Parliament's war is costing lives

Until Julia Gillard or Tony Abbott blink on the issue of asylum seekers, parliamentary point scoring will continue to trump human rights – and the vitriol isn't stopping there.

The final sitting week of any period of parliament usually comes with heightened tensions. Ahead of this year's winter recess, which begins next week, things could hardly be more fraught.

Let's put aside the vile hostility shown by both sides of the House of Representatives during Question Time – after 61 Coalition motions to suspend standing orders during the life of this parliament, with all the pointless bluster such motions entail, that's pretty much a given. Yesterday's shouting match was no different.

The real tension is showing on the faces of Prime Minister Gillard and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott. They are at war with each other, at war with the wishes of their own backbenchers and, one can only hope, at war with themselves.

Until one of them blinks on the issue of illegal boat arrivals, the preconditions will remain in place for the drowning of brothers, fathers, sons, sisters, mothers and daughters of so many families who hoped their loved ones would make it to the promised land of Australia.

Without an offshore 'processing' destination to provide some kind of deterrent, Australia is left defenceless – the Department of Immigration has said the 'successful' Howard government policies that 'stopped the boats' can no longer work – Indonesia won't play ball on taking the boats back.

And so the loved ones of the families left behind in war-torn or politically oppressive regions have every incentive to try to arrive on our coastline, where they look likely to continue receiving onshore processing and detention until the Gillard government loses power. Then they'll receive a kind of de facto 'onshore' processing carried out some way offshore on Nauru.

Labor won't back down because it has been advised that the Howard era policies won't work – if it thought they would it would have lost the political skin as soon as possible after the Christmas Island tragedy. Labor is clearly suffering much more damage now than it would have by accepting a Coalition policy prescription that worked. But because Labor knew turning boats around wouldn't have worked again, it would have taken the political hit and the refugees would have kept setting sail and, too often, drowning. That would have been a lose-lose for Labor.

The Coalition won't back down because it won't accept the Department of Immigration's advice – surely, it reasons, the Howard era policies will work, even if experts say they won't.

And the Greens won't budge on the Malaysia 'people swap' because of human rights concerns.

Human rights? The hundreds of men, women and children whose flailing arms have disappeared beneath the waves had, in their moment of tragedy, no rights of any kind. The Greens refuse to understand that while the most alluring of prizes waits on our shore, these desperate people will continue to die – unless the incentive can be removed.

The Malaysia solution is a clumsy attempt to do just that – with its capped numbers, five-for-one swap ratio, uncertain prospects for future expansion, and all the problems of protecting refugees left to fend largely for themselves in Kuala Lumpur, it looked like bad policy from the start.

But what's happening is far worse.

The fact that groups of backbenchers are trying, in behind-the-scenes negotiations, to break the deadlock is a clear indication of how desperate things have become – human guilt and shame at what's happening out at sea are overpowering party affiliations. These backbenchers must be supported and encouraged at every turn.

But then late yesterday another development emerged that could draw some of the spotlight away from the boat arrivals crisis. In a late afternoon briefing, Attorney General Nicola Roxon announced rushed legislation to overturn a High Court ruling that had cut off funding for school chaplain programs in state-funded schools.

The ruling had thrown into doubt the funding for hundreds of schemes, listed in the federal government's budget appropriation bills, but not given a 'legislative foundation'. The essential logic is that the Commonwealth can't fund community programs directly without passing special legislation to make sure the courts can't scupper them.

All a bit silly. The objection to the chaplains programs were that they were a conduit for Christian indoctrination. Perhaps they are, but to call into question any federal government's right to directly fund community programs is dramatic overkill.

In response to that overkill, the government has swept hundreds of schemes into one piece of legislation that it hopes to pass by the end of this fraught week. That, says Roxon, will protect "between 5 and 10 per cent" of Commonwealth spending that might otherwise hit the same brick wall as the chaplains program. That's a whopping sum of money – something like $18 to $36 billion a year covering everything from arts and sports programs to veterans assistance and foreign aid.

Because those hundreds of schemes include carbon-pollution reduction programs, the Coalition is being asked to make a choice – reinstate the chaplain funding (which Tony Abbott has said he wants to do) and protect all the other hundreds of schemes, or kick up a fuss about the relatively small number of carbon pollution reduction schemes and oppose everything.

At yesterday's briefing it seemed, at first, as if Roxon was happy to let partisan politics slide to get the chaplain funding flowing again. But by the end of the media conference she and Schools Minister Peter Garrett were throwing down rhetorical gauntlets – effectively saying that to oppose this legislation would be to oppose chaplains in schools.

We will know, most likely by the end of today, whether yet another impasse has been created. Labor is quite likely to pass the bill without Coalition support – but it is not guaranteed. If Abbott chooses to oppose it, and is joined by one or more cross benchers, the parliament will seethe again with hatred and accusation from both sides.

The big issues of the day – and topping them all in the past week has surely been that horrific loss of life at sea – will be pushed out by points of order, unparliamentary terms of abuse and a government and opposition achieving little or nothing.

We'll know by the end of the day what our leaders are capable of. I'll hold a tiny candle of optimism until then.

Follow @_Rob_Burgess on Twitter.

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