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.