Rudd's boat mantra is not policy

'Stop the boats'. Say it often enough and it takes on a kind of Orwellian truth. Sadly, enough of a truth for our moral obligations to be forgotten in the pursuit of cheap votes.

Prime Minister Rudd’s plan to bribe Papua New Guinea with money he doesn’t have is cynically welcomed by some as ‘smart politics’, because he may just be able to keep the truth of his refugee policy hidden until after re-election.

But calling it ‘smart politics’ is really dumb journalism.

Isn’t it about time we used that term to describe a leader’s ability to take public opinion with them in a worthy direction – one that benefits the nation, rather than a team of politicians seeking re-election?

Bob Hawke’s success in getting unions onside for a broad set of market liberalisations – smart. John Howard’s ability to tighten gun controls, or bring in the GST – smart. Even Malcolm Turnbull’s ability to turn his own party room towards a credible ‘NBN’ policy looks like pretty smart politicking.

But creating a ‘sugar hit’ in the opinion polls by promising to pay PNG to keep those nasty reffos aways is dumb politics from a party that, this time, has truly lost its way.

And why are we letting Rudd get away with it? Sadly we’ve become victims of our own ‘Newspeak’ – that cut down language warned of in George Orwell’s novel 1984. When complex issues can be boiled down into slogans, an otherwise good people can be taken to war against just about anyone and any thing. War on drugs. War on terror. And now, war on boats.

Orwell coined many Newspeak words, but one germane to the current policy circus is ‘crimestop’, which he defined thus: The faculty of stopping short, as though by instinct, at the threshold of any dangerous thought. It includes the power of not grasping analogies, of failing to perceive logical errors, of misunderstanding the simplest arguments if they are inimical to Ingsoc [English socialism], and of being bored or repelled by any train of thought which is capable of leading in a heretical direction. In short ... protective stupidity.

The phrase “stop the boats” has been repeated so many times, first by Tony Abbott and now by Rudd, that it’s become virtually part of the national psyche. It is the barrier at the “threshold of any dangerous thought”.

And what is the dangerous thought in question? For my money it is the question: how many refugees is it appropriate for Australia to accept, for permanent resettlement, given our size (both geographically and in population terms) and wealth?

Labor’s answer used to be the same as the Howard government’s answer. It was around 13,000 a year. Labor recently raised that to 20,000 per year and at first the Opposition said it would match that in government, though it later said it would stick to the lower figure.

Both parties agree that when unauthorised boat arrivals make it to our shores, their number is subtracted from the number of authorised plane-borne arrivals.

And since our intake of 13,000 or 20,000 processed refugees is higher than any other nation other than the US (which to start with has nearly 14 times our population), we get to pat ourselves on the back and, lest any other dangerous thoughts creep in, loudly congratulate ourselves for our outstanding generosity.

What this version of reality lacks is any acknowledgment that nearly every other nation on Earth accepts thousands, or tens of thousands, or in the case of several of our near neighbours, hundreds of thousands of refugees at certain times.

In the US it’s Mexicans running the gauntlet of barbed wire and heavily armed vigilantes under cover of darkness. In Spain, France and Italy it’s Moroccans, Algerians, and other displaced Africans fleeing wars in Sudan, Somalia or more lately Egypt.

In Malaysia, foreign minister Anifah Aman last year put his nation’s number of illegal migrants at 2 million, including 80,000 Rohingyas – a Muslim ethnicity originating in Bangladesh, but that moved through Burma in past decades.

In Thailand, nine giant camps along its northern border house around 140,000 Burmese refugees of the Karen and Rohingya ethnicities. After three decades, some individuals born in those camps have grown up and had children of their own.

Australia is uniquely, for a large developed nation, protected by vast tracts of ocean. And so by repeating ‘stop the boats’ ad nauseum, we begin to think we can simply fix upon a figure, like 20,000, and leave it at that.

It’s our right.

However, it’s also an individual’s right to step onto a cross-walk without looking to see if a truck is running the red light. You get flattened, but at least you never gave up exercising your rights!

The Rudd policy is like this. There are two likely unforeseen outcomes to this draconian policy.

First, our position as a rich, arrogant and selfish nation will be entrenched in the minds of our near neighbours who, despite their own relative poverty have to deal with many multiples of our per capita ‘refugee problem’.

Second, we are creating a small welfare state in PNG that’s going to cost an arm and a leg – and all at a time when our gross national debt is touching $300 billion, and Treasury is revising our growth forecasts down.

There was a better way to deal with this problem, and to come closer to meeting our moral obligation to help ease the real refugee crisis in our region – the crisis that pre-dates and will outlast the apparent influx of ‘economic migrants’ from Iran and Sri Lanka.

Under the Gillard government’s ‘Malaysia solution’, not only was a large disincentive being put in place to stop refugees/migrants dying at sea in the decrepit boats used by people smugglers, but a large number of humanitarian refugees would have flown to Australia.

Why should we pay for thousands more refugees to have a better life here? From a moral perspective, it’s the right thing for a rich nation to do. And from an economic perspective we need young, hard-working families who will balance our increasingly top-heavy demographic profile.

The Malaysia solution was not perfect, but it was a much better policy. It was scuppered by dumb politics not only from the Opposition, but from the Greens who objected that Malaysia was not a signatory to the UN refugee convention.

Well, the Greens got their wish – PNG has signed the convention. And a special kind of hell will be set up for refugees there as a result.

But then, all this is too hard to think about. I think I’ll just go back to repeating that crimestop mantra – stop the boats, stop the boats, stop the boats...

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