Adding cruelty to Labor's greatest failure

The government has failed the nation by sending asylum seekers into limbo under the new bridging visa. But the solutions offered by the Coalition and Greens are just as heartless.

Refugee policy is not one of the worst policy debacles of the Gillard government – it is the worst.

And with the government's announcement of a new class of 'bridging visa' – which will send asylum seekers into a kind of limbo in the community, unable to work and given a tiny allowance to live on – it grows worse still.

That might provide a frisson of excitement for Labor's most one-eyed enemies, but one can only hope that such schadenfreude is limited a very few.

Any celebration of political points earned from drownings, family breakups, and the descent into madness, self-harm and suicide of refugees, is for a very base kind of person indeed.

This policy failure, this tragic loss of human life and incarceration of innocents must be stopped, but that won't happen until all sides are held properly to account by journalists.

Because as I argued in August (The boats 'debate' was a failure of simple logic, August 14) when the Houston panel handed down its recommendations for a way forward, this policy failure does belong to all sides of politics.

Our elected leaders are failing the nation, and refugees, on this issue – and a national media that does not pick up on the complicity of the Coalition and Greens in delivering bad policy is also failing the nation.

Laying it all at the feet of immigration minister Chris Bowen, as many right-barracking commentators do, is not just lazy thinking – it is giving a free ride to two parties that have nothing better to offer.

The challenge for the government, which scrapped Howard-era temporary protection visas in 2008, was to find some other way to end the dangerous boat journeys to Australia. On this score it failed utterly in its first term, but then at least tried to find a real policy in its second term via the 'Malaysia solution'.

The Houston report recommended that the flawed Malaysia scheme – abandoned after the High Court ruled it illegal – be strengthened and revised, but proceed as soon as possible.

That program, which was to have begun with 'swapping' 800 sea-borne refugees, for 4000 processed refugees from Malaysia, was Labor's answer to the Coalition's stated policy of 'turning the boats around'.

The Coalition policy is effectively an 'Indonesian solution', proposed despite the express wishes of the Indonesian government which has said it will not allow boats to be towed back into its waters.

So on two counts, the 'Malaysia solution' is better than the 'Indonesian solution' – it was agreed to by the government in question, and contained detailed plans for basic health and education for refugees flown to Malaysia.

The price Labor had to pay to allow this even to be worked towards, was to resurrect the Howard-era offshore processing. It didn't believe, when it announced that retrograde step, that it would work.

At the time of the debate over Rob Oakeshott's private member's bill in June, Labor backbencher Julie Owens told parliament: "I point out to the member for Kooyong that, just as he does not support the Malaysia solution, I do not support Nauru either. I will find walking into this chamber and voting for Nauru to be quite a terrible thing to do, but I am going to do it because I think that finding an answer in this House, with both sides compromising, gives us the least worst option we can find."

The Coalition continues to get a free ride on this issue – with far too little attention given to the fact that the policy that worked during the Howard years has been scuppered by the Indonesian government.

Likewise the Greens. They are at least on the right track in calling for substantial refugee processing facilities to be set up in Indonesia to help speed up 'legal' resettlement through our recently expanded humanitarian resettlement program – up from 13,000 a year to 20,000.

But they are wrong to suggest that nothing should be done about refugees attempting often-fatal seas journeys in the meantime. They strongly oppose the Malaysia solution, but the alternative continues to be drownings. And without some kind of material deterrent – 'risk your life on a boat and end up in Malaysia anyway' – a different kind of deterrent is offered by Labor. That's right – cruelty.

Bowen's tough-guy assertion that boat arrivals will likely have to wait five years for a real visa under Labor's 'no advantage' policy, must appal Australia-watchers around the world.

And just as appalling is Tony Abbott's ongoing promise to tow boatloads of refugees back to uncertain futures in Indonesia, after they've handed over their life savings to people smugglers.

This problem can only get worse over time. Millions of disposed people are on the move globally, and the hundred of thousands in our region will multiply in number over time.

That means Australia needs a policy that will resettle growing numbers of refugees here, in an orderly way, in the same way Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and others are already forced to do. The annual figure of 20,000 must be substantially expanded, and that quota filled with processed refugees, rather than paper-less boat arrivals.

Perhaps there is a better solution than the Malaysia solution, but the current alternatives won't do.

In short, Labor is now taking a thrashing for implementing a policy it doesn't want, in a pursuit of one it does – and ending up meting out cruelty likely to be worse than that seen during that Howard years.

But until one of the other parties offers a credible alternative, the parliament, and thousands of refugees, will be stuck in limbo.

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