I've hesitated to write on the terrible tragedy of the death of five would-be refugees and horrific injuries suffered by 29 more last week, the result of a desperate desire to get to Australia, for various reasons.
It is a complex issue. On the one hand, based on past history, most of these people are almost certainly genuine refugees, fleeing horrific situations. On the other, most of them come via third countries such as Indonesia where they are not being persecuted - but where the standard of living is not what they aspire to. Refugee status is supposed to be based on political or racial persecution, not economics, and accepted by the first country you reach - the only reason these asylum seekers have a claim on Australia if they manage to reach our shores is that Indonesia has not accepted its own international obligations in this regard, and acceded to the relevant UN treaties.
One can legitimately argue that Australia shouldn't be held hostage to extreme behaviour and threats, or blamed when those threats become reality. But all I can say is that the cost of maintaining Australia's border integrity is too high in its effect on human lives, as the tragedy last week, the loss at sea of 'SIEV X' , and the psychological effects on those detained in various places on behalf of Australia graphically illustrate.
And we keep making it worse. According to the SMH today, the "29 badly wounded survivors of the explosion will not be allowed to apply for immediate refugee status because they were taken to an oil rig in territory which is excised from Australia. But 13 of the less seriously injured - transferred directly to Darwin by sea - can apply for refugee status and appeal if their application is rejected."
Surely given the horrific injuries these people have suffered a special exemption should be made for them - they could for example be accepted under Australia's Humanitarian programme!
It has been evident throughout this affair that the Rudd Government learnt the wrong lesson from the Children Overboard Affair. In my view, Howard and his Ministers seized on a piece of news that could be milked politically (in the process reversing their whole media strategy of saying as little as possible about the boats arriving, and avoiding putting a human face on their desperation), then refused to correct the story when it became evident that it wasn't true. Rudd seems intent on not telling us anything, so he can't be called on what he does say. But the net impact of his approach amounts to a rerun of the mushroom principle.
We can only hope that the Rudd Government doesn't have to deal with a major public health epidemic, or some other major disaster. Because the best approach to managing events of this kind is almost always to tell what you do know - but make it clear what degree of uncertainty lies around the information, and quickly correct the story as things become clearer. If you don't tell, rumour and falsehoods rise up to fill the gap, and that is rarely healthy.
In the meantime, Australia needs to find some compassion, and work on serious solutions, not just politically expedient ones.