Fatal shore of Kevin Rudd's making

July 20, 2013 12:00AM

ON a concrete slab in the newly expanded Christmas Island morgue lies the body of a baby boy, only months old. His name, if it is known, has not been released by the government.

We are told nothing about the fate of this boy's mother or father, whether they are still alive or whether they were among the eight other people who drowned when their boat sank off Christmas Island a week ago.

We can only imagine, if they were among the 89 survivors, the unspeakable anguish they must now feel after having gambled their lives with a people-smuggler on the dream of a better life in Australia.

This young boy, who will now never live his parents' dream, is just one of more than 1100 asylum-seekers to drown since Kevin Rudd relaxed Australia's border protection regime in 2008.

This national tragedy - more than double the number of Australian soldiers to die in the Vietnam War - has mostly unfolded out of our sight.

Men, women and children have drowned far beyond the reach of television news cameras, with only the young navy sailors who must collect their bodies from the ocean bearing prime witness to the horror.

The stories of these families, their dreams and their lives, are effectively quashed by the government, which rarely releases names or photographs of those who drown, as if to do so might energise more voters to focus on Australia's most grievous failure of public policy.

This week, the administrator of Christmas Island, Jon Stanhope, called for the names of the dead to be made public - including that of the young boy in the morgue - so Australians can better understand the scale of human tragedy unfolding as politicians argue.

"I drive past that mortuary every day where that little boy lies, and I think: 'Well, he has a name and we don't know it.' I do think it would assist all of us if he weren't anonymous. I sometimes wish that some of the debate ... would perhaps look at asylum-seekers not as a bulk, anonymous grouping of individuals but as individual human beings that have hopes, aspirations and dreams and feel the same pain and suffer the same grief as each of us."

As the Prime Minister yesterday unveiled his proposed Papua New Guinea solution to a policy failure that began on his watch in 2008, the tragic events of the past week, which included 13 deaths and a string of dangerous rescues, have sharply underlined the extent of Australia's border protection crisis. The figures are not just sobering; they are remarkable.

An unprecedented 800 asylum-seekers a week are now arriving in boats, bringing the total so far this year to 15,610, placing Australia on track to receive 30,000 asylum-seekers this year.

In the first 30 years since modern migration figures were compiled, from 1976 to 2006, a period spanning the Fraser, Hawke, Keating and Howard governments, only 17,646 asylum-seekers arrived by boat in Australia - a figure that will now be surpassed within the first eight months of this year.

Since Rudd loosened Labor's border protection regime in 2008, 46,819 asylum-seekers have arrived - almost triple the number of the previous 30 years.

It is Labor, and especially Rudd, who must bear prime political responsibility for the present fiasco. As prime minister in 2008, Rudd softened the border protection regime when it wasn't broken to win accolades from Labor's progressives. It proved to be the fatal trigger for the resumption of the people-smuggling trade and an ever-increasing flow of boats to Australia.

Rudd's greatest electoral challenge will be to persuade voters that his PNG solution unveiled late yesterday is a workable answer to a problem that was largely of his own making.

The Coalition and the Greens must also bear some responsibility for the asylum-seeker fiasco, by placing politics above bipartisan efforts to stop the boats and help prevent drownings.

Tony Abbott's decision to block the proposed Malaysia solution means he cannot claim to have done everything possible to help stop the boats on Labor's watch.

Meanwhile, the Greens have found themselves increasingly marginalised as the sheer volume of boat arrivals makes voters less inclined to support their calls for a looser and more humane border protection regime.

The intractable political bickering over asylum-seeker policy, while families are drowning off our coast, amounts to a stunning failure of Australian politics.

On Christmas Island, asylum-seekers outnumber the locals by two to one. Facilities are overflowing with daily charter flights desperately trying to fly asylum-seekers to the mainland faster than they are arriving.

The island's morgue, which once held five bodies, has been expanded to hold 50. On the mainland, detention centres around the country are clogged and those asylum-seekers living in the community who arrived after August last year are stripped of work rights and are living on the lowest rung of welfare payments, creating a new economic sub-class. The whole fiasco is costing taxpayers many billions of dollars each year.

On the frontline, the navy's patrol boat fleet, which along with Customs vessels is responsible for intercepting and rescuing asylum seekers, is at breaking point. The Armidale-class patrol boats were not designed to operate in the rough seas presently being experienced off Christmas Island and the navy is struggling to provide the required seven patrol boats a day. Such is the number of boat arrivals that a minehunter and an Anzac frigate have recently joined in to help.

Sailors are at sea for 80 per cent of each operational deployment, which is 10 per cent higher than the navy wants, with navy chief Ray Griggs telling Senate estimates recently that the navy was concerned about fatigue levels of its crews. Many exhausted sailors on the frontline are privately seething about being placed in such a position as a result of failed government policy. Insiders told The Australian this week that the navy faces a spate of post-traumatic stress disorders arising from young sailors witnessing the deaths of women and young children at sea while also placing themselves regularly at risk while undertaking rescues in dangerous conditions.

