Australia, and especially its two major political parties, faces a major test in relation to its refugee policy in coming months. The conflicts in Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Afghanistan are producing a significant increase in asylum-seekers, and Australia is one of several countries they are likely to attempt to reach.
Such circumstances seem tailor-made for a desperate Opposition, unable to land a blow on the Government, to return to the politics of fear that characterised much of the Howard years, and which proved such fertile ground for a Prime Minister with a long history of seeking to exploit Australians’ darker instincts.
A moderate such as Sharman Stone — already rolled once by shadow Cabinet for daring to agree with the Government that charging ex-detainees for the costs of their detention was neither just nor particularly cost-effective — would not be the best salesperson for such a policy, which is presumably why the spruikers of Tony Abbott are today pushing for his shift to Immigration. But the onus is on the Coalition leadership to do what John Howard and Phillip Ruddock so clearly failed to do — resist the temptation to demonise asylum-seekers for political gain. Those men were faced with a clear moral challenge and failed it. The Liberal Party cannot be said to have moved on from the Howard years until it faces that same challenge and refuses to take the same path toward xenophobia.
The Government faces the same test, which it, too, failed when last in office, inaugurating the practice of locking up children and charging detainees for the costs of their incarceration. It has gradually worked its way toward a more humane and sensible policy in the last 18 months, but it has yet to be put through the ordeal of a shrieking media, tumbling opinion polls and incessant talkback demands to turn back the boats.
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