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Issue #1533      1 February 2012

Back to the bad old days for Abbott

Federal Liberal leader Tony Abbott loves old fashioned political “solutions”. Last week he provoked anger when he declared, with reference to Canberra’s Aboriginal tent embassy that things should “move on”.

Abbott later denied he had meant nothing offensive. But how could anyone interpret his statement other than meaning that the embassy should be removed?

He’s also reported to have said that the embassy is an eyesore. On the 40th anniversary of its establishment, his statements were bound to offend Aboriginal people and others who consider the treatment of Indigenous Australians an eyesore on the history of Australia.

A jackass, but dangerous

Not content with offending Aboriginal people, Abbott also sparked a domestic and international furore by declaring that under a conservative coalition government the Australian Navy would force asylum seeker boats back to Indonesia.

Richard Towle, regional representative of UNHCR (the UN High Commission for Refugees) tactfully pointed out: “Any such blanket approach would potentially place Australia in breach of its obligations under the Refugee Convention and other international law obligations, and – as past experience has shown – is operationally difficult and dangerous for all concerned.”

This didn’t worry Abbott. He indicated that the Coalition would just sort things out with the Indonesians, and wouldn’t lose much sleep about international treaty obligations. He sneered: “The next Coalition government will have a Jakarta focus to its foreign policy, not a Geneva focus”.

Adopting the arrogant stance of colonial powers, he stated imperiously: “The (Australian) Navy has done it before. [There’s] no reason why they can’t do it safely again. … The legal home of these vessels, Indonesian flagged, Indonesian crewed, Indonesian ported, is in Indonesia.”

The Indonesian government was less than impressed. The Indonesian national police chief spokesman stated: “You have to hand them (asylum seekers) over for processing to UNHCR, just like Indonesia.” A spokesman for the president stated bluntly that his country did not interfere with Australian political affairs. Hinting that Abbott’s policy had the potential to damage diplomatic relationships between Australia and Indonesia, he said pointedly: “We closely observe the long-term relationship of the two countries”.

Following suicidal precedents

Alarmed at Abbott’s approach, the Australian Navy’s Admiral Barrie pointed out that it was both impractical and highly dangerous for asylum seekers and (by implication) for our regional relationships.

He said: “Irrespective of any government’s policy, I’m sure our officers will act in accordance with international law and the safety of life at sea conventions. Policy can’t override international law and cannot tell a commanding officer what decisions he must make at sea at the time.”

Admiral Barrie also noted that under international law a boat must be seaworthy and navigable, and its passengers in good condition before it can be turned around. His well-intentioned advice was wasted. If Abbott ever became Prime Minister the evidence to date indicates strongly that he would direct the Navy to carry out his orders, regardless of any potential breach of international treaty obligations, or any risk of damage to our international relations. However, if a diplomatic row did break out, he’d be the first to blame someone else for it.

Since Abbott gained leadership of the federal Liberals, his behaviour has given the government plenty of reasons to reject all his reactionary policies. But it hasn’t done so. For example, the Northern Territory intervention, initiated by Abbott’s idol John Howard, remains in place. It was one of the prime underlying causes of the resentment that erupted in last week’s Canberra restaurant demonstration.

The odious policy of processing asylum seeker applications for asylum off-shore has also been preserved as official Labor policy. The government doesn’t have the number of parliamentary seats to implement its infamous “Malaysian solution”, because of the implacable opposition from the Greens, and from the conservative Coalition who claim that the equally infamous Nauru option is a better deal.

It is, however, possible that the government is cynically using the off-shore processing impasse to its electoral advantage. After all, the fact that processing is now of necessity taking place on the mainland has taken some of the sting out of objections to the off-shore policy, which had been voiced by a very wide range of organisations and individuals – including one former Liberal prime minister. On the other hand, each of the two major parties can reassure redneck voters that the failure to implement off-shore processing is the other party’s fault.

The government has taken a number of initiatives that have been highly praiseworthy – for example plain paper packaging for cigarettes. However, it remains committed to the same policies as the Liberals, with only slightly modified variations, on a wide range of issues.

It has, for example clung limpet-like to mandatory detention of asylum seekers. That policy has resulted in the gross overcrowding of detention centres, agonising delays in processing of applications, (sometimes for years), suicides, mental breakdowns, riots, and punishment that has included jail sentences for some asylum seekers who have rebelled against this grossly unjust treatment.

The government has also adopted a policy of charging members of the crews of asylum seeker boats with people smuggling, and has introduced mandatory sentencing for this offence. As a result the government has been able to claim that dozens of people smugglers have been apprehended, whereas in reality most of those imprisoned have been young men and boys from impoverished rural families, innocent of any serious offence.

Almost all the real people smugglers have remained secure in the ports of origin of the boats. According to Federal Police, only two percent of those charged have actually been involved in organising people smuggling, and most of that two percent were extradited from other countries, rather than arriving with the boats. Moreover, the mandatory detention regime has imposed enormous financial and managerial burdens on the states’ courts.

The Labor government should abandon these “copy-cat” conservative policies. If they don’t, the electorate will certainly abandon the government.  

Next article – Struggle and working class history

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