Soft line spurred on people smugglers, says Kevin Rudd aide

A SENIOR Labor strategist admitted to US embassy officials as long ago as 2009 that Labor's decision to dismantle the Howard government's Pacific Solution was partly responsible for the resurgence of the people-smuggling trade.

A diplomatic cable sent from the US embassy in Canberra in the wake of a 2009 boat explosion off Ashmore Reef that killed five asylum-seekers, has provided a unique insight into Washington's take on the Australian asylum debate. The cable, released yesterday by WikiLeaks, said while the number of asylum-seekers venturing to Australia remained "relatively small", the numbers were rising steadily and that the asylum debate in Australia was "highly emotive".

"Border protection was widely credited as a major factor in the conservative Coalition's 2001 election victory," the cable states.

The cable quotes the views of a "leading ALP strategist" on what was causing the revival in boat arrivals, which dropped sharply after the Howard government introduced the "Pacific Solution" of offshore processing in Nauru and on Manus Island.

"A leading ALP strategist told Consulate Perth that he thought the increased incidence of asylum-seekers resulted from a combination of Australia's softer immigration policy and a global increase in refugee movements," the cable reports.

The views of the strategist, whose identity is not revealed, largely contradict the official government line at the time, which refused to acknowledge that the Rudd government's decision to dismantle the Pacific Solution and abolish temporary protection visas may have played some role in luring asylum-seekers.

Instead, then immigration minister Chris Evans attributed the revival of the smuggling trade to instability in source countries, such as Afghanistan and Sri Lanka.

Citing briefings from Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, US embassy officials also describe the transformation of the people-smuggling scene, in particular the proliferation of smaller operators.

"Small, independent smugglers are replacing the larger operators in part because of Indonesia's success - bolstered by help and training from the Australian Federal Police and Australian Customs - in stopping the major people-smugglers, who exerted the most corrupting influence on the military, politicians and police," the cable says.

"Asylum-seekers have the money to pay/bribe the small providers, and the boats are leaving from many more coves and inlets than before, greatly complicating the coastguard's task."

The cable, dated April 17, 2009, was written a day after the explosion of an asylum-seeker boat near Ashmore Reef off the northwest coast of Australia. The blast occurred after asylum-seekers sabotaged the boat, pouring petrol into the bilges.

The cable paints a picture of the asylum debate as it stood in early 2009. It says the Coalition, at that point lagging "far behind" in the polls, was seeking to reignite the border security debate to emulate the success it had enjoyed in 2001.

But US officials played down the significance of the debate, which at that stage was just beginning to unfold. They said the economy, rather than border security, was "foremost in the minds of 'working families' " at the time.

"It is difficult to envisage Rudd significantly hardening immigration policy," the officials observe. "This would alienate the Left of his party, and possibly undermine Australia's bid for a UN Security Council seat."

The authors of the document even go so far as to say the issue could "backfire on the Coalition" by alienating Liberal moderates who were uncomfortable with the hardline stance of the Howard years.

Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison said yesterday the WikiLeaks disclosures highlighted the government's culpability for the chaos their policy changes had wrought.

"For more than two years, the ALP has known that their soft policies were a pull factor drawing boats to Australia and doing nothing about it," Mr Morrison said.


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