath the radar for many people, inculcated as they are upona steady diet of sensationalist news and Leo Uris style Bruce Willis telemovies that reinforce the neo con Manichean p.o.v and alibi. The last time someone tried to take them on was Latham, with Crean, half a dozen years ago.
    And look how they were treated, even strident pro US voices squawking
    “anti american”, from within Labor itself.

  10. I agree with Ken that the ALP needs to explain the entire issue to the people. It is obviously a hard thing to do with 24/7 media cycles, the opposition and the murdoch press, but when was the last time the ALP actually used some of it’s political capital on a grand idea? Even on things which it was elected to do, ie: the ETS, it couldn’t do without backing away for chance of offending the ‘western sydney’ electorates. The Australian electorate is smarter than most people give it credit for, however when both sides offer crap, then it is hard identify that streak in the electorate.

    Brennen’s piece is very good because of it’s simplicity. At the heart of the matter is where are the asylum seekers going to go if they are deemed refugees? What if these numbers exceed the ‘13,750’ hard cap which is placed on Australia’s humanitarian system? This dialogue needs to be broadened and debated, not fought over sound bites and marginal electorate polling. Unfortunately, that is what we have at the current time.

  11. Brian says:

    Abbott, according to the TV news tonight has specifically said he will bring back the Pacific Solution.

    Under Labor, I don’t think it can be Nauru if this from Chris Evans

    He denied the East Timor solution was similar to the Howard government’s Pacific Solution.

    He said there were three key differences.

    “One, a country has to be a signatory of the refugee convention, two it has to be a regional model involving other countries, not just Australia…

    “And three, we’re looking for endorsement, encouragement and engagement from the UN high commissioner on refugees so we’re not seen as the pariah of the situation, as Australia was when it used the pacific solution.”

    Ken, as always, is more than ready to believe the worst about a Gillard Government. I keep hoping.

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