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Asylum seeker policy on the run

By Dino Cesta - posted Tuesday, 13 July 2010

In an attempt to gain an upper hand over Tony Abbott on the asylum seeker issue and victory at the upcoming federal election, Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced the Government’s latest instalment of their asylum seeker policy by proposing to establish a regional processing centre in East Timor.

It sounded like a good thought bubble at the time. In an endeavour to establish a politically palatable solution as a means of neutralising the asylum seeker issue with the Australian public, Gillard attempted to engineer a marriage of convenience with East Timor’s President Jose Ramos-Horta. However, it seems it is Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao that Gillard should have courted.

The fallout is that Prime Minister Gusmao initially informed Gillard not to bother calling him until such time as she had sorted out what she wants from this marriage of convenience. It now appears that East Timor’s parliament has, in the past 24 hours, knocked back Gillard’s proposal. It seems for now our Julia has been publicly jilted at the altar.


While the idea of establishing a regional processing centre for asylum seekers is conceptually a sound one, it also demonstrates the weakness in governments taking a virtual policy-on-the-run approach devoid of insightful examination and lacking in real substance. It also shows a government that has not heeded the lessons of the mining tax fiasco, by failing to engage and consult with those impacted, and which again is more focused on spin over substance.

Perhaps today’s political leaders should note the late Don Chipp, former leader of the Australian Democrats, who described in the party’s first issue of its journal in 1977 how the then newly established party should develop policy:

... what we can do, and I believe that this purpose should underlie all our policies, is to set a legislative, social and economic framework in which kindness, generosity and wisdom can compete on better than equal terms with the greed, materialisms and mere cleverness which characterises so much of our present society.

Some 33 years on, the passage of time does not diminish the essence of Chipp’s philosophical policy underpinnings, and is particularly pertinent today on the issue and treatment of asylum seekers.

Controversy continues in Australia’s political debate on the treatment of asylum seekers. It’s a controversy which unfortunately and ungraciously plays itself out along the low road of politics, and which seems to escalate in prominence and with precision as a political theme around election time.

While there may have been a fleeting moment of expectation that the 2007 election victory of the Labor Government ushered in a time in which the politics of hope prevailed over the Coalition’s politics of fear, the latter is well and truly alive in Australian politics. It is predicated on preying on people’s irrational fears. You could be forgiven in thinking Australian borders are being infiltrated by alien forces from the north which threatens to undermine Australia’s security, prosperity and our way of life.


In the dying days of Kevin Rudd’s prime ministership, this display of public anxiety was underscored by Rudd’s statement that he would not engage in a “lurching to the right” and a “race to the bottom” on the issue of asylum seekers.

With an impending federal election, the race is now truly on between the two major political parties in a race to the finish line where there will potentially be a lose-lose outcome - no winner for those seeking a sanctuary from torture, persecution, and possible death, and no winner for the Australian community who will, as a whole, be seen to lack compassion for fellow humans in their hour of need.

As a vote grabbing exercise, successive governments of both political persuasions have implemented stop gap policy measures which have endeavoured to stem the flow of “boat people” to Australian shores. In many instances, these measures have been contrary to the spirit of international law and a breach of Australia’s international obligations, including the 1951 Refugees Conventions and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Such policies have included the “The Pacific Solution”, temporary protection visas, and the suspension of the processing of applications of asylum seekers originating from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan.

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About the Author

Dino Cesta is a freelance communicator of thoughts, opinions and ideas on politics, economic and social issues and public policy. Cofounder of the non-profit organisation Hand in Hand Arthouse, and the Newcastle Italian Film Festival, Dino graduated with a Bachelor of Economics and Master of Politics and Public Policy. You can follow Dino on View from the Obelisk or Twitter on @dinoc888

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