Abbott's free boat ride must end

The more attention steered towards current boat arrivals, and away from the Coalition's poverty of refugee policy, the better for Tony Abbott. It’s small target politics at the most destructive.

Shadow immigration minister Scott Morrison's comment last week, that he won't detail the Coalition's 'turn back the boats' policy because "I am not about to give the people smugglers a heads up" pretty much encapsulates the extraordinary political fantasy gripping Australia.

Morrison's comment did not receive the critical attention it deserved. Why not tell smugglers that navy vessels would soon be intercepting them? If it's because that would lead to a crush of boats before a likely Abbott victory in September, then that appears already to be happening.

If the reticence was related to what would happen post-September, it would be at odds with all previous Coalition statements on sending 'the right signals' to smugglers. If a new armada is being prepared to dispense Australian tough love to refugees on the high seas, why not shout it from the rooftops?

A better reading of the statement is: "I'm not about to give voters a heads up."

The 'boats' issue is a strong vote winner for the Coalition, so the less attention given to its post-election plan the better. Two senior officials yesterday reiterated the Indonesian government's view (previously made clear by Indonesia's Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa) that turning around boats is unacceptable.

Fairfax papers quote senior commissioner Parsaoran Damanik, of Banten Police in West Java, as saying the tow-back policy would ''disadvantage'' Indonesia, and the deputy head of Indonesia's Human Trafficking, Refugees and Asylum Seekers desk, Johnny Hutauruk, saying that Indonesia wants a tripartite agreement with Malaysia and Australia.

That doesn't sound much like tow-backs. Foreign minister Bob Carr, in Indonesia for two days of talks, called on the Opposition to rethink its blocking of the 'Malaysia solution', aided by the Greens last year.

SBS quotes Carr as saying: "All I want the Opposition in Canberra to do is to put Australia's interest before local politics, and enabling that Malaysian arrangement to proceed is something the Opposition could do that is very specific that would be humane and honour Australia's borders."

Fat chance of that happening. And yet the need for a tripartite approach – or other variations providing a 'regional solution' to the tens of thousands of displaced refugees in our region – will not vanish in September.

For the Coalition's sake, then, full attention must be focused on the current boat arrivals – and no mention made of the unworkable nature of the plan being offered by Australia's alternative government.

This is 'small target' politics par excellence, and mirrors exactly the free ride the Coalition is getting on climate change policy. Scientists do not agree with the abatement/cost figures in the Direct Action plan. Economists do not think it will be cheaper than the government's ETS. And besides all that, the Coalition will go through a lengthy white paper process to examine all these issues again after the election – a long hiatus in climate change policy, rather than an actual policy.

And again, on superannuation, the government has been under attack for considering changes to superannuation taxation – none yet announced – which the Coalition weakly says it doesn't like, but might not be able to reverse after the election. In effect, it is saying it needs the cash from a super raid just as much as Labor, but wants the Gillard government to be the one seen leaving the crime scene.

This is all pretty unworthy stuff, considering the political gains the Coalition has made on boats and carbon pricing, and future gains it is likely to make on the 'super raid' issue.

Voters will, at least, get some kind of firm policies in weeks ahead on the Coalition's NBN plan, and reportedly, on an Abbott government's approach to IR. The fact that the latter is set to be released so far out from the election strongly suggests it will feature only minor tweaks to the Fair Work Act arrangement. Anything else would be electoral suicide.

When even Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt is calling for 'can-do Tony' to step forward and tell voters what he's promising – so that he actually has a few mandates post-election – it might be time to outline what his alternatives to the "worst government ever" might be.

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