AS the nation was shocked by news of the Christmas Island tragedy, Sarah Hanson-Young issued a statement via Twitter.
The Australian Greens’ immigration spokeswoman expressed horror at the “terrible tragedy” and said this day was “for expressing sorrow for what has happened, and for providing support and compassion for everyone involved”.
A few hours later, while rescue teams would still have been scouring huge seas for survivors, the senator tweeted again: “Sharon Jones at the Gov. [Governor Hindmarsh Hotel, Adelaide] Brilliant!”
That moment crystallised for me the core of the problem with those who argue about border protection from a standpoint of moral superiority and self-declared compassion. It is all care, no responsibility.
The border-protection issue highlights the difference between the emotional self-aggrandisement of the progressives and the hard-headed pragmatism of the conservatives. It’s the difference between displaying empathy and attempting to solve a problem.
The Howard government took hard decisions and deliberately designed them to appear even tougher than they were. This sent an unambiguous message to places where the prospective customers of people-smugglers were gathering: if you attempt an unauthorised arrival you may never get to Australia, and if you do make it into the country you may not receive permanent residency.
Cruel, claimed many. But to the extent that it was cruel, it was cruel to be kind. We will never know how many lives it saved by removing the incentive for dangerous voyages.
And here’s the rub: while it stopped the people-smuggling trade, it did not reduce the number of refugees who received sanctuary in Australia. We still filled our humanitarian quota; only the refugees were chosen through orderly process, not self-selected by access to a people-smuggler’s fare or a willingness to take terrible risks.
When it came to power, Labor set about unravelling this tough regime. It was a way to be popular, to appease the emotive pleadings of people such as Hanson-Young and other potential Greens voters. Labor was warned as it did this
that it would restart the people-smuggling business. Then opposition immigration spokesman Chris Ellison said: “The weakening of Australia’s strong immigration detention policy will send a clear message to the region that we are relaxing border control. The intelligence we have demonstrates there are still people-smugglers in the region.”
Proclaiming the end of the so-called Pacific Solution, Labor shouted to the world that most of the asylum-seekers the previous government had sent to Nauru were resettled in Australia anyway. This, they said, betrayed the futility of the Pacific Solution.
On the contrary, it demonstrated the genius of that arrangement. Refugees eventually and quietly were provided with the new life they sought. But the hardline perception was maintained to dissuade more asylum-seekers.
Since the policy softening in 2008, boat arrivals have accelerated, detention centres have filled and two fatal tragedies have taken more than 50 lives.
Throughout this period, conservative politicians have argued for the reinstatement of a tough regime and warned of lives at risk. For their trouble they have endured constant accusations from Labor, the Greens, activists and the media of being heartless, racist and opportunistic.
Even in the wake of the Christmas Island horror, the abuse continued with claims of “dog whistling” and “demonising” asylum-seekers. Yet the opposition’s focus on saving the lives of asylum-seekers is largely ignored by the media.
In November last year, then opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull called a press conference to explain how Labor’s softening of the border-protection regime would have to be reversed: “We are determined to keep our borders secure, to prevent and discourage asylum-seekers from risking their lives in perilous journeys and to protect the integrity of our generous immigration program.”
Almost six months earlier then opposition immigration spokeswoman Sharman Stone told Radio National: “What we’re worried about, though, is that you actually put your life in the hands of criminals who have no interest in your safety, who are of course interested in getting you in the cheapest boat, one-way route possible.”
In October last year, frontbencher Scott Morrison, who has since assumed the immigration role, was asked on Canberra’s Radio 2CC why he was creating “hysteria” about small numbers of asylum-seekers.
“Because people can die, literally, by coming by boat,” he replied. “It is the most risky and dangerous way to come here. So I have a real serious concern about the wellbeing of these people who are being encouraged to take this massive risk and risk their lives and those of their families in this way.”
Even before he became opposition leader, Tony Abbott warned on ABC1’s Lateline in October last year that “once the flow starts, who knows how many of them might end up perishing at sea”.
A few months later, as leader, he told a news conference: “What endangers lives is contracting out Australia’s immigration program to people-smugglers. What endangers lives is doing anything that encourages people to take to the sea in leaky boats.”
This is just a small sample, but you get the picture.
With stunning audacity, Julia Gillard has now effectively called for a bipartisan truce on this issue. Such calls for calm were not made in 2001 after the tragic loss of 353 lives in the sinking of the SIEV X. Back then, distasteful conspiracy theories accused the Australian defence forces of complicity in the deaths.
Labor luminaries, such as senator John Faulkner and even Gillard, fuelled the SIEV X fury, pushing for inquiries and hinting at government cover-ups.
And so, within hours of the Christmas Island disaster, the same conspiracy theorists were at it again, with David Marr and Tony Kevin suggesting Australia could have done more to save these lives. Gillard and Labor were on the receiving end of the madness they once cultivated.
They couldn’t stop even the dangerous stupidity of one of the independents who keeps them in power. Rob Oakeshott went into print and on the airwaves repeating malicious rumours about Australian complicity while demanding they be refuted. Such incendiary nonsense from our politicians should not be tolerated.
Apart from anything else, it grossly impugns the quality of our defence force personnel and wildly misjudges our national character. No matter how baseless, such claims trigger distress, resentment and even violence in detention centres and suburbs.
Much vitriol was directed at commentator Andrew Bolt for saying Gillard had “blood on her hands”. But his strident language was backed by a clear, important and rational argument: that is, the government was repeatedly warned that softening the border-protection regime would put lives at risk.
Gillard, Marr, Hanson-Young, the ABC, some church leaders and others who trumpet the so-called compassionate approach must recognise that cessation of third-country processing, coupled with limited detention periods and near-guaranteed permanent residency, gave the people-smugglers a plausible product to sell. This product, the promise of a relatively trouble-free passage into Australian suburban life, is what tragically lured the men, women and children into entrusting their lives to people-smugglers on that doomed Christmas Island voyage.
The day after the tragedy Hanson-Young tweeted again: “Compassion, nothing more to say really.” In fact, while Morrison, Abbott and Turnbull share the same feelings of compassion and trauma about the deaths, they did have more to say. Despite the vile abuse it often attracts, they continued to argue for a plan to prevent future disasters.