Abbott - the statesman Rudd should have been?

The day after Kevin Rudd ‘lurched to the right’ on seaborne refugees by announcing all arrivals would be resettled in Papua New Guinea, a Catholic colleague pointed out to me a dark irony in the Labor move. 

We now had two national leaders, he said, who belonged to a religion whose New Testament story begins with a refugee family housed in a stable. And yet both men were competing to get tough on refugees. 

The ‘Australian gulags’ that Rudd thought he could use to outflank Abbott on the grossly misunderstood problem of ‘boats’, is Labor’s biggest disgrace in its dying days. 

Rudd was a man, a statesman, who knew as much about the global problem of displaced persons as anyone – he knew it as globe-trotting PM, and he knew it from his time as foreign minister in Julia Gillard’s cabinet. 

He also knew that the ‘failed state’ of PNG had no security to offer persecuted people, and little in the way of an economy to support their ‘resettlement’ there. The policy was a disgrace and it betrayed not only Labor true believers, but the Christian ethics Rudd so often mentioned in the national media. 

It took Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to call a summit in Jakarta to discuss regional solutions to the problem, stressing the “importance and urgency” of the problem, and the need for a regional solution. Unilateral gulag policies aren’t enough. 

This woeful history presents incoming Prime Minister Tony Abbott with a historic opportunity – a chance to surprise his many critics. 

The Liberal Party, after many hard-line mis-steps during the Howard years (remember Cornelia Rau, hunger strikes, self-harm and the offshore mental health crisis?), is written off by left and centre-left voters as the enemy of displaced people. 

However Abbott now has three years in which to prove that he is the steady, humane hand that will shape a long term future policy. Rudd has opened up the ground for a more sensible plan.

‘Stop the boats’ may have been the mantra that got Abbott elected, but in the balance of policies he will roll out in the years ahead, harsher treatment of refugees is not needed, even if we were to see the most cynical and ruthless of political strategies heading into a 2016 election (which I hope we will not).

Moreover, a truly regional solution to the problem of refugees and economic migrants can be both more humane, and still ‘stop the boats’. 

The Gillard government's Malaysia solution was a prototype of a policy that could look at the flow of unauthorised migrants within our region, send home people that were not truly ‘stateless’ or persecuted, and treat real refugees with the respect that they deserve. 

That policy had many flaws, but it was a start (The boats bill must be allowed to pass, June 28, 2012). 

One of the great myths of the unworthy ‘boats’ debate we have had is that genuine refugees are a burden on the budget, and a burden on the economy more generally. The generous 5-for-1 swap that Labor proposed with Malaysia would have had immediate budgetary implications – funding housing, welfare, and Australia’s exemplary Adult Migrant English Program, which has long been praised by nations around the world. 

But that’s not the whole story. The ‘seal the boarders’ approach that Abbott has promised with his Operation Sovereign Borders will likely be a lot cheaper than Labor’s scheme, but still falls into the trap of being a unilateral solution to a regional issue. 

That's a great way to sour relations with the Indonesian, Malaysia and Thai governments. And both plans are very expensive. 

Moreover, if there really is an ‘Abbott bounce’ in economic conditions, decades of refugee resettlement show that the resettled families are just what we need – they are overwhelmingly prepared to work hard, usually starting out in lower-paid, less desirable jobs that existing Aussies would rather move up and out of. 

And any cultural-leftie that starts whining about ‘Australia’s Mexicans’ should take the time to speak with refugees from camps in the Horn of Africa, Malaysia, Indonesia or Thailand, to find out if they’d rather still be there, or mopping floors for the minimum wage in Melbourne or Sydney’s much maligned western suburbs. It's a pretty easy choice.

The early signs are that Abbott will quickly move beyond the cynical ‘boats’ sloganeering that helped him win power. The Australian reports that our prime minister-elect spoke to President Yudhoyono last night by phone – itself a significant diplomatic move – with a view to meeting in person very soon. 

For economic reasons, for humane reasons, and even for political reasons, Abbott must find a regional solution that raises Australia far above the disgraceful policy put forward in Labor’s dying days. 

To do so would surprise his critics, and if sold correctly would do minimal damage on the political right, but build considerable capital with centre-left voters disgusted with their own side of politics. 

That would make Abbott the statesman Rudd ultimately failed to become. 

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Amazing stuff: Refugees are good for you and every household needs one!

Italian and Greek migrants gave a huge boost to the Melbourne and Victorian economies in the postwar period.

Indeed Chrispy, what you say is very true. The difference I suppose is that some of the "migrants" that we have coming in now don't want to interact with the rest of us or work and contribute to this country. In fact, it seems that they are hell bent on turning Australia into the same sort of thing that they were leaving. So, yes, there are many migrants that have come and given a huge boost to our economy and brought many wonderful foods and cultures with them. But there are also many that haven't, that is what is causing negative comments and those are the ones that the comments are aimed at. But you knew that didn't you, you cheeky devil! lol :o)

Rob, hmmm 'statesman', 'gulags' ... you may wish to review the true meanings of these words. It would be hard to get consensus that Rudd was a 'statesman'. For Abbott, well, he has only just started, despite the fact he has been in politics for sometime. Too early to call Abbott a 'statesman'.
As a son of refugees, I find the whole 'boat people' issue misunderstood, flawed and certainly not well handled by Labor. I am sure we agree that people coming in by boats is not humane or acceptable. Well, yes if Abbott does successfully sort this out then it may help mark him with 'statesmanship'.

