By JAMILA RIZVI
Only a few days after 90 asylum seekers died on their way to Australia, there are reports that another boat has capsized near Christmas Island. The vessel is said to have been carrying 150 passengers, many of whom were women and children.
The House of Representatives is currently debating a Bill from Independent Robert Oakshott to restore offshore processing. You can follow the debate on ABC24.
Rescue authorities said the boat is 172 km north of Christmas Island. It is understood two merchant vessels are on the scene, and aircraft and HMAS Maitland had been dispatched to the site.
The AMSA spokesman told the ABC the first Navy patrol boat was due arrive at the site about 2pm (AEST), with the other to arrive a few hours later.
The nationality of the passengers is not yet known.Customs and Border Protection said they were aware of the reports but could not provide details.
On Monday we saw an ever-so-slight-but-still-significant step from the Government, towards ending the political impasse over asylum seekers.
The Prime Minister has said she is ‘open to further discussions’ around offshore processing of asylum seekers and has even flagged a review of temporary protection visas, in return for the Opposition supporting her ‘Malaysia Solution’.
I’d like to think that is wouldn’t take the tragic death of 90 asylum seekers during perilous boat journey to Australia to prompt the giving of a little bit of ground on both sides. But even that, it seems, is not enough for the Coalition. Tony Abbott has staunchly refused to negotiate, telling Sunrise on Channel 7, “What is there to negotiate? The Prime Minister just wants us to accept a dud deal.”
This issue has been a political winner for Abbott. He doesn’t want to lose the advantage he’s got. And as a former political adviser – I get that. But people are dying. And it’s because the make up of our current Parliament is leaving the Government impotent, quite simply, unable to implement the solution they think is best.
There has got to be a point when politics stops. When politics is set aside because the gains aren’t worth the losses.
This is one of them.
A tiny flicker of light is still burning at the end of the tunnel of bipartisanship.
Independent Tony Windsor is working across party lines and calling for a back-to-the-drawing-board approach, in an effort to stop more people losing their lives while attempting to make it to our country. Windsor is working with people like Coalition members Mal Washer and Judi Moylan, Labor MP Steve Georganas and fellow independent Rob Oakshott to try to find a solution to the bizarre set of circumstances Australia currently finds itself in.
As one of the men who was at the centre of the so-called new paradigm Windsor does have influence. Let’s hope that the new paradigm finally brings us something positive.
But how did we end up here in the first place?
Where do each of the parties currently stand?
The Labor Government announced last year that they had struck a deal with Malaysia, where Australia would send 800 asylum seekers who arrive on unauthorised boats to be processed in Malaysia and that in return Australia would accept 4000 people who had already assessed as legitimate refugees, from Malaysia.
Tony Abbott’s Opposition claims that the Malaysia idea will not be a sufficient deterrent to people risking their lives on boats. They want to re-open the detention centre on Nauru that operated under the Howard Government, process asylum seekers there and also reinstate temporary protection visas.
The Greens are deadest against offshore processing, no matter where it takes place. They want all asylum seekers who come to Australia to be processed and assessed on our own territory.
But the Government is the Government, why can’t they implement their own policy?
A High Court decision last year invalidated existing legislation that permitted offshore processing. For the Government to fully implement their Malaysia plan, they need to legislate around that High Court decision – so that offshore processing is an option again.
The problem is, the Coalition (while supporting the principle of offshore processing), do not support the Malaysia solution and refuse to support the Government’s efforts to legislate in the Parliament. The Government can’t look elsewhere for support because ultimately the Greens hold the balance of power in the Senate and oppose offshore processing full stop.
This is where we leave the comfortable realm of fact and re-enter the murky world of discussion and debate. There are a range of views that exist about offshore processing and its merits. At the very least, we can say that proponents of offshore processing (both the Government and the Opposition) claim it deters people from traveling to Australia without authorisation, in order to seek asylum.
To borrow the words of the Prime Minister, it is about ‘breaking the business model’ of people smugglers. If the product being ‘sold’ is “seeking asylum when physically in Australia gives your a better chance of being granted that asylum” – that is undermined if Australia won’t consider your application onshore.
What’s the broader context here?
The one thing that overwhelmingly gets lost in the political debate on this issue – is the facts. Tampa, the 2001 and 2010 elections and the overthrow of Kevin Rudd, showed us the political power that this issue wields over public opinion. And as a result, we rarely see the wood for the trees.
The reality is that there are millions of refugees worldwide and even more stateless and displaced people. There are less than 100,000 places for them that are being offered by developed nations (including Australia). None of these people are waiting in a so-called ‘queue’ – because with millions of people and 100,000 places – that queue is endless.All of these people are desperate.
Is Australia at risk of being swamped by ‘boat people’?
No. No. No. The natural border created by our mere physical landscape and the fact we are surrounded by a perilous sea – makes that close to impossible. The reality our television screens seem to miss is that most asylum seekers do not travel to Australia by boat – they come by plane on legitimate short term visas and then claim asylum once they arrive.
When it comes to accepting refugees and resettling them into our community – Australia does do its bit, there is no doubt about that. We are a generous country compared to much of the world. But could we and should we be doing more? You bet.
So what happens next?
It’s hard to tell. There is no doubt that last week’s tragedy has refocused both media and community attention on the issue and there is mounting pressure on our parliamentarians to do something. For me, Professor Clive Kessler said it best in today’s Sydney Morning Herald:
“After the latest boat disaster, the coalition and the Greens must rethink their position… [There have been] another hundred souls lost. Another hundred souls on all our consciences.
Responsibility is widely shared: by refugees themselves who risked this recourse, and the people smugglers; by the Indonesian government, which prefers to see overloaded, unseaworthy boats head south and reach, as soon as possible, some place on the open seas where they will effectively become Australia’s responsibility, not their own…
A set of arrangements has been negotiated by Australia with the Malaysian government. These arrangements are not perfect, neither is Malaysia. But they are workable. So why resist implementing them?”
Jamila Rizvi is Mamamia’s Managing Editor. She has formerly worked as an adviser for both the Rudd and Gillard Governments. All opinions expressed here are her own.
Are you frustrated by the political impasee that exists around the asylum seeker issue? Whose policy solution do you think is best? Do you think that bipartisan agreement on this issue will ever be possible?