Rudd's made us the spoilt rich kid of Asia

One can only hope that the nations, and economies, of southeast Asia see as much coverage of this weekend's protests in Australia as they do of weeping or drowned refugees.

If there is an expert out there in reading facial expressions, let them step forward and tell us what they see in the smiles, in the eyes, of Anthony Albanese, Tony Burke, Penny Wong and others who are faced day after day with cameras and journalists asking them ‘can you really support this policy?’

To my eye, the grins are impossibly forced, the eyes despairing, the faces those of parliamentarians who have paced the corridors through the night wringing their hands and asking ‘what have we done?’

Kevin Rudd’s temporary revival was supposed to be much quicker than this. As one senior Coalition staffer told me this week, “they only voted for him to save the furniture. But Rudd really thinks he can win.” (A comment that brings to mind the advice Apollo Creed is given when fighting Rocky Balboa in the 1976 film Rocky: “He doesn't know it's a damn show. He thinks it's a damn fight.")

Rudd was supposed to go to the polls riding a honeymoon wave of support. But now that he has undermined a key foundation for many Labor supporters – the promise he made a couple of years ago never to ‘lurch to the right’ on refugee policy – he needs time to repair the damage. It will be a miracle if he can.

The latest condemnation of the Rudd plan came in a statement from the UNHCR, published by Fairfax on Friday, which warned that PNG had “a lack of national capacity and expertise in processing, and poor physical conditions within open-ended, mandatory and arbitrary detention settings” and that these circumstances “can be harmful to the physical and psycho-social wellbeing of transferees”.

Labor’s error in the post-Tampa era, a Labor source suggested to me today, was to accept the Howard government’s characterisation of seaborne refugees as some kind of invasion, or national security crisis – when dozens upon dozens of nations around the world have far greater refugee numbers to deal with, including Malaysia and Indonesia.

So this policy failure is not Rudd’s alone – Kim Beazley was first to accept that premise and to fail to point out that Asian neighbours would judge us harshly for being the only nation in the region who thought it was above having to face up to a genuine refugee crisis. Mark Latham perpetuated that error and it was not until ‘Kevin Rudd 1.0’ came along that the mandatory detention regime that Latham had backed was even challenged.

That is what makes Rudd’s current iron-fist approach so wrong – he was the politician, with unsurpassed political skills, who had the opportunity in past weeks to try retaking the high ground that he’d sought, but failed to gain, with the dismantling of the Howard-era ‘Pacific solution’.

In recent memory, only Rudd could have sold that message successfully – 'yes, I stuffed up refugee policy, but there is a more humane way than Tony Abbott’s plan to start to put this right'.

What might such a solution have been? Rudd was uniquely qualified, through his previous globetrotting diplomacy as PM, and through his stint as foreign minister in the Gillard government, to be where he likes to be most – leading a diplomatic push for a genuine regional solution (something neither side is yet offering).

History will surely judge Rudd harshly for backing away from the historic opportunity (in a way not dissimilar from his junking of carbon-pricing after the failed Copenhagen talks of 2008).

One does not even have to believe in a regional, equitable, apportioning of responsibility for refugees – the position Labor should have pursued through multilateral talks – to see the problem of the Rudd volte-face on this issue. One need only believe that voters deserve real choices.

If most Australians want Tony Abbott’s ‘Operation: Sovereign Borders’, a military style repelling of boats led by a three-star general, they will get it by voting for the Liberal or National Party.

By voting Labor, they will now get something harsher, more draconian. The historical balancing of right and left in Australian politics, where each side of politics got the chance, after a term or two, to correct the excesses of the other side, is radically unbalanced when both sides are in a “race to the bottom”, as the Greens like to call it. (And let's not forget, in passing, the Greens' role in getting us to this point by blocking the Malaysia solution, which in retrospect looks a lot more humane than the PNG solution.)

Public rallies are being held in capital cities this weekend to protest the Rudd plan. One can only hope that the nations, the economies, of our region see as much coverage of those protests as they do of the weeping or drowning refugees already being beamed around southeast Asia.

There is too much as stake in this dramatic development – the weakening of trading partnerships and security ties, that have taken decades to build, by the spoilt rich kid of Asia effectively saying that we’re the only nation in our region that is too good to take a single unauthorised refugee.

Rudd could have instigated and led the multilateral talks on refugees that the Indonesian government has set up for August 20 – but he didn't. 

The Australian reported on Friday: “ their first direct contact since Mr Rudd shocked the Indonesians with his announcement last Friday that all new boat arrivals would be sent to Papua New Guinea, [President] Yudhoyono pointedly stressed regional co-operation. He ‘underlined the importance and urgency’ of his initiative, a regional conference on asylum-seeker movements, which he confirmed would be held in Jakarta on August 20. Indonesia is inviting Australia and up to a dozen other asylum-seeker origin, transit and destination countries to the conference.”

The high ground on this issue is gone. Both major parties are stirring fear, xenophobia and misunderstanding of the plight of hundreds of thousand of refugees in our region. And Kevin Rudd will be remembered as the politician who threw away the opportunity to change that misguided debate forever.

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