Australia’s Victory over People-Smugglers
At the 2015 Margaret Thatcher Lecture, Australia’s former-PM Tony Abbott warned that unchecked immigration represented a potential catastrophe because “a country that can’t control its borders starts to lose control of itself.” This is something the voters in the United Kingdom might ponder ahead of the referendum on European Union membership scheduled for June 2017.
Certainly there has not been this much talk about sovereignty and securing national borders since Berlin Wall came down. Donald Trump speaks of building an “aesthetically pleasing” 1,000 mile-wall along the US-Mexican border: “It’s going to be nice and high, and it’s going to look good.” Last year the Hungarian government, much to the chagrin of EU potentates, went ahead and built a security barrier along its borders with Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia and Romania in response to a virtual migrant invasion. Hungary’s nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orbán disparaged the EU’s liberal immigration policy and the passport-free, travel zone across its 26 constituent members as “madness”.
The key contention in the illegal migration debate is its exponential growth. On one side of the argument are those who maintain – as Viktor Orbán does – that “misguided immigration policy is responsible for the situation” and, on the other side, the PC brigade who assert that wholesale asylum and opened borders are the solution to ongoing humanitarian crises. Even if Orbán could prove he is right, he would still be wrong in the eyes of the naysayers. Take the example of Tony Abbott’s Operation Sovereign Borders, which in 2013 brought an abrupt halt to irregular maritime arrivals in Australia.
Operation Sovereign Borders involved the services of the Royal Australian Navy and a strict turn-back-the-boats guideline. It destroyed the business of the unscrupulous people-smugglers overnight. Six years of Labor largesse (2007-13) had encouraged a sophisticated people-smuggling industry to set up shop to the immediate north of Australia. An economic refugee would fly himself and his family to Indonesia, Malaysia or the Philippines and then pay a dodgy operator thousands of dollars for the boat ride south. Thanks mostly to Labor’s ineptness on border control, eventually 50,000 people a year were attempting to make it illegally into Australian territorial waters.
The swift realisation of Tony Abbott’s ambitious border policy confounded all his critics. Labor and its allies on the Left, including the Australian Greens, had warned before the 2013 election that Operation Sovereign Borders would not stem the flow of irregular maritime arrivals. Some even claimed that the turn-back-the-boats policy might spark a war with Indonesia. All wrong. Not even ardent Coalition supporters had anticipated the immediacy of its success. The irony for Tony Abbott is that the early triumph of his uncompromising plan made the uncompromising architect of that plan expendable. By 2015 he had – à la Churchill at the 1945 British election – served his purpose.
The smooth-talking Prime Minister Turnbull, who replaced Tony Abbott at the helm in September 2015, has deep reservations about rigorous border security. We now know he opposed the concept of Operation Sovereign Borders when Tony Abbott, as the Leader of the Opposition, first proposed it in 2011. Turnbull would not have implemented an effective border strategy in the first place had he been the one to lead the conservative-leaning Coalition parties into power back in August 2013. In 2015, shortly after ousting Abbott as leader in a party-room coup, Turnbull let slip that, ideally, he would like to soften Operation Sovereign Borders, especially with regard to those who paid people-smugglers only to end up languishing in detention centres on various islands outside Australia territory.
Malcolm Turnbull’s disclosure that Wednesday morning caused a firestorm. Within hours there were rumours swirling around that the people-smuggling industry was considering re-opening its South East Asia-Australia franchise. By Wednesday afternoon PM Turnbull was in full emergency mode, retracting everything he said earlier in the day:
We cannot take a backward step on this issue. People who come via the people-smuggling route will never settle in Australia: that is the one message that has to be absolutely crystal clear. They will never settle in Australia; it is only by being utterly unequivocal on this matter that we have been able to stop the boats, and that has saved thousands of lives.
Malcolm Turnbull is PC-minded and would dilute Operation Sovereign Borders in a heartbeat were it viable to do so, if only to avoid the censure of Australia’s political class and the admonitions of the UN’s Ban Ki-moon.
PM Turnbull, not surprisingly, declined to be drawn on Abbott’s Margaret Thatcher Lecture, responding to media questioning with this enigmatic line: “[Tony Abbott] has obviously had a remarkable career in public life including two years as prime minister and we owe him a great debt for that.” Labor’s Opposition Leader Bill Shorten was a little more forthcoming. He described Abbott’s London foray as “unhelpful” – and unhelpful might be the right word in more ways than one, given the Australian Labor Party ahead of the 2016 general election remains torn between conceding the merits of Operation Sovereign Borders (and thus receiving the condemnation of Ban Ki-moon et al) and rejecting its central components (and so receiving the condemnation of voters).
The Australian Greens have no qualms taking the high moral ground on border control and dismissed Tony Abbott’s Margaret Thatcher Lecture as a moral abomination. The party’s leader, Senator Richard Di Natale, asserted that the “only catastrophic error that Europe has made is giving Tony Abbott a platform to speak”. Abbott pre-empted this kind of wholesale derision by carefully evaluating, in his address, the ethical challenges faced when securing the borders of a modern nation-state. For a start, argued Abbott, shutting down the people-smuggling business had resulted in “no more deaths at sea”, which was “truly compassionate” considering the 1,200 people who drowned during the final years of the Labor era and the hundreds, and no doubt thousands, of lives that would be lost without Operation Sovereign Borders.
The left-wing or progressive response to this, of course, is that if the world were “truly compassionate” there would be no need for the people-smuggling business in the first place. If there were entirely open borders and the people of the world had a God-given (or UN-given) right to relocate to any place of their choosing, then no lives would be lost in the Indian Ocean or on the Mediterranean Sea. Tony Abbott, in contrast, insisted in his speech that while Australia’s “moral obligation is to receive people fleeing for their lives”, it was not “to provide permanent residency to anyone and everyone who would rather live in a prosperous Western country than their own”. No longer in office, Tony Abbott pulled no punches:
All countries that say "anyone who gets here can stay here" are now in peril, given the scale of the population movements that are starting to be seen. There are tens – perhaps hundreds – of millions of people, living in poverty and danger who might readily seek to enter a Western country if the opportunity is there.
Indeed, if a nation cannot regulate its immigration policy today it is not a nation at all. That’s no problem for latter-day leftists who consider nationhood to be a redundancy leftover from the nineteenth century. We are, according to the ideology of the bohemian socialist, “one world, one people”; and any opinion to the contrary amounts to xenophobia or even Islamophobia. Thus, the founder of the Australian Greens, Bob Brown, commenced his farewell political address with the salutation “Fellow Earthlings” before going on to deliver a heartfelt plea to save the planet with the establishment of a world government. This kind of polyculturalist ideology, however, discounts the possibility of “otherness” – that is, the prospect of foreigners holding a worldview at odds with what the philosopher Karl Popper called the “Open Society”.
In his The Open Society and Its Enemies (1962), Karl Popper pondered the paradox of tolerance. Though very much an advocate of tolerance himself, he believed “unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance”. Popper was, for the most part, referring to National Socialists, Marxian socialists and the like who preached forms of radical intolerance that placed them outside the law. Karl Popper was writing for a different time and audience, and yet the paradox of tolerance remains pertinent to us now in a way that The Open Society and Its Enemies never directly addressed: for an Open Society to remain open, its borders cannot be open.
First published in the Salisbury Review, Spring 2016