The Greens failed asylum seekers

3 July 2012

Written by: Emil Jeyaratnam

Bob Brown famously once said the Greens did not want to ‘keep the bastards honest’, but ‘we want to replace them’. Last week, as all eyes turned to Canberra during the asylum seeker policy debate, the Greens had an opportunity to demonstrate their maturing into a viable alternative to the major parties.

The private member’s bill introduced by Independent MP Rob Oakeshott’s offered the Greens a chance to break

The Greens failed asylum seekers (source: The Greens)

another Labor-Coalition stalemate and rescue the Australian Parliament’s tarnished reputation on the issue of asylum seekers.

That the Greens refused to compromise on their principle of not supporting offshore processing and blocked the bill in the Senate spoke volumes about the party’s inability to responsibly handle the political power it was given at the last election.

The backdrop to this extraordinary debate in parliament was another suspected asylum seeker boat taking in water north of Christmas Island – at least one person was confirmed dead and at least 20 suspected missing. This came only a week after the tragedy where at least 90 refugees are believed to have drowned.

These events placed immense public pressure on all of parliament to find an answer. Rob Oakeshott’s bill was effectively a compromise between the government’s Malaysia Solution and the Coalition’s Nauru option.

For two emotional days MPs and Senators from all sides talked of leaving politics aside to save lives. But it was nothing but politics and showmanship. If the leadership group of the parties were genuine, then compromises would have been made and a bill passed.

Though it may seem somewhat unfair to lay the blame entirely upon the Greens, it is they who have an agreement with Labor and who also have room to move on the issue of offshore processing.

The Coalition’s refusal to compromise is to be expected. Since 2001, when it refused asylum to 438 refugees rescued by the MV Tampa, it has played politics with the lives of asylum seekers. The ‘children overboard’ scandal was further testament to its politicking of the issue.

The Coalition’s main argument against the government’s Malaysia Solution seems to be: ‘we had a policy that worked before, so why compromise for an untested policy?’

But Andrew Metcalf, who was part of the team that formulated the Pacific Solution in 2001, has acknowledged that it will not work again. And common sense alone dictates that Nauru is no longer a strong deterrent to asylum seekers. Almost all of the asylum seekers taken to Nauru were resettled in either Australia or New Zealand.

The people smugglers know this. Refugees also know this, and they will be perfectly willing to risk their lives to board unseaworthy vessels, knowing that, after six months in Nauru, they will get to Australia. And who would not prefer a relatively short stay in Nauru than an indefinite wait in Indonesian camps?

John Howard’s response to refugees onboard Tampa drastically changed Australia’s view of border protection (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The Coalition’s other argument that it cannot support the Malaysia solution because Malaysia is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention is blatantly disingenuous.

‘I will never ever support a people swap where you can send a 13-year-old child unaccompanied to a country without supervision­ – never. It will be over my dead body,’ an emotional Joe Hockey told the lower house.

It was a quite powerful and emotional statement, which has been widely reported in the media. However, the fact that he was perfectly willing to support a policy that would see that same child towed back to Indonesia, which is not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, did not make it into his speech. And, all throughout the implementation of the Pacific Solution, Nauru was not a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention either.

Affording protection to asylum seekers is incredibly important, but insisting that Malaysia should be a signatory is almost petulant given the fact that countries such as Afghanistan, Somalia and Israel are current signatories. Better safeguards are more more important than signatures.

The biggest issue with the Malaysia Solution is the fact that women and children will not be sent back to Malaysia. This raises the possibility that people smugglers will load boats with women and children to test the government’s policy. Though this point was raised several times, no one offered a solution or amended the bill.

The Greens’ approach to asylum seeker policy is noble and admirable. They want Australia to increase its intake of refugees, continue onshore processing, develop a regional solution and provide resources to countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia so refugees can be processed quickly and efficiently.

These demands, however, will not stop people smuggling and will not stop deaths at sea in the short term.

It will take time to implement a regional solution. And Independent MP Andrew Wilkie’s amendment to have a 12-month sunset clause on the bill would have given all parties time to formulate a sustainable, regional solution. But in demanding the ideal policy, the Greens are left with no policy at all.

The Coalition will not yield. Rightly or wrongly, they have placed Howard’s Pacific Solution on a pedestal and will not shift. It was left to the Greens to show leadership on an issue where the two main parties have failed.

But the Greens’ stubbornness in demanding a ‘perfect world’ solution to a very imperfect problem has cost them credibility as a genuine political force.

And tragically, it may also cost the lives of countless asylum seekers desperate to make the journey to Christmas Island before parliament reconvenes in six weeks.

Emil Jeyaratnam is a Graduate Diploma in Journalism student at La Trobe University and is the co-editor of upstartYou can follow him on Twitter: @EmilJeyaratnam