Paul Bongiorno
Tony Abbott and political shame on Malaysian Solution

When Derryn Hinch had his nightly current affairs show on Channel Ten a quarter of a century ago – time flies – he had a segment called the “Shame File”. It was a device to name and shame: crooks, shonks, anyone the man known as the “Human Headline” believed deserved public censure.

Next week, Senator-elect Hinch will join other new members of the upper house for what’s affectionately known as “Pollie School”. He will be walking into a parliament that has its own contemporary version of a shame file hanging over it. More than one file, it is 2000 leaked reports from staff on Nauru from May 2013 to October 2015. They were published almost two weeks ago by Guardian Australia.

As the news site spelled out, more than 50 per cent of the reports from the detention centre on the remote Pacific hellhole involved children. It is a catalogue of disgrace that the Australian government doesn’t want to know about or admit any responsibility for. This despite the fact Australian taxpayers plough $1.2 billion a year into the latest version of the so-called Pacific Solution that encompasses Manus Island and Nauru. Manus, at least, is to be closed but the fate of its detainees is still in limbo.

The immigration minister, Peter Dutton, dismissed the revelations as “nothing new”. Even more weirdly, he suggested, “People have self-immolated to get to Australia.” The government is convinced if it blinks and allows any of these 1750 men, women and children to come to Australia it would send a green light for the people-smuggling trade to return in earnest.

And then there is the ugly partisan politics playing for all its worth on this issue. Put simply, the Liberal Party sees border security as its electoral strength and Labor’s weakness. It’s a card that John Howard played in 2001 to great effect in an election he was nervous about winning. But a more recent and telling example is the Abbott opposition’s refusal to support the Gillard government’s so-called Malaysian Solution.

In a moment of confessional frankness, Tony Abbott now says his blocking of the plan to swap 800 boat people for 4000 refugees languishing in Malaysia was a bad idea. Five years ago it was always seen as unconscionable hypocrisy on the part of the Liberals, who sided with the Greens in the senate to block Gillard’s attempts to validate the deal after the High Court struck it down. At least the Greens are consistently high-minded on the issue, if unrealistic on how to deal with it.

Abbott says he doubted if the plan would have worked. Immigration officials at the time persuaded the Labor government that it would work because it was a version of “turn-backs”. The boat people wanted Australia as their destination not Malaysia. The theory went: by denying them their goal, the people smugglers would be denied their business model. But whatever the merits and demerits, Abbott says: “Still, letting it stand would have been an acknowledgement of the government of the day’s mandate to do the best it could, by its own lights, to meet our nation’s challenges.” Yes, indeed.

Six hundred more asylum seekers died attempting to come to Australia after the Malaysian Solution was sunk. That was the human cost. But the blame for it is thrown endlessly at the Gillard government by the very people who did everything to thwart its attempt at some sort of humane solution.

There was a political cost as well, as Tony Abbott also spelled out. If he and his immigration spokesman at the time, Scott Morrison, supported Gillard Labor, “It would have been a step back from the hyper-partisanship that now poisons our public life.” Never a truer word spoken by one of the major perpetrators of the toxicity. How to take him at his word is now the question. The dumped prime minister goes on to spell out a formula for consensus as the path to nation building. In his speech to the conservative Sir Samuel Griffith Society in Adelaide, he said: “All of us need to dwell less on what divides us and more on what unites us, and to have an open mind for good ideas – as the Howard opposition did with the economic reforms of the Hawke government.”

Of course, the template for our Westminster-based democratic model is adversarial politics. We even have “Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition”. The temptation for political advantage is seen not as a vice but rather as a virtue. But there are limits, such as decency and the common good. And before we get too excited about a possible Damascene conversion on Abbott’s part, we should remember the man has form. He’s much like an addict who knows he has to kick the habit, says he’s going to do it, only to keep falling off the wagon.

Back in 2000, after the suicide of Labor MP Greg Wilton shocked the parliament, one of the most heartfelt condolence speeches was made by Tony Abbott. In a reflective mood, he told the house: “The best thing we could do would be to rededicate ourselves to be kinder and gentler to each other.” Two days later, in a nasty question time, Abbott was back to operatic rancour. Two days after his “kinder and gentler” speech, he became the first minister in 40 years to be kicked out of the parliament. In fact, he had to be escorted out when it was feared he was about to biff a heckling backbencher. His attacks on Gillard were brutal if also potent.

The big question now is whether Malcolm Turnbull, who came to the top job after deposing Abbott and promising a more inclusive approach, will at least try to put his predecessor’s fine sentiments into practice. There could be no issue more pressing than the running sore that the Pacific Solution has become. Our shame is no longer confined to domestic politics. There were reports this week that British foreign minister Boris Johnson is being urged to remind the Australian high commissioner Alexander Downer of our obligations under various United Nations human rights conventions.

Good luck with that, as Downer himself admitted in the ABC TV series The Howard Years that he was the one who came up with the idea of sending asylum seekers to Nauru. In 2001, Howard was desperate to find somewhere to send the 400 men and women trapped on the Tampa. Downer knew the busted-arse micro-nation would be more than happy to help out. It had recently approached him for more Australian aid. At least then it still paid lip service to democracy and an independent judiciary. No more. It has now become a failed state, one that Canberra insists is responsible for implementing the humanitarian obligations it signed up to at Australia’s urging. Cynical window-dressing doesn’t begin to describe it.

The Labor opposition is giving Turnbull every opportunity to find a bipartisan solution to the crisis. Bill Shorten has urged Malcolm Turnbull to join him on a visit to Nauru. That offer has already been rejected. Labor’s new immigration spokesman, Shayne Neumann, is clearly looking for a more compassionate answer for which both the major parties can wear responsibility. Neumann is calling for an office of an independent children’s advocate, a senate inquiry into Nauru, and resettlement of the detainees in third countries including New Zealand. Australia itself may not be out of the question. He says it was never Labor’s intention in setting up the new Pacific Solution for it to lead to indefinite detention.

Neumann believes Australia is reaching a tipping point on Nauru. This view is shared by veteran Liberal backbencher Russell Broadbent. He says the Australian people’s patience is running out with the cruelty to women and children on Nauru.

Neumann says that the recent election showed the boat people scare is not playing as potently in the electorate as it once was. There is not only a sense of humanitarian urgency here but a real chance to redefine the problem. So far, however, the Liberals are disinclined to give up their political advantage on the issue.

Or on any issue if it comes to that. Malcolm Turnbull is now intent on shaming Labor into backing $6 billion worth of budget cuts when the parliament resumes. He says he’s ready to “reach out across the aisle” but Labor must bring an open mind and fiscal rationality to any discussions. Shorten shot back that co-operation doesn’t mean the prime minister telling everyone else what to do.

The political sting, of course, is governments cop the blame if they fail to deliver on their promises, especially ones as critical as budget repair. In that Shorten has a point when he asks on what Turnbull is prepared to compromise. There are many options on offer that would deliver billions in savings besides tax cuts to huge corporations.

A poor outcome on the budget has serious long-term consequences for the country. But in terms of the nation’s reputation, a failure to end the cruelty of indefinite detention on Nauru is much worse. It will be an enduring and shameful indictment on any claim to be Australia fair.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 20, 2016 as "Shameless in Canberra".

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Paul Bongiorno is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a 30-year veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery.

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