Green light for boats is the worst of both worlds

For overseas readers: The long-nosed female in the toon is a caricature of Julia Gillard, Prime Minister of Australia. She is blaming the conservatives for the results of her own policies -- outlined on the signs

Am I naive to be waiting for a minister in the federal government, a government which now has so much blood on its hands, to take responsibility for the policy failure and resign?

During the past 19 months at least 363 people are known to have drowned while trying to make their way to Australia on fishing vessels.

Fifty people died off Christmas Island in heavy seas on December 15, 2010. On November 1, 2011, eight drowned off Indonesia. Several weeks later, on December 17, about 200 people drowned in Indonesian waters while on their way to Australia. On February 1 this year, 11 people drowned off the coast of Malaysia on their way to Australia. On June 21, 90 people drowned en route to Australia. About another 120 were pulled from the water. Last Wednesday, four more people drowned and 130 escaped death only because two commercial vessels were passing nearby. Many were women and children.

All the deaths at sea are directly linked to policies introduced by the Rudd Labor government and implemented by the Gillard government, when the effective border security arrangements inherited from the Howard government were dismantled. This re-created a problem that had ceased to exist.

Ten years ago, the Howard government used a variety of policies to bring the hammer down on the asylum-seeker traffic. The flow of boats abruptly fell to a trickle. During the six years from 2002 to 2008, just 301 people arrived on 18 boats, an average of three boats and 50 people a year.

The role of Julia Gillard in this is instructive. Almost exactly 10 years ago, on August 26, 2002, she told the Parliament that in the five years between the election of the Howard government in 1996 and the Tampa controversy in 2001, "We know that in respect of those boats - some 213 boats carrying 11,513 people - the Howard government did nothing …

"In the face of these unauthorised arrivals, the Howard government did nothing except maintain Labor's policy of mandatory detention … The so-called Pacific solution … is really no more than the processing of people offshore in third countries. It is a policy that Labor does not support, because it achieves nothing and costs so much in so many ways … And we know that it delivers absolutely no outcomes … "

Such irony. The "Pacific solution" proved so effective that Gillard, as Prime Minister, has been seeking to send asylum seekers to Malaysia to help staunch the billion-dollars-a-year black hole in her government's credibility on border security.

Clearly, Labor gave a green light to the people-smuggling industry and has sought to deflect blame for the results. It has created the worst of both worlds: a system that is punitive but ineffective, and wildly expensive.

To justify this failure, the government has resorted to lying. Both the Prime Minister and the Treasurer, Wayne Swan, along with relevant ministers, have all parroted the line that under the Howard government, the "Pacific solution" - the processing of asylum seekers in Nauru and Papua New Guinea - was no more than a very costly posture because nearly all these asylum seekers ended up getting residency in Australia.

This is simply not true. Nauru and Manus Island housed 1637 people, of which 1153 were found to be refugees. But only 705 were settled here, while 448 were resettled in other countries.

Now contrast the current success rate of those who arrive after destroying their documents and bypassing immigration. About 90 per cent are being given residency and welfare payments. Yet those who seek to enter the country as skilled migrants are subject to an arduous and protracted vetting process, which just got harder.

As of yesterday, those seeking to arrive as skilled migrants can now be placed in limbo for years under new regulations. Perhaps the government does not even realise what messages it may be sending to prospective skilled immigrants, who are expected to make up 125,000 of the immigration intake this year, or 68 per cent.

The government may not fully understand the possible impact of its new regulations because the Department of Immigration and Citizenship communicates in classic bureaucratese. Here, in the language of the department's website, is the thrust of the changes which became law yesterday: "From 1 July, 2012, the Migration Regulations 1994 are amended to … support the new skilled migrant selection model, known as 'Skill Select', by harmonising skill requirements across skilled visa subclasses and introducing an invitation requirement for some key visas."

I am advised by an immigration lawyer that what this means, in plain English, is that it is has just become harder to get a skilled migrant visa. The "invitation requirement" raises the barrier to entry.

What it means, the immigration lawyer advises, is this: "If you are applying in the skilled migrant group, you will no longer be able to make an application to migrate to Australia. Instead, you will file an 'expression of interest' and stay in the system for two years until an employer or a state government sponsors you."

I am also advised that the new regulations make it harder to get into Australia as a business migrant.

We thus have the disconnect at the heart of Labor's immigration and refugee regimes that the people who are the least forthcoming, the least qualified, the least vetted, and who have done everything to bypass the vetting system, enjoy the greatest prospects of gaining permanent residency.

The green light for people smuggling is still on. Expect more boats, more deaths, more blame-shifting, and more cost. Just don't expect anyone in this government to accept responsibility for the failure and resign when the next boat sinks. That would require a code of honour, when all that exists is a code of survival.


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