On December 15, 2010, Australians watched in horror the televised account of a leaky Indonesian fishing boat, with its human cargo of 89, breaking up on the rocks of Christmas Island. At 5 a.m. locals had begun hearing cries for help from those aboard. Islanders defied the treacherous swell on rocky cliffs to throw life jackets in the direction of the shipwrecked passengers while the Royal Australian Navy launched rescue boats. Their efforts were mostly in vain. Fifty souls perished at sea that morning, many of them women and children. The night before the captain had disembarked for another vessel leaving the fate of his charges in the hands of Abdul Rasjid, an Indonesia fisherman without appropriate experience or expertise. Such is the perfidy of the people smuggling trade.
People drowning on the high seas in attempts to reach Australia became a regular feature of news reports between 2007 and 2013. The Indian Ocean can be treacherous; the waves sometimes 5 to 6 metres high and on occasion as much as 12 metres. Eight people drowned off Java in December 2011 trying to make it to Australia, another 8 died off Malaysia in February 2012, and so on. The greatest single disaster occurred in December 2011 when as many as 200 people drowned after their boast capsized in the waters off eastern Java. Even these calamities might not tell the whole story of the catastrophe that ensued after Prime Minister Kevin Rudd undid the tough border policies constructed by the conservative government of John Howard government (1997-2007).
The first four years of Howard’s programme mostly consisted of increasing the number of detention centres throughout Australia, a programme initiated by Paul Keating’s Labor government (1993-97). However, the second phase involved something far more dramatic. The so-called Pacific Solution sought to relocate asylum-seekers arriving courtesy of people smugglers in detention centres on island nations in the Pacific Ocean. The Australian Defence Forces had the task of intercepting incoming vessels so the passengers on board never made it to Australian territory in the first place. The government, in addition, excised thousands of islands from Australia’s migration zone to enforce their audacious policy. Anyone paying money to a people smuggler operative was far more likely to wind up on Nauru and Papua New Guinea than Australia.
The Pacific Solution not only brought a halt to the people-smuggling business but enjoyed bi-partisan support among the mainstream political parties, despite infuriating Australia’s leftist commentariat. Labor stayed the course until Kevin Rudd became Leader of the Opposition in 2006. Rudd has something of the Tony Blair about him, plausibly pragmatic on the surface and yet a progressive at heart. He might have wanted Howard’s working class “battlers” voting ALP again, but in practice he was less a traditionalist than a trendy, globe-trotting internationalist who coveted the top job in the United Nations. Border security was all well and good but Labor, in the opinion of Rudd, needed a vision that reached beyond Howard’s reactionary populism. He went to the 2007 federal election as a fiscal and social conservative who was more liberal-minded than John Howard on border security. In early 2008, Rudd’s liberal-minded Labor administration abandoned the Pacific Solution, deeming it cynical, unnecessary and costly.
The people smuggling industry took a while to recover from the Howard years. In 2008, for instance, there were only 161 irregular maritime arrivals. By the time Labor was thrown out of office in 2013 the total figure ran to an astonishing 50,000. Labor apologists refused to concede any causal relationship between Rudd’s ill-conceived policy change and a resurgence of the people smuggling industry. Nevertheless, an acknowledgement of sorts came when Julia Gillard mounted a coup against Kevin Rudd and went to the 2010 federal election pledging to build an Australian-financed detention centre on East Timor. There would, of course, be no return to Howard’s Pacific Solution under any government she led. East Timor, as we know, is not located in the Pacific Ocean. After grabbing back the prime-ministership in time to lose the September 2013 election, Kevin Rudd was promising to re-open detention facilities in New Guinea. Neither Rudd nor Gillard ever admitted the dismantling Howard’s Pacific Solution had been a mistake.
