The boats 'debate' was a failure of simple logic

Much untruthful emotion that obfuscated the refugee policy debate has been washed away by Angus Houston's report. Now parliament, and the media, have no excuse not to face the real story.

So the battle for an effective policy to stem illegal boat arrivals appears to be ending in a humiliating backdown for the Gillard government.

Despite the loud "har-har!" heard in some Coalition quarters, it would be hasty to think Gillard's defeat will translate into any loss of electoral support – it might even boost Labor's popularity in forthcoming opinion polls as the reality of this unedifying period of parliamentary history sinks in.

Because all Angus Houston's expert panel did for this debate was remove the illogical arguments being made by both sides, that were being shamefully and uncritically repeated by too many of the nation's newspaper editors.

That practically forces the nation's media to bring to the fore the things we already knew in June, allowing the real story to be told.

Turning back boats, we knew, wouldn't work. Nauru, alone, was no deterrent. Malaysia is, despite all the dark innuendo to the contrary, a much better place to end up as a refugee than dozens of nations that are signatories to the UN refugee convention and its subsequent protocol. And the Malaysia solution contained one massive hole – the incentive it gave people smugglers to carry only women and children to our shores, where they would be safe from the 'people swap' deal.

All those arguments were there in June, obscured only by a misconstrued notions of 'balance' in our national press – namely that we're obliged to run the cynically fallacious arguments of both sides of politics, giving them equal legitimacy to 'let the voters decide'.

Bollocks to that. Logic has a role, and Houston, who is presumably no trained philosopher (nor am I), just swept away the nonsense, as so many Australians voters had already done for themselves.

Now, with the stronger arguments revealed in all their glory, the parties and factions that stood in the way of effective policy should cop their just hiding at the polls.

I won't repeat the arguments I made the morning after the epic debate on boat policy on June 27 that resulted in the current statemate, as they are largely unchanged (The boats bill must be allowed to pass, June 28).

The one big difference between the Houston compromise and the Rob Oakeshott bill that was voted down by the Greens in the Senate in June, is the clear acknowledgement that the Malaysia solution needs more work.

Oakeshott wanted 'dodgy policy' to replace 'no policy', but Houston wants to delay the dodgy policy long enough to get it right – better human rights protections, and mechanisms to deter families shoving women and children onto boats hoping they'll be reunited in Australia, due to the fact that the Malaysia solution would only 'swap' men for processed refugees from Malaysia.

The phase of the June debate that really turned my stomach was the largely sympathetic reception given to Greens senator Sarah Hanson Young, and shadow Treasury spokesman Joe Hockey, when they stood in their respective houses of parliament and wept in defence of their parties' intransigence.

I don't know how many voters accepted the non-sequiter of 'I have powerful sympathy for refugees' and 'therefore my party must block the Oakeshott bill', but the national media seemed to swallow it holus-bolus.

We must not let that happen again. MPs on all sides of this debate have a powerful compassion for refugees. And that has nothing whatsoever to do with hammering out a harm-minimising policy that Australians will vote for, and vote to fund.

The tiniest skerrick of logic is enough to separate out the emotion of the debate from the reckless intransigence shown by both the Coalition and the Greens on this issue. The headline should not have been 'MPs weep for refugees' so much as 'MPs weep for refugees while blocking bill that will ease their collective suffering'.

The 'people swap' is ugly policy, especially if it is broadened to include women and children. But the alternative to a real deterrent – which Houston has again confirmed cannot be found long term on Nauru or Manus Island – is drownings at sea. Much uglier, in every way. As was the Coalition policy of turning boats carrying women and children back to Indonesia – as if this was somehow better than travelling by plane to Malaysia.

I will hand over to Business Spectator reader Edwin Dimech, who expressed so well this most basic failure of logic in our national debate in a comment he left on Business Spectator back in June:

"I am still trying to understand Joe Hockey's 'emotional' outburst that 'he would never support a law that enabled a child to be sent to Malaysia with no protection'.

"Yet his own colleagues, Hunt and Pyne, continued to emphasise that by exempting women and children from the 'Malaysia Solution' it will risk having women and children filling the boats as there would be no risk to them of going to Malaysia.

"So, our Shadow Treasurer's 'strong emotions' are, at best, clearly misplaced, but, equally clearly, grossly disingenuous, unless he is a fool in not seeing that his position fails the test of such simple logic."

Pollies can do and say what they like. It's the role of the national media to cut through this kind of crap. There might never be only 'one truth', but every 'untruth' needs to be held aloft like a coffin for all the hapless souls who have drowned during this policy impasse. And then let the voters decide.

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