A decade or so ago, the Howard government had a coherent, if immoral, line on asylum seekers. They represented a danger to Australia: it was never clear exactly why, but there was dark talk about health risks and security threats. In any case, they were the sort of people we didn’t want in the country, the sort of people who set fire to their own boats and threw the children overboard.

This line worked for a while; the government won two surprising election victories on the back of it, in 2001 and 2004. But it started to lose credibility as some of the untruths behind it were exposed, and as most of the asylum seekers processed were found to be genuine refugees.

So gradually the government changed tack. Instead of demonising refugees, it demonised the people who brought them here — the so-called “people smugglers”. While that had always been an element of the government’s rhetoric, during its final term it became dominant. Here, for example, is then-immigration minister Kevin Andrews in April 2007: “To settle in Australia those who tried to enter the country illegally would simply be a green light for people smugglers to try to persuade vulnerable people to pay for a passage to come here.”

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Refugees, that is, are “vulnerable people”; blame attaches not to them, but to the evil people-smugglers, just as drug prohibitionists for decades now have targeted “pushers” instead of the helpless “addicts”.

As I put it at the time, it’s “as if an anti-smoking policy was crafted not to stop people dying from lung cancer, but to stop tobacco companies making money”.

In a sense, this was a progressive move; the rhetoric towards refugees themselves softened, and their treatment improved marginally. But the original policy at least made sense, if one accepted its deeply flawed premises. The new one lacked even that. If seeking asylum was no longer of itself regarded as a crime, why was it such a wicked thing to facilitate people doing so?

The new Labor government, to its credit, never adopted the original Howard anti-refugee rhetoric. Instead it further liberalised treatment of asylum seekers, and then — whether as a result or not, no one really knows — was faced with a big increase in the numbers arriving by boat.

Whereupon the opposition reinvented itself as Howard Mark I, painted big red arrows on maps and portrayed refugees as some sort of existential threat.

Desperate to counter the attack, Kevin Rudd and (even more so) Julia Gillard fell back on Howard government Mark II, the demonisation of people-smugglers. Sure enough, it has led them into the same dead end of incoherent policy as it did Andrews and his colleagues.

Andrews’s remarks in 2007 were in support of a policy very like the one Gillard has just signed off on: a swap of asylum seekers, in that case with the United States. There were — and are — some humanitarian benefits, but it also cast “the governments of the US [now Malaysia] and Australia into the role of people traffickers who forcibly move individuals from one destination to another.”

Tony Abbott’s approach, although in my view despicable, is at least clear. He wants asylum seekers sent not to Malaysia but to Nauru, because in his eyes they deserve to be punished for exercising their legal rights. Asylum seekers sent to Malaysia, on the other hand, will be able to work and live in the community while their claims are being processed.

But if Malaysia, whose human rights record is rather worse than ours, is willing to extend such hospitality, why not do the same in Australia?

And if the only problem with that is that it would increase the profits of “people-smugglers” (although why that, taken in isolation, should itself be a problem remains a mystery), then why not look at ways to by-pass some paperwork to get more refugees onto planes to come here?

Just as he has with climate change, Abbott has taken the opposition back to the earlier Howard government, abandoning its deathbed conversions.

Gillard can at least boast that her new approach is more humane than that. If only it made sense.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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