Reactions to Asylum Seekers: An Overview

by Andrew Campbell


The change of Prime Minister and corresponding cabinet reshuffle has resulted in a lurch to the right in the asylum seeker debate. In an effort to steal the wind from the Coalition’s sails, the PM and Minister Burke have moved to a policy based on heavy deterrence. This is aimed at restoring the public’s faith in the government and distancing PM Rudd from the border policy failures of the Gillard government.  Both major parties are now competing to out flank one another with aggressive policies.

These policies also require a level of regional engagement creating an intersection of the domestic and international politics.  As the September 7th election draws nearer the effect of international voices and considerations in the asylum seeker debate will be a novel addition to what is now a close race.

The government’s policy of sending all new irregular maritime arrivals to be processed and settled in Papua New Guinea has ignited a fierce domestic debate but also invited comment from overseas. The very public dialogue between  Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister Mr Peter O’Neil and both the government and the opposition, demonstrates this expansion of the international politics into the electoral process . In an interview on the ABC’s Lateline program, Mr O’Neil openly criticised the opposition for misrepresenting the MOU signed between his nation and the Australian government, stating ”I don’t particularly appreciate being misrepresented by others for their own political interests,”.Policies governing asylum seekers have long been stained with political opportunism. The Howard government’s treatment of the Tampa crisis and the effect it had on the 2001 election provide the starkest example of such behaviour. But there has never been the current level of foreign commentary on the process. This re-framing of the issue breaks the convention that holds foreign affairs aloof from normal electoral politicking. Much of this has come from our neighbours most effected by policy changes, Papua New Guinea and Indonesia.

The deal to settle IMAs in Papua New Guinea is linked to a substantial increase in aid from Australia. PNG is already our second largest recipient and is beset by a myriad of development issues. For Mr O’Neil the policy of accepting asylum seekers from Australia maybe a difficult domestic sell when many of his own citizens do not have access to basic services. There is also the distinct possibility for tension between PNG locals and newly settled refugees on religious and cultural issues.  What may be a domestic political fix for the Rudd government could turn out to be a long-term social problem for Mr O’Neil.

The other on-going and somewhat more reluctant actor in this debate is the Indonesian government. Mr Abbot’s six point plan, centred around turning around the boats has been a thorny topic not only for the coalition but also our large northern neighbour. PM Rudd’s remarkable accusation that the coalition’s policy could lead to “conflict” between Australia and Indonesia just days after being returned to the nation’s top job was clearly aimed at highlighting how contingent this plan is on Indonesian cooperation.

In good diplomatic form Indonesia’s ambassador to Australia, Mr Nadjib Riphat Kesoema did his best to remain neutral but was eventually drawn into confirming that Indonesia will not allow boats to be turned around. This core decision all but ensures that the Mr Abbott will not be able to fulfil his promise to do so no matter how many three star generals he assigns to the task. Remarkably this fact has been little commented on in the Australian press. The government’s new policy, if effective will also have the effect of stranding some 10,000 potential asylum seekers in Indonesia living without any work rights or social security.

The Greens’ choice to campaign strongly against offshore processing, a major point of difference between them and the ALP, will likely play well in inner city electorates like Melbourne. It might be the critical factor in Adam Bandt retaining the party’s only lower house seat given that he will now have to win it out right due to the Liberals choice to preference Labor.

The electorate’s clear concern about asylum seekers, coupled with continued dramatic events at sea and new accusations of sexual abuse on Manus Island will ensure that the debate remains a focus during the election. This campaign has seen a shift in the discourse surrounding what is a complex regional issue. It is an interesting case study of the multi-layered nature of foreign policy.  What is for sure is that the eventual victor will be required to take into account not only domestic concerns when implementing future policies.


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