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Asylum seekers testing Labor's conviction

  • 07 April 2011

After the Rudd Government came to power in 2007 we were promised that people arriving by boat would be held only as a last resort and for the shortest practicable time, for the purpose of health, identity and security checks before being released into the community. Labor has not kept its word.

Detention centres have re-emerged as the toxic environments of misery we saw during the Howard years, and long-term detention has again become normal practice. Self-harm attempts have, again, become measures of last resort for desperate people under pressure.

Both Rudd and Julia Gillard have talked about the need to treat asylum seekers and refugees with compassion and both have pointed to the cruelty of past Howard Government policies. But although Labor did remove some of the particularly nasty aspects of its predecessor's policies, it has continued to prioritise its own political fears above the needs of vulnerable people.

In spite of the Coalition's mantra that the Rudd Government recklessly unravelled the Howard Government's strong border protection measures — including the detention of asylum seekers in poor Pacific countries and temporary protection visas — Labor has in fact baulked at significant reform.

Back in 2007, with a new government in place, the talk within the refugee sector was that any attempt to bring about further substantial changes — like doing away with processing on Christmas Island or abolishing mandatory detention — would fail. The Rudd Government would go this far and no further. To take larger steps, it believed, would risk political damage and a surge in boat arrivals.

But the political damage has come anyway and, as with interest rates, asylum seeker arrivals are not easily controlled by domestic policy alone. Although it is rarely mentioned within the current, politically skewed debate, the boats were already on the move again under Howard in 2006/07.

And unless anyone wants to blame the Howard policies for the people smuggling trade starting up again, or try explaining why the boat arrivals increased after Howard came to power, the escalating conflicts in Sri Lanka and Afghanistan seem the most likely driving forces, not Australian policies.

In early 2008, Labor's then Immigration Minister Chris Evans said 'keeping people in immigration detention for long periods imposes high costs on Australian taxpayers and the individuals'. Evans went on to claim, with the best of intentions, that the Rudd Government would 'return integrity to the immigration system and ensure that immigration status is