New is old, old is new. The beginnings of what we know as “Australia” were rooted in England wanting a solution to their boat problem – floating prison boats. Therefore the English took off into Port Jackson and started the invasion of English values. Now the Labor movement, has given us commitments in the past to a White Australia and to mandatory detention has now delivered this mind boggling piece of evil genius, the PNG Solution.
Kevin Rudd has been very busy and focused and each one of his visits and actions have been pointed and deliberate – though I can’t imagine a single journalist or observer could have predicted that his visit to Papua New Guinea would yield this kind of plan. It will be easy to sell as a much more effective deterrent to these ever present “People Smugglers” than the Coalition’s unworkable and merely small scale evil Nauru / TPV / towback / turnback / boatphone policy. It’s been significant that Rudd and Bob Carr have been showing this week that they have a good working relationship with Indonesia, especially with the Iran visa block, while the Liberals have been made to look foolish while Indonesian ministers criticise their Howard era plan.
We can now look forward to Rudd the salesman repeating phrases about “orderly processing”, “waiting for proper channels in due season”, “making sure people don’t lose lives on these dangerous boats” and “smashing the people’s smugglers’ business model by denying them their most attractive product – Australia.” There are many who will call supporters of this policy “racist”, but they won’t have understood the dimensions of this issue, which for many has become about being “orderly” and “waiting your turn” – as if those things actually exist in international refugee movements. That is one of the concepts the Howard era successfully dropped into the public imagination and memory for many.
This is why the decision to make all successful asylum applications by boat arrivals Papua New Guinea’s “problem” will going to play well amongst those voters swinging between the ALP and the Coalition on this issue. It will demonstrate that he has a solution to the “orderly queue” issue. Rudd can also use that appeal of his to show that he has new ideas about it, while Abbott is left with a new catchphrase hiding old thinking – “We are the Original and the Best” in terms of being cynical about this issue. It will probably come out as a touch weak and show he is living in the past and out of touch with the latest techniques of being cruel (as well as recalling that figure that used to promote the “Original and the Best”. It would be a touch unfair to call Abbott the Gobbledok of Australian politics – the Gobbledok only had one phrase, and that only had one word).
As for the outrage that will emerge from many, I can’t imagine that Rudd and the strategists behind this Machiavellian push to clear the decks for the election will care too much. They will know that people who want humane treatment of asylum seekers are hardly going to switch to Abbott and Morrison, who may well be now trying to institute a “Sharknado the Boats” policy in order to appear more cruel and authoritarian than Rudd. He has left a clear message to these voters – this Labor Government is more concerned with the votes of “Working Families” than it is with people who want a more humanitarian state.
That gets back to the wider picture with this decision. Rudd is intending to neutralise the asylum seeker issue – make it a point of little difference from the Coalition, allowing him to focus on issues where there are considerable differences – health, education and industrial relations. The collateral damage – people who come to Australia on boat and their supporters – is small compared to the bigger power game. Care for asylum seekers is not a long term core Labor philosophy – care for workers’ jobs and entitlements is – and if this action helps the Labor movement continue in power in order to protect that, then so be it. We have seen the same attitude with the way Rudd has started to embrace CSG and scrapping Green industry incentive schemes. Care for the environment, too, is not core Labor movement philosophy. The challenge is out there – if you don’t like it, vote Green. In a compulsory preferential system, voters will have to choose between Coalition and Labor anyway for the House of Representatives.
In all of this is left Papua New Guinea, once upon a time our responsibility but has since become a nation in dire trouble with a revolving door of leaders and scandals – though not as doomed and poor as the former bird poo stronghold Nauru. This use of our impoverished Pacific neighbours is not new, even in this issue – Julia Gillard tried with her East Timor policy, but that wasn’t as calculated or negotiated in the same way as this. Also, one can’t imagine East Timor wearing the responsibility for settling refugees in the way PNG has here. One can now envisage Rudd using a variety of patronising phrases about our little “mate” up north and how now the government will be pumping money into the colony. I mean sovereign nation. We don’t seem to have moved very far forward in attitudes. Still a patronising colonial power, searching for prison camps who don’t want to take responsibility for the care of those who need help around us.