Thursday, March 24, 2011
Refugees Flood to Australia - The Moment of Truth Looms in Bali
Julia Gillard should ditch the failed regional centre idea.
Shambolic as the government's border protection management has become, there are no clear signs of any attempt to tackle the serious policy issues at play. There are detainees missing on Christmas Island but the Immigration Minister Chris Bowen cannot tell us how many. Fires and riots are destroying much of the facility, asylum-seekers are being evacuated, new detention centres are opened or under construction elsewhere in Australia
and the latest boat arrival has been diverted directly to the mainland, but the government is remaining stubbornly inactive. There are now more than 6500 people in various detention centres, and still boats are arriving, which presents us with the inescapable conclusion that the government has lost control of the border protection regime. Mr Bowen's performance on ABC TV's Lateline on Tuesday was that of a minister at the end of his tether.
The last idea from Julia Gillard came in a pre-election thought bubble about a regional detention centre in East Timor. This idea has yet to be endorsed by the proposed host nation, let alone anyone else. As The Australian has already pointed out, in the unlikely event that that centre is ever built, it would be unlikely to make any difference. The government should abandon the proposal and examine other policy solutions such as reopening the Nauru centre and reviving a distinct visa category for asylum-seekers.
Most asylum-seekers merely transit other countries in the region on a pre-organised journey to Australia, so understandably the countries they pass through consider the problem as one of Australia's making. Unsurprisingly, they expect us to provide the solutions. Our neighbours view the prospect of a regional detention centre as an attempt to pass ownership of the dilemma to them. They would prefer that Australia put back the disincentives to people-smuggling to curtail this evil trade, which creates more than a little inconvenience and cost for them. For all these reasons, Australia's championing of the East Timor solution is struggling to win overt support in the region, creating only diplomatic headaches instead.
Next week, when Mr Bowen and Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd attend the Bali regional process on people-smuggling meeting, they will confront a moment of truth. At this crucial gathering, they must either obtain broad support from other nations for a regional processing centre or finally walk away from the idea. Australia cannot afford to waste any more diplomatic capital on this improbable scheme, nor can it afford to allow continued consideration of the idea to forestall the urgent task of finding other meaningful policy reforms.
Already Mr Bowen has quietly revised downwards Australia's aims for the Bali meeting. In recent interviews, he has spoken no longer of winning support for a regional centre but for a "regional framework". He should be warned that no vague commitment to a "framework" will disguise the regional centre plan's failure.
Conspicuously, Mr Rudd so far has avoided involving himself in the proposal and will be forced to address it for the first time in Bali. Despite the obvious discontent it might stir within the government, he would do very well to assert his surer grasp of national security matters and ensure that his first intervention in his successor's misguided policy is to publicly consign it to history. ‘The Australian’ Editorial