Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Eight Days Of Farce

Today is Bastille Day, the French national holiday, so it might seem appropriate that the Federal Government’s asylum seeker policy is rapidly becoming more madcap than a French farce. After being elected with a mandate to end the so called “Pacific Solution”, the Rudd Government continued to keep the processing of asylum seekers off shore by confining it to Christmas Island. With increased numbers of boats arriving, pressure mounted upon both the detention facilities and the Government’s policies, resulting in the bizarre spectacle that we have witnessed unfolding in the past eight days, and culminating in the prospect of once again using the facilities at Nauru. It’s not just ironic, it’s almost a paradox.

On Tuesday of last week, the sixth of July, our new Prime Minister Julia Gillard presented her speech to the Lowy Institute reassuring Australians that it is perfectly alright to feel fear and anxiety about asylum seekers, instead of advising Australians that any fears and anxieties that they may have been encouraged to feel are in fact unfounded. She then proceeded to announce that discussions had been initiated with the President of East Timor in relation to a proposed Regional Refugee Processing Centre. It was immediately, and inevitably, branded the “East Timor Solution”.

Within minutes the Government was rejecting suggestions that the policy was nothing more than a revamp of the Howard Government “Pacific Solution”. Instead, the Gillard Solution was supposedly of a different character altogether because, unlike Nauru, the proposed Centre would be constructed with the co-operation of regional neighbor nations as well as the United Nations High Commission on Refugees. Within 48 hours, the Prime Minister was denying that she had ever said that the centre would actually be built in East Timor, because as it turns out, a quick phone call to Jose Ramos Horta on Monday night wasn’t really enough to lock in East Timorese support for a policy announced on Tuesday. Instead, the Centre could end up being built in Papua New Guinea, or some other unspecified location.

By this point it was becoming impossible to ignore the constant calls by Tony Abbott, and others, for Nauru to be considered for the job. If there is to be off shore processing at all, surely Nauru would have to be a candidate, for a number of reasons. First, and most obviously, it has already performed this role before and the facilities are still there ready to be pressed into service. The Government of Nauru has indicated its willingness to take on the job, having already enjoyed the benefits of the economic boost which arrived courtesy of the Australian taxpayer’s money, and they’re naturally more than happy to take our money again.

But no, said our Prime Minister, East Timor is our first preference because any country which undertakes this function should be a signatory to the United Nations Convention on Refugees, and Nauru is not. That’s fair enough if the aim is to provide a genuine framework for the better handling of the refugee challenge across the region. But wait a minute, the President of Nauru, Marcus Stephen, has now said that the Convention is not an obstacle because he is prepared to sign up. If that’s the case, you really have to ask the question, what’s the difference whether the Solution is in East Timor or on Nauru?

Of course, the farce can only be complete if Julia Gillard actually embraces the Nauru option, but the hollow rhetoric has already become embarrassingly obvious.

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