The most alarming thing about our border protection arrangements in north-western Australia is not that they are insufficient, it’s that they are far in excess of what is justified.

We spend tens of millions of dollars on naval patrols in that area to intercept, at best, a few hundred asylum seekers. Meantime, thousands of illegal immigrants and criminals enter Australia through our airports, overstaying tourist or student visas, often disappearing into the community. If any terrorists are going to enter the country, that’s surely the entry mechanism. Of the 400-odd people in immigration detention on 30 June last year, 1% were boat arrivals. 7% were illegal fishermen. Nearly 90% arrived by air or overstayed visas.

Never mind the current increase in people smuggling, we’d have to reach Italian or Spanish levels of boat arrivals, numbering in the thousands, to justify the money we spend on naval patrols. But because we’re obsessed with boat arrivals, the absurd misallocation of resources to naval border protection continues and will worsen.

Maybe it’s our innate sense that, as an island, we should be safe from the sort of border insecurity that plagues most countries and water-borne refugees affront that. The Fraser Government adeptly handled the influx of Vietnamese refugees, over Labor objections. It was the Keating Government that really ramped up Government hostility to boat arrivals, particularly from China.

Until recently we were bringing in large numbers of Chinese workers on 457 visas. Back in the early 1990s, Labor started locking them up when they came, placing incarceration at the centre of Australian refugee policy, to public acclaim. And we all know how the Howard Government exploited the issue.

The Opposition — or at least some of them — has been consistently arguing that the Government has softened border protection, but refuses to say what it would actually do to strengthen protection. Would it restore temporary visas, which left asylum seekers in limbo for years, prevented from earning a wage or accessing decent services? Would it put them back on Nauru while they were processed and — inevitably, as in the case of nearly all the boat people who arrived during the Howard years — adjudged to be legitimate asylum seekers?

How, exactly, has the Government softened border protection when we retain the world’s strictest process for asylum seekers? The Opposition needs to point to facts, because it is making an extraordinarily grave allegation, that the Government has in effect willfully encouraged people smugglers. People smuggling is primarily an Indonesian activity and the solution lies in the Indonesian Government more effectively checking the activities of organised crime.

Nevertheless, the Government has a developing problem of perception. It can’t rely on Liberal moderates like Russell Broadbent, who commendably spoke out against the reaction yesterday, to throw the Coalition off course on this. The Opposition has little going for it, so it will exploit any issue it can. The Government needs to convey the context of the boat people “problem”: that it is a highly visible but minute part of a larger problem, a diversion that we cannot afford to stay obsessed with.

The alternative is another trip back to incarceration and punishment of asylum seekers. The ALP can never win that debate anyway and would lose its soul if it did.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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