Tony Abbott has made asylum seekers a touchstone for the success or failure of his Coalition government. One of Abbott’s first declarations was that within three years, he would stop the boats.
Negotiations are underway to find a willing three-star general to preside over Abbott’s Operation Sovereign Borders policy. The issue will be on the front pages and in the middle of political debate for a long time to come.
Abbott’s election win has underscored the importance of the refugee movement countering his “stop the boats” xenophobia. There will be resistance to every part of Abbott’s anti-refugee agenda.
There are a string of draconian policies that Abbott can immediately implement. He has said he will cut off legal assistance for asylum seekers. He can impose Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs) without going to parliament. He can begin notifying the police when asylum seekers move into the community.
Liberal Party hack Christopher Pyne, announced that one of the Abbott government’s first orders would be to the navy, to turn back asylum boats “when it was safe to do so”.
But turning back the boats is an extremely dangerous operation. At least five lives were lost under the tow-back policy of the Howard government. The navy has now told Abbott that they will “obey lawful orders” but the admirals regard the policy as dangerous and difficult to implement.
From here on, every boat arrival will be a test of Abbott’s policy played out between the asylum seekers, the navy, the Indonesian government and Abbott.
This is a test he will likely fail even in the short run because the Indonesian government resents it and the navy is extremely reluctant to implement it.
It is also likely the PNG solution will collapse in the not-so-distant future. There are already protests by Manus-Islanders over the lack of contracts going to any Manus or PNG businesses. More significant are the problems with sustaining a major detention centre on Manus Island or PNG.
Besides the constitutional challenge in PNG, there are beginnings of a more promising political campaign in PNG against Australia’s neo-colonial attempt to turn PNG into an Australian asylum seeker gulag.
The health problems with malaria also mean it is unlikely that a 3000-person detention centre let alone the proposed 19,000-person detention centre will ever be built. The PNG government has no arrangements in place to resettle even 300 refugees, never mind 3000.
That means there are over 3000 asylum seekers in detention in Australia who have arrived since the beginning of the PNG deal and for whom there is nowhere they can be sent.
The asylum seekers who arrived after the Pacific Solution’s reintroduction (August 2012) and who were sent to Nauru and Manus Island, like the 30,000 others kept in Australian detention, are being quietly released into the community on bridging visas.
Building the anger
Perhaps cruellest of all of Abbott’s policies is the re-introduction of Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs). If Abbott gets his way, none of the 30,000 or so asylum seekers presently in the community will ever get permanent residency.
TPVs inflict incredible hardship on those found to be refugees. They will deny certainty and security and their refugee status will be subject to constant review. They will be denied family reunion and the right to travel, leaving refugees permanently separated from their families.
It was this policy, under the Howard government, that pushed many families onto boats in a desperate effort to reunite with fathers and husbands, who were in limbo in Australia. Many of the 353 who died when the SIEV X sank in 2001 were the wives and children of refugees on TPVs in Australia.
It was the plight of TPV refugees that drew many people into the campaign for refugee rights last time.
Like Howard, Abbott is determined to victimise those who have already been persecuted and quite willing to inflame community feeling against asylum seekers.
Fiona Scott, now the Liberal member for Lindsay, was backed up by Shadow Immigration Minister Scott Morrison when she made her ridiculous comments to Four Corners that asylum seekers were responsible for Sydney’s traffic congestion and for long waiting times at the Nepean hospital.
There is a solid basis for building the campaign against Abbott. Thousands of people were already outraged and mobilised against Labor’s PNG deal in the run up to the election. This anger can now be mobilised against Abbott.
Unions have carried resolutions against the PNG deal. That political support can now be turned into support for rallies and protests and the possibility of bans against building the gulags in PNG or Nauru.
By Ian Rintoul