Opinion

Tony Windsor
Asylum-seeker policy a dark spot in Australia’s history

The only thing I have real regrets about during my time in the 2010-13 hung parliament is that I was unable to help resolve the issue of asylum seekers from Australia’s perspective. It was the greatest failure of that parliament, and the blame lies with all of us. What we are left with is a national shame. 

There were attempts to achieve a consensus across party lines but division was too attractive to the political class. Rob Oakeshott’s effort to enhance the Bali Process – a suite of co-operative measures for the region, conceived in 2002 – did not gain support. The Angus Houston, Paris Aristotle and Michael L’Estrange committee made a valiant attempt to present options outside of politics, but failed to achieve acceptance. 

With the benefit of hindsight, it was probably never going to succeed. I remember Angus Houston telling me that the strategy would fail if the totality of the recommendations were not accepted, particularly the emphasis on a regional context. Sure enough, the intransigence of the major parties and the Greens ensured failure was the outcome and led to cherrypicking the recommendations. 

An attempt was also made to bypass the executive of the parties, where Steve Georganas (ALP), Judi Moylan (Liberal) and myself formed an informal backbench group with a view to achieving a common strategy across party lines. These meetings were well attended by all political persuasions, as well as representatives of refugee groups, the Australian Federal Police, the Australian Defence Force and human rights advocates, including the much-maligned Gillian Triggs. 

But it became obvious the Liberals weren’t particularly interested in a united approach unless it was theirs, and the Greens and Labor needed to maintain different approaches for their own purposes. Failure was ensured, the outcome of self-interest over human life. 

In terms of results, the Liberals went on to win the 2013 election with their “Stop the boats” slogan. But nothing meaningful has been achieved within the region or globally. In fact, the situation is much worse. 

There are legitimate questions about policy that indicate the obvious: Australia cannot solve this issue on its own. Often it is suggested that Australia should take in more displaced people as refugees. I agree, but there is a real need to have a policy approach that recognises the extremities of the debate – what if 20 million people want to come here?

But this policy problem indicates to me there are a number of things Australia should be doing. 

Rather than withdrawing from the regional debate in South-East Asia, as has been the case in Myanmar, Malaysia, Thailand and neighbouring countries, Australia should be playing a leadership role and working with neighbours and the United Nations. 

The treatment of our nearest neighbour in particular, Indonesia, has been appalling and insulting to a nation attempting to deal with its own terrorism and refugee transit issues. I can understand Tony Abbott not comprehending the implications, but for our foreign minister to inflame the situation with Indonesia is worrying. 

Recent discoveries of mass Rohingya graves in Thailand and other global atrocities should suggest that the boats aren’t stopping. Persecution isn’t easing. In fact, a growing coldness of countries and individuals towards one another is in stark contrast to post-World War II resettlement programs.

Abbott’s desire for military involvement in Syria and Iraq is apparently about the human rights of the persecuted, mainly of the Muslim faith, but domestically they are a target for dog-whistling fear, distrust and wedge politics. 

The Australian government has achieved its short-term objective by playing “out of sight, out of mind” politics. The number of displaced people is growing, but Australia is stopping the arrival of refugees “by hook or by crook”, which could mean anything from payments to smugglers or even deaths at sea from starvation, drowning or murder. 

I call this strategy for dealing with displaced people the “Ratsak Solution” – they go away to die. Given the secrecy of “on-water” matters, and adherence to Abbott’s slogan politics, anything could be happening on the seas around Australia. 

The Ratsak approach may work in the short term, but if there is no worldwide attempt to address the longer-term issues of poverty, persecution and climate change, the consequences will revisit us. The Abbotts of this world will have moved on, but the lack of vision will leave a price for others to pay. 

Not knowing all the answers on displaced people should not be an excuse for rationalising their neglect. But given Abbott’s “do anything to get the job” attitude to politics, and presumably anything to keep it, the last thing that the PM wants is a genuine consensus on the asylum-seeker issue. His entire life in politics has been based on encouraging and fanning division within society. Whether it be climate science, windmills, school and university education, the strategy is always the same – divide and, in his mind at least, rule. 

So the rhetoric regarding safe borders and the protection of the fortunate from the unfortunate is little more than bumper-sticker messaging. It treats an extremely complicated issue with a level of simplicity that dumbs down the population. It chases away the thoughtfulness that brings with it empathy. 

The following is a controversial view, but it is one this government has forced me to hold: I believe that any tragedy or terrorist activity in Australia would almost be welcomed because of the political benefits that would flow from it. The continual progression of asylum-seeker and terrorist law is all about where the blame can be laid when that tragedy occurs, rather than engaging with the domestic and international drivers of these issues. This is all very well in the short term, but what Abbott and his conservative colleagues don’t seem to appreciate, or perhaps care about, are the long-term implications. 

There are a number of questions that require answers. What are the long-term consequences of combining the issue of terrorism with the plight of people seeking asylum? What are the consequences of demonising Muslims with incessant dog-whistling about race and religion and difference? Is anyone in the government or the opposition joining the dots? 

And there is more. What are we doing to our long-term relationship with Indonesia and others in the so-called area of influence, and what does it mean for our future in Asia? Does anyone realise that we need these people more than they need us? Is the trashing of our international reputation of concern to the Australian community? 

I recall a rather caustic conversation with another great exponent of fear-based politics, Alexander Downer, in 2008 – just prior to his resignation from parliament. Downer went on a tirade over how useless independents were in terms of influencing policy, saying we were essentially a waste of space. I commented that One Nation’s Pauline Hanson was technically an independent when she sat in the parliament during the 1990s, and that she had been successful in “scripting “ Downer’s foreign affairs policy. This caused him to erupt. But the point was made: the use of ethnic differences and fear were great political tools for the Howard government, as instanced by the Tampa, children overboard and weapons of mass destruction issues. The Liberal party was playing with Hanson’s fringe politics then, just as Abbott is now. It’s no wonder Abbott chased Hanson out of parliament, before she was landed in jail – she was occupying his natural territory. 

That conversation with Downer encapsulates the Abbott government approach to these and other global issues, where leadership rather then denigration and the take-up of Hanson policies is required. Senator John Madigan’s plea in terms of the morality and humanity regarding Australia’s recent payments to people smugglers represents a community concern – and perhaps guilt – in relation to the harshness of the debate. It represents the shame, too, at the Labor Party’s glue-like adherence to anything Abbott says. 

Abbott is reported as thinking of changing his mind about Australia’s role in the Paris climate change debate. This is necessary, and a relief if it sees some shift in policy. Let’s hope he can rethink our position on asylum seekers. Without change, the system of punitive self-interest pursued by this government and others before it will be regarded in generations to come as a national disgrace – a dark spot on our history, when political imagination was replaced by cruelty and fear. This is not the Australia I want.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 27, 2015 as "Stop the brutes". Subscribe here.

Tony Windsor
is the former independent member for the federal seat of New England. He has held balance of power positions in both the NSW and federal parliaments.