At present almost 8 per cent of sailors involved in Operation Resolute report post-traumatic stress, similar to rates on overseas military deployments such as Afghanistan. This week, the crew of the patrol boat HMAS Albany launched small boats in 3m swells in the dark to save the lives of 144 people, including mothers and children who were scrambling for life in the foam.

It is the sort of courage that is worthy of medals, but Australians are given a sanitised impression of such events via carefully censored Defence-filmed vision, which gives little idea of the true horror of what unfolded.

Rudd hopes that yesterday's dramatic signing of a resettlement deal with PNG is the game-changer for which Labor has been looking. He concedes it may do little to slow the passage of boats ahead of the election because there will be a people-smuggling pipeline already in train.

"The boats are not going to stop coming tomorrow," Rudd says. "In fact, it is more probable that they - people-smugglers - will try and test our resolve for the period ahead."

So the key for Rudd lies in whether he can convince voters that the PNG plan will actually slow the boats, reduce the deaths at sea and, across time, cripple the people-smuggler model.

While there are many aspects of the PNG resettlement plan that remain unclear, the plan's bottom line - that no asylum-seekers who arrive at Christmas Island by boat from now on will be allowed to resettle in Australia - is a blunt and powerful deterrent.

Under the plan, all new asylum-seeker arrivals will be sent to PNG, where they will be processed. If their asylum claims are rejected, they will be sent home or to a third country, and if their claims are accepted they will be allowed to live in PNG but not Australia.

The fundamental deterrence of the resettlement plan is that the best possible outcome for asylum-seekers is that they are resettled in PNG, a peaceful democracy but also a developing country with numerous social problems. It is a far cry from the prospect of resettlement in Australia. As such, the deal provides the greatest deterrence to those whom Foreign Minister Bob Carr believes are economic migrants rather than genuine asylum-seekers.

The PNG plan marks a landmark shift in the government's approach to the problem.

Each of the new measures Labor has announced across the past year has comprehensively failed to deter asylum-seekers.

These included the resumption of offshore processing on Nauru and on PNG's Manus Island, the denial of family reunion rights, delays of up to five years in processing new arrivals and the denial of work rights during that period.

The PNG deal includes a plan to increase the capacity of the Manus Island detention centre, but its key aspect is that asylum-seekers will also be housed in other parts of the country. This removes the limitations on the numbers that can be sent to PNG - a limit previously exploited by people-smugglers to tell their customers there was little prospect of ending up in PNG.

The deal will come at an enormous cost, the size of which the government has not yet disclosed, and effectively means Australia has bought off PNG to solve its most difficult policy problem.

The PNG deal appears to have taken the opposition by surprise and has seen Rudd, for the moment, outflank Tony Abbott on an issue that has been one of the Opposition Leader's greatest strengths.

Having long been a champion of offshore processing, Abbott had little choice but to cautiously welcome the PNG deal, but he stressed that it was a processing deal and did not in itself stop the boats. He moved quickly last night to try to recast the debate as a matter of trust between Rudd, who he says started the boats in 2008, and the Coalition, which stopped the boats in 2001 with its Pacific Solution.

Rudd's PNG deal was immediately criticised by the Greens and by refugee advocates, with lawyer David Manne describing it as a fundamental repudiation of Australia's commitment to protect refugees.

"This involves sending them to a country, now PNG ... where they won't have proper legal protections, where people are likely to be held in the same inhumane and degrading conditions," he said.

Rudd maintains the PNG deal is consistent with Australia's obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention.

"Critically, the convention requires us not to send genuine refugees back to the countries they have fled from - in this arrangement we honour that undertaking," Rudd says. "Asylum-seekers who are determined to be genuine refugees will therefore have a country of settlement, namely Papua New Guinea."

In another initiative revealed yesterday, the government has also persuaded Indonesia to agree to require all Iranians visiting that country to obtain visas before travel, rather than the present system of visas on arrival.

This seeks to tackle the fastest growing asylum-seeker channel whereby Iranians without visas fly to Jakarta before taking a boat to Australia. So far this year 5054 Iranians have arrived, largely through this pipeline.

Almost one in three asylum-seekers are from Iran and Carr says almost all of these are economic migrants.

Even if Iranian asylum-seekers are deemed to be economic migrants, they cannot be returned to Iran because Tehran accepts only voluntary returnees. Previously they had to remain in Australia, but under the PNG deal they can now be sent to that country.

The PNG deal is the most significant shift yet in a policy area littered with failed initiatives. It is early days, but it carries the potential to be a game-changer because it removes the promise of a life in Australia. Regardless of the future, the nameless boy lying in the morgue on Christmas Island surely deserved better.


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