WITH the passing of the last day of the most recent parliamentary session, Kevin Rudd missed another much anticipated appointment with destiny and Julia Gillard returned to the Lodge while searches continued for casualties of the latest refugee boat disaster.
Several commentators and many voters calling talkback suggested the parliament should have remained in session until a solution was found. Many hoped this latest tragedy might bring something better than politics as usual.
Former Liberal leader John Hewson summed it up for many, writing, ‘Every decent Australian surely now has to ask: where is the morality? Where is the humanity? Where is the leadership?”
Having begun her campaign for the top job on a coastguard boat, the Prime Minister is tardy in addressing the one issue that remains immune to her considerable policy and negotiation skills.
Notwithstanding Whyalla remaining stubbornly on the map, Gillard looks no less likely to lose the next election with Labor stagnating at about the 30 per cent mark. There is an opportunity to make a virtue of necessity and grab this challenge by the horns. It’s time to apply the wit she brought to performance pay for teachers, school devolution, national disability insurance and reviving the Doha trade round. Time to be the woman who, in her own words, “in the toughest of all possible political circumstances, got it done”.
Although all sides spent the last sitting night crying crocodile tears, finding the right response to the problem of boat arrivals has been bedevilled by the question of whether a “deterrent” is required.
Various proposals for triple handling human cargo across the ocean are designed to ensure getting to Australia remains difficult even if the element of danger is removed. Deterrence is characterised as a dissuasion from “getting in leaky boats”, but for many it is merely a proxy for dissuasion from coming at all. If drownings were the only concern, we could simply relocate the Christmas Island facility to Indonesia and process applicants before they set sail. Successful applicants could be brought by plane; unsuccessful applicants would have no reason for a sea journey. In fact, Clive Palmer recommended something like this a few days ago.
That, of course, would end the policy of de facto demand management which is the artificially long queue created by the backlog our understaffed Indonesian operation causes. On a per-head basis it would be cheaper than the rescue, imprison, transfer, process, transfer proposed by both main parties. Especially given most asylum-seekers processed in Nauru wound up in Australia, which suggests in all likelihood those processed in Malaysia would too. Whatever difficulties are dreamed up to constrain arrivals artificially, we need to address what risk means to the people on the forgotten side of this argument. For those who come across the sea, hoping for boundless plains to share, the risks are strictly a numbers game.
Almost half of the world’s refugees come from Iraq and Afghanistan. Somalis are the third largest group and people from the Democratic Republic of the Congo are fourth.
So the question has to be asked, how much more dangerous is it to get on a boat in Indonesia than to stay in Iraq? Last year the Iraqi health ministry reported an infant mortality rate of 28 for every 1000 live births. The World Health Organisation estimates another 20 die before they turn five. According to estimates from Johns Hopkins University, the chance of death from insurgents, cholera, childbirth, hunger and disease for adults is about 12 in 1000 although this peaked at 20 per cent during the height of the Iraq war.
Some more numbers to consider. We think 90 people died on their way here last month out of 1781 people seeking asylum who made it to Australia from Indonesia by boat. That makes a 5 per cent probability of dying on the journey. According to the International Organisation for Migration, only 24 refugees were resettled from Indonesia to Australia this year from a pool of 5732. So that’s a 0.4 per cent chance of making it out of Jakarta to Sydney through official channels compared with a 95 per cent chance of making it alive to Christmas Island by sea and a better than 50 per cent chance of being accepted after processing.
MPs in marginal seats weigh the odds of softening their position on refugees and assess the probability of losing 3 or 4 per cent of the vote. They look at Gillard and Rudd and wonder who can deliver a 5 or 10 per cent bounce.
But asylum-seekers weigh the 3 per cent risk of their children dying at home, the 2 per cent risk of dying themselves, the 70 per cent risk of a lifetime in poverty, and the 99 per cent risk they won’t be processed in Jakarta against the 95 per cent chance they will make it to Australia by boat and the better than 50 per cent chance that having done that they will be able to stay and rear their kids in a free country.
Then there’s a whole other set of numbers for those who bring girls. A Thomson Reuters Foundation survey last year names Afghanistan as the world’s most dangerous place for women. Risks determining the ranking included early death, sexual violence and human trafficking.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo, the fourth largest source of refugees, is the second worst place in the world for women because of its trafficking, violence and the fact in a country of four million people, more than 400,000 women are raped every year.
In rejecting the Malaysia component of the Oakeshott bill, Tony Abbott said Malaysia was not an acceptable destination for refugees because, “their standards are not our standards”.
The bare truth of this matter is that nobody’s standards are our standards. And thank God for that.
We are the standard to which the world aspires. We are the country where babies and mums almost never die on the day they first meet. We are the country where every child has a teacher waiting for them. We are the country where a fair day’s work means a fair day’s pay.
This is why from the end of World War II until the Whitlam government, 1.6 million people arrived here looking for a better life. Each decade after that roughly another million people came to call Australia home.
They came to us from killing fields across the world. They fled the communists in eastern Europe, the Vietnam War, the Indonesian occupation of Timor, the war in Lebanon, fascist Latin American dictators, the Tiananmen Square massacre, the Serbian atrocities, the Jakarta riots and the civil war in Sri Lanka.
They came here, found jobs, raised families, paid taxes and very often voted Labor, notwithstanding the party’s patchy record on immigration. This is why, although the moral burden weighs equally across the political spectrum, the political debt sits more heavily on Labor.
The proposition almost never put in this debate is the one that greeted refugees at Ellis Island after their voyage across the Atlantic during which an estimated 10 per cent of all passengers died seeking a better life. “Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”