There are some words one is loath to reach for in politics. Voters may not think it, but rare is the politician at the federal level who isn’t there, even in this benighted age, because she or he genuinely wants to do good by Australia. They may be utterly confused, ignorant or lazily unaware about how to maximise the national interest, but they still pursue it. As a consequence, daring to pass moral judgment on politicians can be hazardous and unfair. One may charge them with cynicism or opportunism, yes, but that is more a judgment on their tactics than on their morality.
But, having paid close or not-so-close attention to federal politics since the early 1980s, I can’t do anything but conclude that the Coalition’s current stance on asylum seekers is the clearest example of outright evil that I’ve ever seen from a political party at the federal level.
As is clear to every other member of Parliament, it is clear to Coalition MPs that Australia’s current de facto position on processing asylum seekers onshore isn’t deterring people who otherwise face many years awaiting resettlement from getting in boats, and therefore risking their lives. People are dying as a consequence, in large numbers. But the Coalition has no interest in altering this position. Shadow immigration minister Scott Morrison showed that last night when he made clear on 7.30 that even if Labor embraced the Coalition’s position entirely it wouldn’t get agreement.
Not merely does the Coalition not want to address the current tragic situation, it actively advocates policies that evidence shows will exacerbate it. If Labor did embrace the Coalition’s position entirely — Nauru, temporary protection visas, turning boats around where possible — it would be doing so knowing full well none of those policies will deter boat arrivals, and indeed in the case of TPVs the evidence shows they would encourage boat arrivals. Labor cannot in good conscience do that and they should be savagely condemned if they did.
Nonetheless, this has led to some weird questioning from the media of Immigration Minister Chris Bowen about why the government won’t simply do that, as if the matter of whether a policy will save lives or lead to more deaths is just another example of Canberra he-said-she-said, as if Labor was simply being stubborn and there was no difference between government and opposition policies. It’s either the most sickeningly cynical stuff we’ve seen from the Press Gallery in a long time, or an example of profound ignorance of the issue, or perhaps both.
There is no “impasse” here. There is simple bloodymindedness in the face of offers of compromise. The government has bent over backwards to accommodate the opposition’s policies while retaining the one policy that may work, offshore processing with no guarantee of being resettled in Australia, coupled with an increase in our humanitarian intake and support for the UNHCR. It has offered to reopen Nauru as a billion-dollar staging post for asylum seekers on their way to being settled in Australia, as it was last time except for the asylum seekers we could gull into returning to Afghanistan or palm off onto the Kiwis or the Norwegians. That would waste vast amounts of money, but it’s only money, not lives.
But, no deal from Tony Abbott’s opposition. No deal because, as everyone knows, the opposition believes it profits politically from each boat arrival. No deal despite people dying; men, women and kids dying horrendous deaths.
The Greens haven’t been much better. They’ve achieved a big policy win: their policy of onshore processing is the country’s de facto policy. The evidence that it isn’t working hasn’t shifted their position. They talk of expanding our humanitarian intake, which is exactly what Bowen proposed as part of the Malaysia Solution, based on the logic that Australia needed to do more to take pressure off the processes whereby asylum seekers can be resettled here without resorting to boat journeys.
At least Christine Milne this morning proposed a way forward based on a multi-party committee, her favoured tool for resolving gridlock. Yes, it’s yet another committee undertaking yet another inquiry but there is some potential there — Milne’s view is that such committees, which involve extensive input from experts, can provide a forum for politicians to abandon rigid positions without losing face.
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But it depends on good faith from the Coalition. Of that, there is none to be had.
What will otherwise achieve change? Well, not the latest sinking. It will disappear from the media cycle; there aren’t the graphic pictures that accompanied the December 2010 Christmas Island tragedy to keep it going. Parliament will go into its winter recess at the end of this week and the issue will vanish until the next sinking. Until the next deaths.