More than a thousand people drowned at sea during the Rudd-Gillard years. This had a sobering effect on some sections of the ALP and accounts for the party’s belated attempts to initiate ersatz versions of Howard’s policy. On the other hand, the Australian Greens, Labor’s more radical coalition partner between 2010 and 2013, countenanced no criticism for their part in the dismantling of the Pacific Solution. Any attempt to stem the arrival of boat people, in the opinion of the Greens, marked Australia out as racist and xenophobic. The Greens and their supporters confuse the 50,000 asylum-seekers with the millions classified by the United Nations as refugees. The ALP dropped this canard in their final year in government and began using the more accurate term “irregular maritime arrivals”. Refugees do not pay thousands of dollars to disreputable businessmen and then fly halfway around the world to such countries as Indonesia.
Abbott announced Operation Sovereign Borders immediately after winning the September 2013 federal election. His first overseas destination was Djakarta, to enlist President Yudhoyono’s help in ending the people-smuggling trade. Abbott assured Yudhoyono that the Royal Australian Navy’s assignment to tow unscheduled seaworthy vessels from whence they came would not infringe upon Indonesia’s sovereignty. The rapport between Abbott and Yudhoyono was obvious, but the meeting occurred before the ABC, in conjunction with the Australian Guardian, revealed that a branch of Australia’s intelligence service had eavesdropped Yudhoyono and his wife during Rudd’s time in office.
The campaign against the government’s tougher border policy has been waged by the Left on two fronts, the Greens concentrating on the iniquity of Operation Sovereign Borders, thus allowing the (relatively) more pragmatic ALP partisans to focus on the supposed technical flaws of the policy. The latter have had the worst of it simply because Operation Sovereign Borders has already started to achieve the same kind of results as Howard’s tough border control. Common sense should tell us that people smugglers are always going to find it harder attracting customers when their high-priced service not only involves the possibility of death on the high seas, but also the likelihood of spending years in a remote detention centre a long way from the shores of Australia.
Labor envisions Operation Sovereign Borders damaging Abbott by causing a breakdown in relations or even a war between Indonesia and Australia. During his brief return to power in mid-2013, Kevin Rudd made the following claim: “I am very concerned about whether if Mr Abbott became prime minister and continues that rhetoric and that posture and actually tries to translate it into reality. I really wonder whether he is trying to risk some sort of conflict with Indonesia.” There are moments, such as the Royal Australian Navy accidentally breaching Indonesian territorial waters, when Rudd’s dark fantasy seems not entirely unfeasible. Fortunately, there appears to be a growing appreciation on the part of President Yudhoyono and his advisors that Abbott’s plan to thwart people smugglers is a matter of Australian sovereignty no less than Indonesian sovereignty. Operation Sovereign Borders, in other words, could improve relations between the two countries rather than undermine them. Labor politicians are hoping that will not be the case.
The Australian Greens might only attract 10-15 per cent of the nation’s voters, but their advocates dominate virtually every cultural and literary institution in the country, from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) to the Australian Council for the Arts. Unscheduled maritime arrivals are dwindling and Australia has not gone to war with Indonesia, but this is all beside the point for the supporters of the Greens. Operation Sovereign Borders, according to these ideologues, is a war against refugees. Australians are racist, goes the cry, even if the nation annually welcomes more than 100,000 newcomers from all parts of the globe, including actual UN-registered refugees. Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young and her chums are on constant alert for any mistreatment of the asylum-seekers being towed back to Indonesian waters by the Royal Australian Navy. The failure to substantiate any such abuse does not prevent them treating each new risible claim made by a thwarted asylum-seeker as genuine.
ABC personality, Daniel Golding, has not been alone in making this analogy: “Australia’s refugee problems should be compared, regularly and specifically, to Nazism and the Holocaust.” Ideological purity serves as both a weapon to bludgeon the xenophobic foe and as a shield against the slings and arrows of outrageous reality. After the December 2011 tragedy, in which 200 people lost their lives, Hanson-Young was asked if she accepted any responsibility for the deaths: “Of course not. Tragedies happen, accidents happen."