Xenophobia is a dangerous
political tactic. John Howard played with fire in 2001 when he used the
Tampa affair to pander to isolationist sentiment in Australia: who can
forget “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances
in which they come”? Now the views that he fostered have come back to
burn him.

Howard’s message in 2001 was that Australia could
disregard world opinion, the United Nations and international law. In
his own mind, the current proposals to extend the “Pacific solution”
are probably just more of the same. But the public perception is quite
different, and this time xenophobia is working against him: he is seen
to be kow-towing to Indonesian pressure. As opposition spokesman Tony
Burke put it in parliament yesterday, “this Government decided to
abandon Australian sovereignty. This Government decided that Indonesia
will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which
they come.”

Last night on The 7.30 Report
Amanda Vanstone tried to put a brave face on the legislation: “This is
an application of an existing policy, but instead of it only applying
to those people who arrive on nearby islands that are Australian, it
also applies to people who manage to touch the mainland.” But pressed
by Kerry O’Brien, she conceded the basic point: “Well, I think, as you
say, it is indisputable we’ve taken into account the concerns of

Truth is, full-blooded isolationism isn’t really an
option. Of course Australia should listen to the concerns of our
neighbours and of the international community in general. But the irony
is that had we done so in 2001, we would now have an iron-clad response
to Indonesian pressure: that our legal and moral responsibilities to
refugees trump the immediate demands of the bilateral relationship.
Having thrown away the moral high ground over Tampa, Howard is having a
hard time trying to recover it.

Greg Sheridan in today’s Australian
endorses the pro-Indonesian line, but he thinks public opposition to it
is just “an indictment of the Government’s political management.” He
says that “The worst jingoistic nationalism … has been called into
life by the politics of this measure.” But who made jingoistic
nationalism a centrepiece of public policy in the first place?

Peter Fray

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Editor-in-chief of Crikey