Despite the drama surrounding the Christmas Island tragedy, despite the hysteria from extremists on the Right and Left desperate to exploit it — and despite the government’s peculiar reaction to it — the basic policy problem around asylum seekers remains the same.

Australia still handles a trivial number of asylum seekers compared to many countries, despite the conflict-induced surge in refugees from the Middle East and conflicts such as the Tamil insurgency. There’s no policy problem around our refugee intake, except that for a country of our size and wealth it should be at the very least a little higher. There is a policy problem around the apparent ease with which people can enter Australia on tourist or student visas with the intention of staying here permanently, but that seems to attract little attention even from bigots.

The key policy problem is discouraging asylum seekers from attempting to reach Australia via dangerous boat trips.

No one else has found a solution to this in periods when refugees numbers are on the rise, as they have been in recent years. Hundreds — hundreds — of refugees and would-be immigrants drown trying to reach southern European countries like Spain and Greece every year. Nor is it merely about asylum seekers trying to reach wealthy western countries. Tens of thousands of Somali refugees try to cross the Gulf of Aden every year to Yemen, with many drowning in the attempt. Tamil refugees fleeing from Sri Lanka perish attempting to reach Tamil Nadu, despite a massive effort by the Indian Navy to deter them.

This is despite the fact that India isn’t even a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention. Advocates of Australia abandoning its UN refugee obligations might take note.

Claims by journalists and activists that somehow every inch of thousands of square nautical miles of ocean can be kept under surveillance in all conditions defy credibility.

The Opposition’s obsessive reliance on temporary protection visas won’t work either. The evidence is that TPVs encourage the families of asylum seekers to risk boat journeys to join loved ones here, not discourage them. That’s why so many women and children drowned when SIEV X foundered in October 2001.

Labor’s policy of a regional processing centre under the auspices of the UN is at best only a partial solution. In the absence of a system that process and places hundreds of thousands of refugees a year, clearing the vast human “backlog” of refugees and new ones forced from their homelands every year, asylum seekers will continue to risk their lives and property trying to reach southern Europe, and Yemen, and India and Australia.

And no system to do that is going to materialise any time soon, anywhere.

Labor should continue pursuing its regional processing option, even if it began life as a desperate effort to defuse the issue before the election. It’s a perfect example of Julia Gillard’s insistence that her government will take its time to achieve genuine reform.

Instead, the Prime Minister reacted yesterday with Labor’s typical determination to be all things to all people — a trait correctly noted by US diplomats on the asylum seeker issue — and cover its backside as much possible.

It was Rudd’s “tough but humane” phraseology that best exemplified his mixed messages on asylum seekers. It was a half-smart message designed to appeal to asylum seeker supporters and those who wanted to send them packing. It worked — in exactly the opposite way intended, alienating both. It is echoed in Gillard’s insistence on publicly showing compassion for the victims of the tragedy while railing against people smugglers — a faceless, easily demonised villain that, like attacking “drug dealers”, serves to obscure rather than illuminate the problem at hand.

And then there’s the confusion over exactly what her cross-party committee is to do. Initially the Prime Minister said yesterday that she wanted to “invite the Opposition, the Greens and the Independent members of Parliament to work with the government and the relevant agencies for managing the response to this incident.”

To be fair, she’d been at pains to stress this didn’t mean there shouldn’t be a debate about asylum seeker policy. But then “managing the response to this incident” became more receiving information about what happened, to ensure there was no dispute around the facts Children Overboard-style — a “bipartisan reporting mechanism”. But then in virtually the same sentence it morphed into a body that would draw conclusions and work out whether anything different should have been done. By the time her interview on The 7.30 Report rolled around, the mission had retreated again to receiving reports.

The Opposition is right to be chary of this, given the lack of clarity around the purpose of the committee.

And it’s hard to give the government the benefit of the doubt. This is the government of the “citizens’ assembly” on climate change, of the independent-chaired parliamentary committee into the MDB, one that seems permanently looking for political cover on difficult issues.

Despite the pressure to be seen to do something, the Prime Minister should take her own advice and keep on working on the limited policy options she’s got. It’s a problem that is not, for all the emotion and anger and tragedy, going to go away.

Peter Fray

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