The Malaysia deal. Let’s separate the policy from the politics.

The policy — Bernard Keane writes in Crikey today, “having spent so long insisting ‘push’ factors were the key to the rise in asylum seekers heading for Australia, the deal with Malaysia finally announced yesterday looks awfully like an acknowledgement that “pull” factors are critical. The test will only really come when there’s another surge in asylum seekers in our region…”

The politics — it’s still stop the boats. Air arrivals never have, and never will it seems, lodge in the public consciousness the way leaky boats do. And so, we have a discussion about border protection policy that focuses on a small slice of the picture and collectively ignores the wider context, and the wider problem.

There is no doubting Immigration Minister Chris Bowen’s conviction that he never ever wants to take a phone call like the one he picked up from Christmas Island back in December. There is a genuine need to stop people risking their lives on the sea. But the push v pull factor is still up for debate. It is very difficult to ascertain how “the message” to smugglers and their potential clients filters back.

Prime Minister Gillard put the pledge to crack down on the boats front and centre of her election campaign, right in line with Tony Abbott. She made it an election issue. Make no mistake, this is why we are talking about the Malaysia deal. The commentary today focuses on the political capital that Gillard and Bowen will earn if they pull this thing off, not the safety of asylum seekers.

Australia is accepting an additional 4000 refugees from Malaysia. This is to be applauded. However, UNHCR has not signed its support on the dotted line. It has agreed to monitor the process, but stated “UNHCR’s preference has always been an arrangement which would enable all asylum seekers arriving by boat into Australian territory to be processed in Australia. This would be consistent with general practice.” It does, however, note that “the potential to work towards safe and humane options for people other than to use dangerous sea journeys are also positive features of this Arrangement.”

As Immigration Policy Minister Chris Bowen acknowledged in an interview with The Australian Financial Review over the weekend:

“Handling the asylum seeker issue should occupy about 5 per cent of my time…Clearly, it is taking a lot more than that.”

If only we had leaders who would genuinely seek to re-educate the public so that the problem occupied about 5% of their fears.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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