Afloat In a Leaky Boat: The Race to the Bottom

I know as an Australian there is a lot that I take for granted: clean running water, access to a higher education and high speed internet (depending on who you ask). Now, imagine the 2013 Australian Federal Election has passed (thank goodness). Your own country is in the thick of civil war to the point where you’re in constant fear of your and your family’s lives. Since you cannot afford the necessary paperwork and plane ticket to reach Australia by plane, you decide you will go ahead of your family by boat and reunite with them there once you are settled. After a few days of being cramped in a small boat, you finally reach Christmas Island. What happens next is dependent on which party is elected: The Rudd Option: You are detained in a detention centre and eventually transported to Papua New Guinea, a country with its own unique set of security issues. You are told you have zero chances of ever settling in Australia.

The Abbott Option: You manage to avoid detection by the Australian Navy and finally arrive in Christmas Island. After being detained for a few years while your case is reviewed, you are granted a Temporary Protection Visa which is valid for only three years. During this time, your only means of income is Centrelink allowance through a ‘work for the dole’ scheme. You will not have the right to appeal your case.

In the July Nucleus, Stu Horsfield asked a pertinent question: Why is this such a big issue in Australia? Since then, both major parties have announced their renewed asylum seeker policies. In coincidence, a lot of the country then let out a collective sigh of exasperation.

Under a newly elected Labor government, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has pledged to deter ‘boat people’ with a hard-line policy: that any asylum seeker that arrives in Australia by boat will not be eligible for settlement. If they are deemed “genuine”, and it is not safe for them to return home, they will be settled in Manus Island or elsewhere in Papua New Guinea. Ironically, in 2008, Rudd announced the dismantling of John Howard’s ‘Pacific Solution’ whereby the goal was to detain asylum seekers on small Pacific Island nations rather than the Australian mainland. What would happen to a native of Papua New Guinea who travelled to Australia by boat seeking asylum? Will they enter a Mobius strip of asylum seeking?

The Australian media has branded the major parties’ stance on refugees as a constant ‘race to the bottom’ as this election period continues. Tony Abbott has managed to show up to this particular race in fine fashion: complete with metaphorical budgie smugglers. The Coalition have announced that the refugee population in Australia (approximately 32,000) would not be granted permanent residency and would be placed on an indefinite ‘work for the dole’ program. Furthermore, those who were not granted a Temporary Protection Visa would have no right to appeal the decision despite the fact that 80% of appealed decisions have been overturned. The proposed Navy-led border protection program is called Operation Sovereign Borders which sounds like an episode of Sea Patrol. The latest Coalition announcement on asylum seeker policy was that they would spend up to $20m to purchase boats in Indonesia that would otherwise be used for people-smugglers. What would Australia do with $20m worth of fishing boats?

Choosing between either option is akin to choosing dirt or a dirt sandwich for breakfast. However, the 32,000 people already in Australia and those who wish to seek asylum in the future would have no chance in the matter. It is up to the Australian people and the politicians they elect to represent those who cannot represent themselves.

by Joanne Fernandez

Politics from the Homeland: Electioneering in the New England Heartland

Smelly Love