Rob, if you talk to people who work in the detention system, they will tell you that TPV's are the best method to stop the influx of economic unauthorized refugees. This will also assist the Indonesian's, as their influx should slow as well, leaving only those not chasing a permanent visa, looking to travel here.
Also, could you inform us in one of your articles of the numbers who are on long term unemployment benefits and the numbers that are in the Disability Pension Scheme. There are many stories abounding of those arriving here, living very well on benefits, rather than working, it would be interesting to have the correct information.

"The early signs are that Abbott will quickly move beyond the cynical ‘boats’ sloganeering that helped him win power."

Are you telling me that Abbott is a LIAR?

2 Quick comments Rob:

1. Can we please keep religion and it's ever changing dogma and ethics completely out of state affairs and public policy

2. It would be very naive to look at the boat people issue as if they are all or even predominantly legitimate refugees.

Rob Burgress the refuge problem is very simple.

One, there are millions of people who want a better life than they have now, Australia, the USA or other European based countries are their first choice due to their stability and working society.

Two, we have to have some sort of deterrent to people just deciding to come on a whim and the Australian people having to support them at least in the sort term and probably for many in the long term.

So it comes down to how much of a deterrent you want to have. One that works or one that doesn't.

Make no mistake, if we had effectively open borders, like many refuge advocates and the Greens want, we would have hundreds of thousands of refugees a year. Do we want that?

To those who say this would not happen, well WHY wouldn't it happen ? You are sitting in Indonesia, one of the better places in the world, with NO social security, no healthcare, no prospects and a few hours by boat is Australia with all that and more.

People are not stupid.

The article started with an allusion to religion.

I vaguely recall Christ saying "There will be poor always". Or something similar.
Although I wasn't there of course.

The notion that our resources are endless to address the poverty, ethnic violence and
civil wars of the world is as naive as expecting "world peace" as the beauty pageant contestants call it.

We can do our bit, but it's clear we can't settle 30,000 illegals a year with the full benefits of Australian citizenship. At current rate ot all souce migration of 400,000 pa we will have
another Sydney in 10 years.

Actually it will be Sydney since 40% of migrants end up there.

Pity the water and power infrastructure etc.

If you want something to do, ring up saudi, dhubai, oman, UAE etc and ask them to
donate some citizenship to their moslem brothers.


Lets bring in refugees (by boat) BUT organised and not via Indo.
Set them up in northern Aus., build dams, roads and hospitals and create cities.
Didn't we build the Snowy scheme with migrants ? Dont the miners need workers ? Dont we need infrastructure to be built ? Get them off Christmas Island (I dont think its Christmas there anyway) and build something BIG that we all need.

I can understand your sentiments, Nick, but it's far too complicated to do that. The boat people do not have the skills to be deployed in building such infrastructure. If they did have such skills they would have been engineers etc in their home countries and probably wouldn't have been seeking a risky entry to Australia via boat. The migrants who built the Snowy project primarily came from Europe, possessing the skills (or being easily trained).

Then there's the enormous planning and capital requirements for these northern Australia projects. It'd take years before workers could start - well beyond the immediate necessity to stop boats.

I think our best bet is to tackle the problem on several fronts, such as temporary protection visas (so people have no guarantee of staying), offshore detention, dialogue with regional neighbours, and tough, visible measures such as towing a boat or two back.

Immense damage has been done to our border protection by Labor and The Greens as they sought to harvest votes. Let's hope that these two parties haven't messed it up to levels that cannot be reversed.

Also what Nick is suggesting is tantamount to slave labour. Any attempt to force migrants into a particular area of the country & put them to work on infrastructure projects will be immediately subject to high court challenges and international condemnation.

Once they're here, with a Visa that gives them the right to live in Australian society and seek employment, refugees are free to settle & work wherever they want. The question is how best to minimize the numbers of those who pay money to smugglers and seek to reach Australia by boat, jumping the queue ahead of poorer refugees stuck in 3rd world camps for years on end.

Andrew, from my first hand experience (son of refugees) it can be done and has been done in the past. It may be possible to get the details how it was done from 1945 to 1955 - maybe on government records or archives. You will find the the migrants took up very menial tasks but it got them going - the rest is history.


Rob, you are the first person to ever use the words "Tony Abbott" and "statesman" in the same sentence.

That's a particularly uninformed statement to make, A Brabet. Perhaps you'd like to reflect on Kevin Rudd who had experience in the diplomatic corp (admittedly only a junior role) but managed to upset the Chinese, Japanese and Indonesian governments, not to mention making insulting comments to the US president. In particular, a Mandarin speaking PM who manages to offend the Chinese is an incredible trick to accomplish.

It's customary to give everyone a chance to prove themselves in a job instead of marking them down for what you think they will be like. Fortunately, we don't have many people like you in managerial positions.

A Brabet your opening word says a lot about you.Is it not peculiar that those who worked closest with Rudd on his personal staff and his cabinet colleagues from 2007 to 2010 filled the media with anecdotes of his rude and dysfunctional behavior and there are sufficient on camera incidents to suggest that he did indeed have a major weakness of lack of self control,Yet those who have met Abbott talk of his unfailing politeness which is at the forefront of skills to have when conducting diplomacy.Indeed the Rudd critics have to trawl back over 30 years to find an alledged incident of him punching a wall alledgedly in proximity to an opponent in student politics.Given the nature of student politics thats pretty tame stuff if indeed it occurred as the story tellers claim.I expect that Prime Minister Abbott will achieve friendly relations and mutual respect from the leaders of our neighbours and our allies.