Most of the time Australian political discourse is of a higher level than that which occurs in America. We have a couple odd nutters who see conspiracies in ever ALP decision, and some who think the world is flat when it comes to climate change; but by and large the debate is level headed – perhaps missing some logic with some issues, perhaps over egging the point on some others. We don’t have many nutjobs like Glenn Beck who see Communism in every Obama decision (though it must be said Andrew Bolt has taken to citing him as evidence), or Rush Limbaugh who hope Obama fails, even if it means the country fails. We may have some in the media who don’t like the stimulus package, but no one (or at least no one of any note) is hoping that Australia goes into a recession just to show that Rudd was wrong).
And we don’t have too many fools like Sarah Palin who out and out lied about Obama’s health policy planning on bringing in “death panels” to decide if the elderly or kids with Down Syndrome should live or die.
So usually we are pretty good here. Except one issue. Except when it comes to the issue of asylum seekers. Actually scratch that; except when it comes to asylum seekers coming by boat. We don’t give a damn about those who come by plane. For whatever reason politicians, the media, and many of the public don’t care if a Sri Lankan comes by plane, gets off in Sydney and says “I wish to apply for asylum”. But come by boat from the same country? Well hell, the fan is well and truly hit by the stuff that makes the garden grow.
This happens on both sides of the political divide. Kevin Rudd (though I agree with his policies) has well and truly gone overboard with his rhetoric about being tough and people smugglers being the “vilest form of humanity”. So the ALP is not free of criticism on this issue. But geez, they are miles and miles ahead of the Liberal Party (and it must be said, many in the media). Here was opposition spokesperson on Immigration, Sharman Stone, yesterday on Insiders:
SHARMAN STONE: No. There was a package of measures and these things do take time as you say. The package or so called Pacific Solution was introduced in late 1999 about the last month of legislation. It took about another 18 months for the pipeline to be plugged. And I think by 2002/03 there were zero boats.
In the year before Prime Minister Rudd softened the policy in Australia we had about three boats and that was extraordinarily few compared to the 41 boats that we've seen since Labor softened policy in Australia after August last year. And we know about 81 interceptions on Australia's behalf by the Indonesians over that same time.
So the flow is back on full stream and it is a deadly business. And that's why we're saying, look Prime Minister Rudd, you do something right now other than just call on Indonesia to do your heavy lifting.
BARRIE CASSIDY: What would you do if you were? What would you do if you did have the hands on the levers?
SHARMAN STONE: Well let me put it back one step. We wouldn't have the problem in the first position Barrie because we had zero boat problems effectively when we were in government. This Government has unravelled…
That's what's happened and we think that that is a deadly business. This Government keeps on unravelling and thinking it's having no effect. Well, Prime Minister Rudd has got to agree, yes, we created the pull factors.
You can't expect Malaysia and Indonesia to just plug the pipe. We have got to change the pull factors. He's not acknowledging that.
For the Liberal Party it is all about “pull factors”. After Howard introduced the Pacific Solution – wallah! All was good – zero boats!. Of course she doesn’t mention that there were actually 1546 asylum seekers who arrived in Australia by boat in 2002, it’s just that under the Pacific Solution these people weren’t counted as having arrived in Australia (you see the solution was to not only hide the people, but also hide the statistics!).
Paul Kelly on Insiders wasn’t much better:
PAUL KELLY: The policy is what counts Barrie and that's where Indonesia, I believe, is the absolute key.
I think there is a lot of misunderstanding about the true nature of Rudd's policy over the last 18 months. And it essentially depends on two elements and there is a potential contradiction here.
Rudd wants to stay tough on border protection. He never walked away from that pledge. On the other hand Rudd and Chris Evans have been determined to make the policy more humane. And so in that sense of course there is a contradiction.
They've abolished the Pacific Solution, abolished the mandatory detention in terms of a long term arrangement. It's now a short term arrangement. And they've changed the visa arrangements as well.
But the test is now. The test is when the boats come. What they've got to demonstrate is that their new policy is consistent with limiting and containing the boats. If it's not, then it doesn't work.
So both Stone and Kelly think the key thing is the “pull factors” – the immigration laws. They seem to think that refugees in Afghanistan and Sri Lanka are surfing the net reading Australian media, and possibly Hansard, to pick up changes in legislation; and having actually done that, I guess Stone and Kelly think that they bizarrely also fail to read that if they are not actual refugees they will be sent back home….
But anyway, I wonder if all these people in politics and the media have actually investigated how much of a factor is the “pull” of changing immigration laws, and how much of a factor is the “push” from international conflicts? Well thankfully Possum Comitatus over at Crikey has used data (you know, facts – things the media and politicians used to care about). He has compared boat arrivals in Australia under Howard (“tough” border laws), with those in New Zealand (“soft” border laws).
Rather oddly for those who think the laws matter, there is an extremely strong correlation between the numbers of asylum applications in Australia and New Zealand. So the “pull” factor is obviously pretty weak – if it were strong, in years that Australia had few asylum seekers, New Zealand would get lots (or at the very least there would be no correlation between the two). But as you can see if NZ gets lots of asylum seekers, so do we, and vice versa.
Possum then decided to have a look at just boat arrivals (not just the broad “asylum applications”) compared with total asylum applications to 38 developed countries. Essentially looking to see if we get more boat people when other countries are getting more asylum seekers. Obviously if the push factors were the main contributor, there would be a high correlation:
So what do we see?
What we see is a very strong correlation between numbers of asylum applications in the 28 developed countries and the number of people coming by boat to Australia.
Or maybe it’s just coincidence? A 16 year coincidence, I guess…
And for those wondering why these Sri Lankans come to Australia and not go to India, which is closer, well here are the figures for where Sri Lankans have applied for asylum in India since 2006:
2006 – 73,700
2007 – 99,600
2008 – 102,300
2009 – 120,000
And how many have come to Australia? Try 1,843 in 2008 – or 1.8% of what India has had. Hardly what you would suggest is evidence that our “soft” immigration laws are pulling refugees to this country.
So let’s just shelve the bull that changes in our laws have any great affect on numbers of boat people.
Want to stop boat people? Stop wars throughout Asia and the Middle East. Simple. Till then, institute policies that encourage and enable people to apply for asylum (to whichever country) in the proper manner, and should we get boat people, treat them with the dignity we would expect of people under Australian care.