Sunday, October 25, 2009

Australia's obligation as a developed nation

THE fiction of 18 years past has illuminated itself these past weeks: Blanche d'Alpuget's Turtle Beach may not have been as innocent as the more generous of spirit might be prepared to accept of that 1991 Australian film set in Terengganu. Footage of Malaysian authorities of the 1970s and 1980s turning back Vietnamese boat people at gunpoint may not have been officially sanctioned in Australia, but it would have served Canberra's purpose -- then and now. It was -- and is -- an easy political sell to "outsource" Australia's problems be for Turtle Beach would make for popular viewing in the cinema.

Self-preservation, selfish gain, appeal to base human instinct. Border protection, border security, is ingrained in the Australian psyche.From the "reds under the bed" parodied paranoia of Robert Menzies' 1950s, successive governments of both mainstream persuasions have pandered to the politics of fear of invasion. One tongue-in-cheek letter to the editor takes the instinct back into history: "Australia has had an illegal immigrant problem for more than 200 years," it said. "Just ask any Aborigine."

Increasing waves of boat arrivals over this past year have brought the periodic ebb and rise of the phenomenon to shrill hysteria.A boatload of 255 Sri Lankans originating from Johor Baru and diverted to Indonesia two weeks ago has plunged politicians in government and the opposition to the most vituperative of rhetoric in recent times.

Border security is the base argument of Malcolm Turnbull and his conservative Liberal-National coalition in opposition. Tough, but humane, counter Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and his social democrat Labor of their policy.

"The key is to have a balanced policy," Rudd told the 7.30 Report of national public broadcaster ABC, "one which is both tough but humane".

On commercial (populist) talkback radio, the message just comes across as "tough ... tough ... and tough". Scare-mongering is a potent political tool. "We decide who comes into this country, and the circumstances in which they come," was the repeated assertion of John Howard, predecessor to Rudd as prime minister, in the 2001 campaign that returned him to his third of four terms in government.

The celebrated statement of Rudd's today: "I make absolutely no apology whatsoever for taking a hard line on illegal immigration to Australia." It's the palatable message. Every poll since 1977 confirms that at least a third of Australians want every single boat person kept out, The Age in Melbourne reported. Rudd is reasonable on the 7.30 Report. "(We have) an orderly migration programme ... which deals with humanitarian considerations and our obligations under the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) ," he says.

"It's (about) having effective arrangements with so-called transit countries like Malaysia and Indonesia. Effective also (is) engagement with source countries, in this case Iraq, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka. "It is the entire ... spectrum from source country, transit country, people on the high seas, as well as proper processing arrangements and dealing with asylum-seekers if they had established to have that status."

Immigration Minister Chris Evans puts the pressure on Australia in a global context. It's a global phenomenon, as desperate people flee war and persecution. "The facts are that there has been a global spike in irregular people movement around the world," Evans writes in the online National Times. "The UNHCR 2008 Global Trends Report released last month stated there were 42 million people forcibly displaced worldwide, driven from their homelands by insecurity, persecution and conflict."

Of that, arrivals in Australia are minuscule, says human rights specialist Professor James Hathaway, dean of law at the University of Melbourne.

"Even with those resettled affirmatively from overseas, Australia receives only about one-tenth of one per cent of the world's refugees," Hathaway tells the New Sunday Times. That in a country proud that, on the findings of the UN Human Development Report 2009, it has the second-best quality of life out of 182 countries surveyed.

Why would Rudd not stake his legacy on taking Australia beyond the tired argument and counter-argument of border security -- of all description; military, strategic, economic and environmental? He has political capital in stacks, his government commanding a primary vote in the order of 47 per cent, to the opposition's 32 per cent.

In two-party-preferred terms, this translates to 58 per cent for Labor to 42 per cent for Turnbull's coalition. It would return Labor to government in landslide proportions were an election to be held. In the better prime minister stakes, Rudd trumps Turnbull 67 per cent to 18 per cent. Sure, one-third of Australians would turn the boats back. Of the remaining two-thirds, it's not clear how many of them might be agnostic on the question, or apathetic. Public opinion acknowledges that Australia is a nation of immigrants; one in four Australians has either been born overseas, or has a parent born abroad.

A poll in National Times has 47 per cent pressing to turn the boats back; two per cent say Australia is obliged to help people seeking protection from persecution.

All said and done, the question of refugees and asylum-seekers boils down to one of values. "Clearly we are not leading by example," Hathaway laments, pitching policy responses against the UN Human Development Report findings.

As with climate change -- which an increasing number of Australians accept has to take into account global poverty -- increasingly with refugees and asylum-seekers, many are coming to the view that Australia needs to rise above the singular question of border security and take into account "push" and "pull" factors, and the obligations of Australia as a developed nation. K.C. Boey, New Straits Times

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