Thursday, October 15, 2009

Australia Can't Go Back to the Pacific Soultion

By good fortune and good management Kevin Rudd has a first-class relationship with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, which helped greatly when he appealed for Indonesia to divert and accept a boat laden with Sri Lankan asylum seekers.

What a different story it was in 2001, when John Howard was desperately trying to get the Indonesians to accept the Tampa and its human load. They gave a firm no.

If the Indonesians had played ball then, the Tampa crisis would have been defused and perhaps we might never have had the Pacific Solution. But Howard and president Megawati Sukarnoputri weren't close, and, at one stage, she wouldn't take a Howard
phone call.

The Indonesians have been of help to Australia this time at some cost. When the boat got to Merak, those aboard didn't want to leave and threatened to blow it up.
Rudd has indicated he will continue to tap into Indonesian goodwill to help head off future boats, for which he will probably have to pay in more funding and intelligence sharing. But he knows this will not be enough. The Government is facing a significant problem to which there is no obvious solution, and which could be politically difficult, as shown by the Lowy poll finding that 76 per cent of Australians are concerned about unauthorised asylum seekers coming by boat.

The numbers are modest in absolute terms, and Australia should not overreact. But, despite the Government crowding some extra beds into the Christmas Island accommodation, that is getting close to capacity, and almost certainly soon people will have to be housed on the mainland. This is set to be in Darwin. Rudd has ruled out using Baxter; it really would be deja vu if that had to be reopened.

Apart from mobilising the Indonesians and working with Sri Lanka, the Government has few other options. It can't (and shouldn't) go back to the Pacific Solution. A return to temporary protection visas would be retrograde. If people are found to be refugees they should not then have to live with the uncertainty of knowing their status will be reviewed later.

The Opposition has made accusations about the Government going soft on border protection but can only suggest an inquiry (despite ridiculing Rudd for his penchant for inquiries). For the Liberals, urging an inquiry is a way of avoiding dealing with the split views in their own ranks, but it can't be called a policy. The Age by Michelle Grattan

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