Evidently the punters are impressed with Kevin Rudd’s handling of the asylum seeker issue, what with a 4 point Newspoll bounce this week, although perhaps it was Malcolm Turnbull’s return to Temporary Protection Visas, given the Coalition slumped — “slumped” being one of those terms peculiar to polling commentary — 4 points.

In reality, the Prime Minister’s handling of the Oceanic Viking issue has been singularly inept. For a bloke who has set such a high standard of discipline and controlled messaging, he has never looked in control of it and he has gotten worse as the issue has developed.

He is currently maintaining that the “deal” offered to the asylum seekers who have, effectively, hijacked the Oceanic Viking, is in no way better than they would have otherwise received.

In doing so, Rudd has displayed all his worst traits — the hiding behind public servants, the insistence that he is not across the details, the unwillingness to make the smallest admission lest it be construed as some sort of victory for the Opposition.

Remind you of anyone?

It’s particularly laughable when Rudd insists on pointing to a letter from one of his own “independent””Departmental Secretaries as evidence that the recalcitrance of the Oceanic Viking group is not being rewarded with special treatment. “The group is being treated in a manner consistent with that afforded to any other asylum seeker or refugee in Indonesia,” Immigration Secretary Andrew Metcalfe has written.

The essence of the offer to the Oceanic Viking group is the offer to process them in the following manner:

  1. If UNHCR has found you to be a refugee — Australian officials will assist you to be resettled within four to six weeks from the time you disembark the vessel.
  2. If you have already registered with UNHCR — Australian officials will assist with your UNHCR processing. If you are found to be a refugee, you will be resettled within 12 weeks from the time you disembark.
  3. If you have not yet registered with UNHCR — Australian officials will assist with your UNHCR processing. If you are found to be a refugee, you will be resettled within 12 weeks from the time you disembark. When you are safely onshore in Indonesia an Australian immigration officer will be in contact with you every day.

The most recent figures suggest there are approximately 2100 asylum seekers currently being processed by the UNHCR in Indonesia, apart from this group. There is anecdotal evidence of asylum seekers waiting over 24 months for a determination by the UNHCR, and then waiting longer for resettlement (the UNHCR was approached for information on processing times but was unable to provide it by deadline).

It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that, if the group is being treated in a manner consistent with that afforded to any other asylum seekers in Indonesia, the treatment it is receiving is altogether more expeditious.

In fact the commitment made by the Government is roughly in accordance with Department of Immigration, rather than UNHCR, standards. The Department of Immigration has a target of 90 days to process “on-shore” applications for protection visas, under legislation introduced by the Howard Government. In 2008-09, 77% of applications were dealt with within 90 days, and 60% within six weeks, although there was a small increase in the number of applications.

A Department of Immigration spokesperson told Crikey this morning that the number had fallen this financial year to 75% of applications, under pressure from a rise in applicants. We asked how long it normally takes to release a detainee into the community once their application for a protection visa has been approved, but they were unable to tell us.

But based on normal Immigration processing times, in effect, the group will receive the same treatment they would get if they had been taken to Christmas Island, albeit without an explicit commitment to be resettled in Australia.

The Government’s claim that the group has not been offered special treatment simply doesn’t stack up.

Bizarrely, Malcolm Turnbull is pursuing the issue from the perspective of whether the Prime Minister has misled Parliament. Does he still, even after the Godwin Grech business, harbour some fantasy of forcing Rudd to resign in a supreme “gotcha” moment?

All he has to do is to keep Rudd talking about how he didn’t know the details of the deal, and how there’s no special deal because Andrew Metcalfe says there isn’t, and how he’s tough but humane, and the reputational damage will continue to accrue to Rudd, who looks more and more unconvincing on this issue.

Meantime, the boats keep arriving. Whatever Kevin Rudd’s message is on asylum seekers, he needs to change it soon.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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