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Honest debate exposes a mockery of Australia's border security

By Alan Anderson - posted Thursday, 9 June 2005

Australia’s policies on illegal immigration possess two characteristics almost unique in the Western world: they are harsh, and they work. Petro Georgiou's proposals to defang them, with an effective 90-day cap on detention and immediate release of families with children, have met with enthusiasm from refugee activists and, more mischievously, federal Labor.

Yet while posturing backbenchers are free to wax lyrical on the particular - Naomi Leong playing in a park, for example - responsible government involves broader policy considerations. Georgiou and his fellow travellers are calling for honest debate. Fine. Let's start by honestly admitting that a 90-day cap on detention would make a mockery of the vetting process.

Community release creates the risk that applicants with weak or non-existent cases will abscond. It is not difficult, by "losing" identity papers and making the right assertions, to extend proceedings beyond Georgiou's 90-day limit. The Home Office in Britain estimates that "over two-thirds" of rejected asylum seekers there disappear into the community. A former US Immigration and Naturalisation Service official estimated that of people apprehended by US border patrols and released pending immigration hearings, as many as 90 per cent fail to show.


Next, let's honestly debate the absurd claim, made by Georgiou and fellow Liberal Judi Moylan, that mandatory detention is not an effective deterrent to prospective asylum seekers. Put yourself in the shoes of an asylum seeker, real or fraudulent, as the asylum lobby often invites us to do. Reaching Indonesia, you weigh up the advantages of continuing to prosperous Australia. Do you greet the prospect of indefinite detention, as opposed to 90 days, with equanimity?

If common sense does not appeal, try numbers. Moylan says the enormous reduction in illegal entrants and asylum claims is the result of two factors: resolved conflicts in source countries and Philip Ruddock's efforts abroad.

Inasmuch as her first point identifies the US, British and Australian militaries as the world's most effective aid agencies, I concur. But the number of refugees globally has fallen only from 14 million in 2000 to 12 million in 2003; hardly enough to explain why the number of boat people attempting to reach the Australian mainland fell from more than 4,000 to 53 in the same period, or why the number of people onshore seeking asylum fell from 13,000 to 5,000.

As for Moylan's second point, an integral goal of Ruddock's foreign tours was promoting popular awareness of the harsh policies that she and Georgiou now propose to repeal. Strict mandatory detention and border protection deter illegal immigrants. The only question is whether the ends justify the means.

If the alternative is the European model, yes. Parties of the far right are on the march across Europe, from the British National Party to Le Front National and German NPD, fuelled by a sense that sovereignty over borders has been surrendered.

Crime-ridden ethnic ghettos, massive welfare fraud and swelling ranks of illegal entrants are a source of consternation to European policymakers and fury to their electorates, with British politicians from both parties turning to the Australian model for inspiration.


Indeed, one achievement of the Howard Government has been to maintain political consensus for high levels of immigration, slaying the One Nation beast. This flows directly from a sense that, in Howard's words, we are deciding who comes here. Georgiou's proposals threaten that sense of control.

Business might support Georgiou's leftist fringe if it proposed instead the model that obtains, de facto, in the US. Rather than being economically disenfranchised, as in Europe, illegal immigrants perform the many low-level jobs that Americans eschew. Hard-working Asians and Hispanics, their presence protected by the business lobby and their growing political clout, climb the economic ladder from the lowest rung, while providing a foundation for record productivity in the US.

This vision is inconsistent with Australia's generous welfare state, even in the curtailed form available to temporary protection visa holders. Further, our rigid industrial relations system would price them out of the labour market, even accounting for proposed reforms. The US model would also be culturally confronting to most Australians, and unlikely to win popular support.

Still, given Australia's labour shortages and humanitarian concerns over mandatory detention, it is a valid fight for the business lobby to pick with traditional conservatives. But until Georgiou and Moylan acknowledge that Howard's hard line has achieved its purpose, their contribution to the debate will be premised on a lie.

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First published in the Sydney Morning Herald on June 2, 2005.

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About the Author

Alan Anderson was a senior adviser to Treasurer Peter Costello and Attorney-General Philip Ruddock. He has previously worked as a lawyer with Allens Arthur Robinson and a computer systems engineer with CSC Australia. He currently works as a management consultant in Sydney.

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