LENORE TAYLOR August 04, 2012
Political stand-off ... MPs return to the table to discuss asylum seekers once more. Photo: Sharon Tisdale
In a little over a week when politicians return to Canberra it will be time to face a decision they have been squibbing for almost a year.
No, not who should lead the Labor Party, although government MPs will probably also be thinking about that. This is an issue where the entire Parliament has failed: asylum policy.
They left five weeks ago for their winter break, wrung out after days and nights of passionate but ultimately useless debate about how to be humane, reasonable and also stop the deaths at sea. And, if they are honest, how to make the Parliament's pathetic indecision look like it was another party's fault.
Since then more than 2100 asylum seekers have arrived by boat. Thankfully no more have died. Who we know about. Yet.
Despite all their professed concern, and the major parties' insistence that offshore processing would deter people from risking their lives, the political stand-off has delivered exactly what they all said they didn't want. This situation is not tenable, and they all know it.
It is not tenable for asylum seekers. Thousands who succeed in the journey are filling Australia's humanitarian quota and denying any hope to the hundreds of thousands waiting in refugee camps.
It is not tenable for the Australian customs and defence forces. It is costing Australian Border Command hundreds of thousands of dollars a day to perform the essential work of rescuing and escorting asylum boats to Australia, and lately that's been an almost daily proposition. Two patrol boats and another navy vessel are on permanent patrol around Christmas Island. Resources are being diverted from other important work. It would probably be cheaper and more efficient to just set up a ferry service.
As politicians fly back we will all see the report of the ''expert panel'' set up by Julia Gillard after Parliament's decision-making failure in June.
Not all submissions to the panel have been made public, but we know it has heard evidence supporting the government's preferred course (offshore processing in Malaysia and Nauru, more resources for regional processing and a higher humanitarian intake) since it has spoken to the same immigration officials who advised the Gillard government (and the Howard government before it).
We know it has heard evidence in favour of the Greens' preferred plan (more resources for regional processing, much higher intake, no offshore processing) because we have seen submissions broadly to that effect, including from the Centre for Policy Development (co-written by former Immigration Department secretary John Menadue), the Law Council of Australia and the Refugee Council of Australia.
We don't know of anyone who has backed the Coalition's plan (processing on Nauru and turning back boats) but we know the panel will have been advised by the department that Nauru would not work as a deterrent if it was used again, and that turning back boats is dangerous and impractical.
The panel may have come up with a surprising new ''solution''. But more likely it will propose a combination or variation of the policies already being considered. And as capable and committed as its three members are, this stalemate is about politics rather policy.
There is no doubt the government's record on asylum policy has been a shambles, from the ill-considered Timor proposal to the High Court rejection of its plan to use Malaysia, which is why it is now reliant on the Parliament to pass legislation to get around the legal hurdle.
But this deadlock is driven by two things.
The first is Tony Abbott's determination to deny Labor any legitimacy or any policy victory.
The only way the panel can change the Coalition's stance is if it presents a case that cuts through the rhetoric, convinces voters utterly fed up with the endless debate and undermines Abbott's argument that Nauru would work as a deterrent if reopened. Whether or not the panel does that, or even comes to that conclusion, Abbott does not have a strong record of being swayed by expert argument.
The second is the fundamental policy disagreement between Labor and the Greens about whether offshore processing should happen at all.
The Greens and many of the organisations backing their arguments say offshore processing is not a deterrent because asylum seekers are desperate, and it contravenes Australia's legal and international obligations, which is why the High Court found against Malaysia in the first place.
But the government and its advisors insist expanded regional processing, without the deterrent of offshore processing, will mean Indonesia and Malaysia become ''honeypots''.
They say the influx of asylum seeker arrivals in those countries, lured by a better chance of making it to Australia, would way outstrip any increased humanitarian intake. And that would mean there would always be an incentive for the new arrivals to get onto boats.
Perhaps the Greens could be swayed by an argument in favour of offshore processing as part of a broader regional package, if they could be persuaded that people being sent away from Australia would be treated properly and would have a hope of being assessed and resettled in a reasonable period. But nothing they have said indicates this is likely.
If neither the Greens nor the Coalition change their minds the government will be left with an extremely unpalatable choice.
They will have to consider accepting either the Coalition plan or the Greens plan, at least for a limited period, to prove one way or the other whether it works.
It would be a sad day if Parliament is unable to reach a compromise, even sadder if the government of the day were forced to adopt a policy against its best advice.
But ultimately it is the elected government that has the responsibility to act to resolve the stand-off, and in this case the stalemate is delivering us a non-policy that is the worst of all outcomes.
It's time to do something.