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Jul 26, 2011

How can we tell if the Malaysian deal works?

It's unclear whether the Malaysian deal will work and it has risks, but it is the least-worst solution currently available form the major parties.


It’s not clear whether the Government’s announcement on 7 May about a deal on asylum seekers had a significant deterrent effect on boat arrivals. What is clear is that there has been a huge fall in the number of arrivals this year, even before 7 May.

The dirty secret of the asylum seeker debate is that something is stopping the boats, but it’s most likely the shift in asylum seeker sources away from the Asian region toward Europe over the course of 2010.

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, courtesy of civil war or, as recent history suggests is more likely, people like us invading other countries.

The deal, of course, doesn’t apply to the much larger number of asylum seekers who arrive by air, who are the subject of a strange conspiracy of silence across all disputants in the debate; the official line for all sides is that the real issue is stopping dangerous maritime journeys, but it’s odd how the “queue jumper” rhetoric seems to vanish despite the fact that people arriving by boat have a far higher success rate in applying for humanitarian visas than those arriving by air. Plainly, people coming through airports don’t push the buttons of hostility in Australians that boat arrivals do, despite boat arrivals being subjected to far heavier vetting and screening than people going through Customs on a tourism visa.

Still, the deal falls over the line for the Government: the UNHCR will be closely involved in monitoring the deal, despite not signing but merely (and pointedly) “noting” the agreement yesterday, although Labor would have been pleased the UNHCR’s statement made a clear reference to the purpose being to prevent loss of life at sea. It loosely fits the “regional solution” rhetoric that Julia Gillard has been pushing since her first frantic days as Prime Minister and her to-do list of watering down the mining tax, pandering to hostility toward asylum seekers and pretending to do something about climate change.

There is criticism both that the conditions detainees sent to Malaysia will face are too generous, and that they are too harsh, which will be spun as evidence the Government “got the balance right”. The issue of unaccompanied minors has been dealt with via a rule of “no blanket exemptions” (the Government had no choice, given any exemptions would operate like TPVs and encourage boat arrivals) but with the wriggle room that case-by-case judgments will be made.

Best of all — or should that be least worst of all — it expands, albeit only for four years, Australia’s humanitarian intake, the single best thing a wealthy country can do for asylum seekers.

What it also does is outsource a political problem to the Malaysian Government. Guarantees about the treatment of detainees sent to Malaysia won’t be worth a great deal if anything untoward befalls one of them, even accidentally — the federal government will be held responsible under the same logic that had Peter Garrett responsible for “industrial manslaughter” because of shonks in the insulation industry.

And how much is a commitment on human rights from the Malaysian Government worth anyway? This is a government with a wretched human rights record and a long history of abuse of its own citizens, let alone those from other countries. Much political damage could accrue to Labor from things that are entirely outside its control. However, it will be counting on events in Malaysia being out of the gaze of most voters, compared to rooftop protests at Villawood that are all too public.

It’s a shaky policy, with plenty of risk, and it will be hard to tell whether it works or not given the current lull in asylum seeker movements in our region. But contrary to the all the noise from both Left and Right, it’s a better policy than the Coalition’s, which consists of TPVs — that have a proven history of leading to the deaths of asylum seekers — and spending a billion dollars warehousing people in Nauru for two years before bringing them all to Australia. And if it does work, it’ll be time to move Chris Bowen to somewhere where his skills are put to better use than cleaning up one of Labor’s longest-running messes.


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