John Quiggin of the University of Queensland writes:

The
Howard government’s past misdeeds, most of which seemed at the time to
be consequence-free, are catching up with it. The AWB scandal is an
obvious example, with the important observation that the “Children
Overboard” episode ensured that no-one (other than those wanting to be
duped, unfortunately a large group) believed the government’s initial
denials of knowing anything about the whole business.

Perhaps
more serious, in terms of its consequences for Australia’s national
interests, is the dispute with Indonesia over the granting of temporary
protection visas to 42 Papuan “illegals” (the term popularised by
former Immigration Minister and current Attorney-General Philip Ruddock.

Under
the international law that prevailed in the past, these people would
have been asylum seekers, with a wide range of legal rights (the
process of stripping back these rights was started by Labor, but
extended massively by Ruddock and Howard). If their cases had proved
successful, the government could reasonably claim to be bound by treaty
obligations.

Now however, “we will decide who comes here and under what
circumstances”. People fleeing Saddam Hussein and the war in
Afghanistan have been pushed back to sea, to take their chances, or
subjected to close and critical scrutiny, in a process with the
presumptions all stacked against them.

So,
assuming a consistent process is taking place, the decision to grant
visas to the Papuans amounts to a judgement that the Indonesian
government is far worse than Saddam or the Taliban, so much so that
their illegal arrival can be disregarded. Not surprisingly, the
Indonesians are not taking this at all well.

The best thing the
government could do for Australia is to admit that its actions in 2001
were a desperate and cruel, but successful, political manoeuvre, aimed
at winning votes from a panicked electorate, and that nothing it said
or did at the time should be regarded as part of our true policy.
Almost certainly, that is the message being conveyed privately to the
Indonesians, but what’s needed is some sort of public apology, and this
is not a government that’s good at saying “Sorry”.

Peter Fray

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