New Australian PM Julia Gillard has quickly ticked a few boxes since she came to office - she has affirmed her opposition to same sex 'marriage', revamped the resource tax and argued against the 'big Australia' (read lots of immigration) policy of her predecessor.
But her latest policy announcements on asylum seekers, toughening her party's stance on boat people once again, though no doubt politically apposite, is thoroughly bad policy, and almost certainly impossible to implement in any case.
On the plus side
The positive side of her announcements yesterday, in a speech to the Lowry Institute, was an acknowledgement of the tiny size of the asylum seeker problem: according to lawyer Julian Burnside Australia has around 4 million visitors a year; this year around 3500 have arrived by boat. Gillard agreed with his assessment.
She also pointed to some of the holes in Opposition leader Tony Abbott's policies - 'turning the boats back' won't work given that no country will take the boats, and experience has shown that desperate people will do desperate things faced with the prospect of failure to reach our shores. Children may not have been thrown overboard in the infamous Howard era incident - but they and other would-be refugees have ended up in the water on several occasions both before and after that event, and lives have been lost. Gillard is right that Australians cannot and will not stand for this.
Why Abbott's version of the Pacific solution is a dud
The most central issue is that, in essence, no matter where you process asylum seekers, if they have managed to reach Australian territory, Australia has a treaty obligation to accept any who are genuine refugees. It doesn't matter whether or not they have papers (many genuine refugees don't). It doesn't matter where you process them.
Howard tried to persuade other countries to take some of the refugees. No one was terribly interested. The reality is that the overwhelming majority of Howard era boat people who ended up in Nauru or Manus Island were ultimately found to be genuine refugees and were resettled in Australia.
Processing refugees might have a small, short-term deterrent effect - but as long as the refugees know that they are ultimately going to end up in Australia, they will, as Mr Howard discovered, keep trying to come.
Cost and logistics
And that leads us to the other big problem with the pacific solution: the huge cost and difficult logistics.
Setting up and managing a detention camp anywhere is expensive. Put it on what is literally a morally and economically bankrupt banana republic like Nauru - where the Government has been in caretaker mode (and now a state of emergency) for the last three months following failure to reach a resolution after two attempts at elections - makes the costs truly extortionate and the logistics extraordinarily difficult, as a perusal of the documentation accumulated on the Howard experiment amply demonstrate.
The problem is, what country other than one desperate for Australian aid and cash would take on such a function? Almost certainly not one like East Timor I suspect we will find!
And quite aside from the huge financial costs and difficulty of providing a truly humanitarianly run processing service under such conditions, parking persecuted people on a Pacific island must surely increase the psychological costs - and reduce the hope of them ever successfully integrating into society - enormously.
Gillard's version of the plan could make the problem worse
Abbott's plan is to take any boat people who arrive in Australia to Nauru or Manus Island. Gillard's differs in that anyone who wishes to get to the hypothetical regional processing centre under their own steam will also be considered part of the 'queue'.
The theory is that this undermines the incentive for people smuggling by boat, and thus makes it safer for the refugees themselves. But unless the regional agreement she is seeking includes Indonesia, which is the major transit country involved, it is hard to see why the incentive is taken away. So far, Indonesia isn't even in the loop on this one.
And for that matter, why not just do the processing in Indonesia in the first place? Presumably because they have already refused, or Australia has been unwilling to make the kind of commitments to taking the genuine refugees that will be required. Hard to see, on the face of it, why it should be any harder to get an agreement to do it in Indonesia than in East Timor.
More, actually creating a genuine 'queue' (which Howard rhetoric aside does not currently exist) will surely encourage more of the world's 10.4 million refugees under UN mandate to try and find their way there. The size of the refugee problem could in fact rapidly escalate.
A three star solution?
Some papers are claiming Gillard's approach a three star solution compared to Abbott's one star because, unlike Nauru, East Timor is a signatory to the Refugee Convention, and she plans to involve the UNHCR. So far of course this is all just talk, and not much more than one phone call at that, so there is no guarantee, or even likelihood that any of this will actually materialise. Howard, if you will recall, made much the same noises and it all came to nothing.
Moreover East Timor's signatory status in fact makes no positive difference in reality - Manus Island after all is part of PNG which is also a signatory. In fact it just makes the prospect of getting an agreement harder.
Because if refugees went directly from, say, Indonesia or Sri Lanka to East Timor, it would be East Timor's Refugee Convention obligations that would be engaged, not Australia's.
And why would a struggling young country want to run the risk of being stuck with a large group of displaced Afghanees or whoever, even if Australia paid up for the costs of hosting them? Presumably Australia (and New Zealand if they could be persuaded) would have to offer a guarantee that anyone who turned up would be resettled elsewhere, as well as a lot of sweeteners to the deal...and just how does this differ from Nauru?!
A failure of leadership
This is all unfortunately deja vu to me, revisiting the most disgraceful eras of Australian public policy making I've had the misfortune to be involved in.
Gillard has called for a public debate. We need it.
Sadly it seems our politicians have learnt nothing from the Children Overboard and the scandalous history of the so-called Pacific 'Solution'.
Sadly, none of the major parties seem to think they can afford to be rational on this subject.
Gillard has failed her first test of real leadership.
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