On two critical issues where the ALP was deeply out of step with public opinion, asylum-seekers and the carbon tax, Rudd has done a U-turn of historic proportions, now pursuing policies which vindicate the approach taken by the Opposition leader, Tony Abbott, over recent years.
When Kevin Rudd was first elected in 2007, he instituted a radical shift in Australia’s policy towards unlawful boat arrivals, abandoning the Howard government’s policy of offshore processing of asylum-seekers (the “Pacific Solution”), and abandoning the temporary protection visas given to those granted refugee status.
At the time, Rudd’s policy was acclaimed by much of the media.
It inevitably prompted the growth of people-trafficking, as people-smugglers saw onshore processing and the granting of permanent residence as a guarantee of resettlement in Australia.
The number of boat arrivals jumped from just 148 in 2007 to 2,726 in 2009, and then to 6,555 in 2010, prompting growing alarm at the failure of border protection, and resentment that people-smugglers were getting people to the top of the refugee queue for $10,000 a head.
The failure of Rudd’s policy was one of the factors which precipitated the challenge by Julia Gillard in 2010. When Kevin Rudd was challenged by Gillard in 2010, he promised that there would be “no lurch to the right” over asylum-seekers, but he was forced out.
Although Gillard promised that she would end the influx of boats, by re-opening the Manus Island and Nauru offshore processing centres, she effectively continued Rudd’s policy.
In 2012, the number of asylum-seekers jumped to 17,202, and so far this year the same number have arrived already. The Nauru, Christmas Island and Manus Island detention centres are overflowing, and the Australian government has been forced to open new centres on the mainland and let some asylum-seekers out into the community. At least a thousand more are believed to have drowned at sea.
The Rudd-Gillard policy encouraged people-smugglers to push more and more asylum-seekers — often economic refugees — into Australia, ahead of thousands of genuine refugees languishing in squalid camps.
The continued failure of Labor’s border protection policy, and its enormous cost, contributed to the collapse in support for the Gillard government, and her defeat by Kevin Rudd in June.
After travelling to both Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, Rudd has now unveiled a new uncosted scheme based on shifting all asylum-seekers to Papua New Guinea for processing by PNG officials and, for those granted refugee status, resettlement in PNG.
Full-page newspaper and TV advertisements have declared, “If you arrive by boat in Australia without a visa, you won’t be settled in Australia.” Rudd has vowed he will smash the people-smugglers’ business model.
The problem is that, after six years of Labor government, offshore detention facilities are almost non-existent. Manus Island in PNG is supposed to take 600 asylum-seekers, but is currently holding less than half that number. Rioters recently destroyed almost all the facilities at the Nauru detention centre.
The fact is that Papua New Guinea has no facilities to accept thousands of asylum-seekers a month. It cannot process and settle them in appropriate housing and employment, given that most Papua New Guineans do not have Western-style housing or employment.
Nor will it get the support of PNG’s fractious parliament, given the almost total opposition to the policy in Papua New Guinea, and the fact that Prime Minister Peter O’Neill’s party is a distinct minority in both the Cabinet and the Parliament.
This part of Rudd’s policy is therefore a fantasy, however much it might meet the public’s insistence that the government “do something”. The Rudd government’s policy of offering a reward for information leading to the imprisonment of people-smugglers is a positive initiative, but it should be widened to include information which leads to their arrest in Australia, Indonesia or any other country.
Rudd’s U-turn ends forever Labor’s claim that the Opposition’s policy of turning back the boats when safe to do so is unworkable or inhumane.
The Abbott policy of co-operation with Indonesia to prevent people-smuggling is clearly feasible, now that Jakarta has said it will prevent entry into Indonesia of Iranians without visas. This policy should be extended to Iraqis, Afghans and people from Pakistan, the other major sources of boat-people landing in Indonesia en route for Australia.
Further, as Neil James from the Australia Defence Association recently pointed out, Indonesia has international obligations to prevent people-smuggling and stop breaches of its own law by boats departing Indonesia illegally. Australia should assist it to do so, both through defence co-operation and by supporting the Indonesian police, as has been done with counter-terrorism.
People-trafficking can be stopped, but it will take more than a two-page policy announcement to do it.
Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.