The destructive and divisive debate about various asylum policies is designed to scare us. The most shameful manifestation of this in the past few weeks has been the alleged “terrorist” in community detention.

A person sought asylum in Australia. He was given an adverse security assessment. He was then held in community detention with his family. He was subject to reporting and monitoring. The authorities knew where he was at all times. Given these facts we were probably safer from him (if indeed he was a danger to the security of Australia) than from the mindless violence that seems to happen on our streets with depressing regularity. We should not hide behind an ASIO assessment as a way to whip up community fear and insecurity, and in the process destroy a family.

If we take on trust the policies on refugees and asylum seekers that the main parties are taking into the election campaign, it makes for disturbing reading. Setting aside the posturing, what do they really say they are going to do?

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The Coalition says it will stop the boats and tighten up the process for determining if a person is a refugee. Labor, saddled by incumbency and actually having to have a policy, says it would also tighten up the refugee determination process, keep mandatory detention, strengthen regional co-operation and try to stop the boats.

The reality is there are no magic answers to the question of asylum and why people get onto boats.  There is no one action that will make the “problem” go away, despite what Opposition Leader Tony Abbott or Prime Minister Julia Gillard say.

Here is a quick summary of what the two main parties stand for.

The ALP platform is pretty quiet on the issue of regional co-operation and creating a genuine regional protection framework, where people do not feel that their only way to safety is taking a dangerous journey by sea.  The best clues to its polices are found in the budget papers, in which the government has committed additional funding for the Bali Process, for capacity building and enhanced screening and refugee resettlement. It will take time to work, and 100 days will not cut it.

“In his rhetoric, Abbott proposes three things to stop the boats. None of them will work.”

The opposition, on the other hand, has very little to say in its “weighty” policy document “Our Plan; Real Solutions for all Australians“. The Coalition aims to “rebuild relationships with our neighbours damaged by Labor’s mismanagement and failed border security policies” and says the first overseas trip Tony Abbott would make as prime minister would be to Indonesia to renew co-operation against people smugglers. That is not a policy, let alone likely to bring any results.

The real damage, fueled by the Greens and the opposition, in our regional relations is the way we have continued to insult Indonesia and Malaysia while they continue to host much larger numbers of displaced people than Australia.

Whatever the public debate has been on asylum seekers there was an encouraging all-party agreement on the resettlement of refugees from overseas. The increase of the program to 20,000 with 12,000 for offshore resettlement had been a beacon of hope in an otherwise awful debate. It is regrettable the opposition has now gone back on its promise to maintain that number and in its platform returns the program to the previous 13,750, while reserving 11,000 places for the offshore program.

On paper, the parties are all quite muted on boats. The ALP’s platform merely says we need to ensure we meet our safety of life at sea obligations. We all know what Abbott would do: “A new order to the navy to tackle illegal boat arrivals and turn back the boats, when safe to do so.”

The  Houston Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers, however, suggested it would be better to focus on regional and national codification of Search and Rescue protocols and the development of operational guidelines. If we truly want to prevent tragedies, it is these arrangements and protocols that are much more important than the empty and ultimately unachievable rhetoric of “stop the boats”.

In his rhetoric, Abbott proposes three things to stop the boats. None of them will work. He said he would reopen Nauru. The government has done this, but the boats have kept coming. He said he would re-introduce temporary protection visas, but we know that when the Howard government did this the number of asylum seekers increased, and many people drowned. Abbott keeps telling us that he would turn back the boats, but both the Indonesian government and our own navy have cast doubt on the possibility of such an approach.

Both the government and the opposition want to toughen the penalties for people smuggling, but there is little actual policy.

In any event the number of asylum seekers coming to Australia by both air and sea are very small in world terms. Our “problem” is overwhelmingly a political one, with politicians on both sides appealing to our darker angels of fear.

Where is the voice for decency?

* John Menadue is former secretary of the Department of Immigration. Arja Keski-Nummi is former senior refugee policy officer in Department of Immigration. They are fellows of the Centre for Policy Development

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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