Rudd and boat people

Some thoughts on what Rudd is up to, and where this policy might take him.

Firstly, the background:

  • A while ago Australia started getting significant numbers of boat people
  • Howard famously stated “we will choose who comes to Australia” and initiated “tough” policies.  The flow of boat people essentially stopped (in the order of 3-4 boats per year), so whilst these policies were nominally very tough, they actually applied to nobody
  • Of those who did come by boat, the majority were actually getting resettled in Australia, but this was not publicly known, and the Labor opposition banging on about how harsh the policies were helped with that
  • When Rudd got in, the left of Labor pushed to make the policies more “humane”, the result of that was many more boats coming (over 1,000 people per week).  The actual number of people in immigration terms isn’t huge, but the human tragedy associated with loss of life on the boats is huge
  • The options therefore are to go softer still, basically having the navy offer a ferry service where they pick people up just off the coast of Indonesia and drop them at Christmas Island, or to go harsher to stop people coming at all.  Somewhere in the middle is no good – that puts lots of people on very unseaworthy vessels
  • It’s not politically possible to go softer, there would be tens of thousands of people coming in.  And status quo is also not an option

Gillard tried to be tough, but the problem was that the opposition are to the right of her.  So they consistently said that it wasn’t tough enough – she couldn’t emulate the Howard era “talk tough but don’t act tough” routine.  Without the PR campaign that told people it was tough, it’s very hard to convince people.

So, with Rudd clearing the decks ahead of the election, he’s come out with a surprising policy.  The new quote is “nobody who gets on a boat will end up in Australia.”  Everyone will instead be redirected to PNG, which is legit under the convention on refugees.  If these people are genuinely refugees looking for a safe haven, then there is no reason that PNG can’t be that place.  However, if they are economic refugees, looking for a better life, then clearly PNG would not provide that – arguably many of those people would be better off economically in their existing country.

This is a good announcement then, if it can be made to work.  And that’s where the problems come in.

About 1,000 people per week are currently arriving.  Manus Island, in PNG, is where these people now have to go.  There is room for 600 people there.  There is talk of building more room, room for 3,000.  Which is 3 weeks of arrivals.  It’s sort of like currency traders betting against the central bank – the question is who has more money and can you break them.  In the case of Rudd, if the people traders keep pushing then it will take roughly 3 weeks to break him, which isn’t very long.  It’ll be even quicker given that the rule is that everyone arriving since the announcement goes to PNG – i.e. we don’t get time to build 3,000 more beds first.

Next, the actual agreement with PNG isn’t limitless – in fact the agreement is very soft.  This is a political agreement to try to get the “talk tough” message out there.  Problem is that the opposition are picking holes in it, so no doubt the people smugglers will keep bringing people.  And then it might founder on the rocks of reality.

Finally, this agreement will be very expensive.  There is a lot of money in building detention centres, but on top of that it looks like Rudd has basically promised an open chequebook to PNG in return for agreeing to it.  Both open chequebook to resettle all these people and pay for them indefinitely, and also to pay for other services for PNG to reward them.  That bit of the agreement doesn’t seem very well written down either.

I think the overall plan was to make a big splash with the announcement, the boats would stop immediately, and then, like Howard, you’d have a tough policy that actually applied to nobody, and the costs would be low.  Unfortunately, I think that approach is wishful thinking when you’re the Labor party, it only works for the Coalition (and mostly because the Labor party howled about how tough the policy was).

Abbott might be onto a winner with his story that it’s a good policy but the Labor party aren’t competent to implement it.  Certainly, it will be interesting times for the next few weeks.

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