In a previous post, I described Labor as the “architects of unconscionable incompetence”, specifically with respect to the Malaysian Solution, at least temporarily defeated by the High Court. This post is motivated by the latest political manoeuvring on the issue.
I was about to declare myself wrong over the “incompetence” tag (but certainly not the “unconscionable” tag). It occurred to me that perhaps Labor was playing a Machiavellian political game to ensure that the “boat people” moral dilemma went away for good. They would put up with whatever short-term political damage they might incur, on the basis that eventually the policy really would actually stop the boats. If anyone arriving by boat really was transported to a place as hostile to refugees as Malaysia, it can’t have been long before Bowen’s logic – “breaking the people smugglers’ business model” – was borne out. The original crimes – abandoning the most vulnerable to stop anyone else even trying to ask for help – would eventually be forgiven by an amnesic electorate too wrapped up in future political issues. If the boats stopped, then it would no longer be necessary to invoke the policy, and so it would become invisible.
But no, not content to abandon human rights, Labor really does seem to have a political death wish. Once the High Court had made its ruling, it could have been foreseen that Abbott would block any attempt to change the law. He ostensibly wants to “stop the boats” too, and in that capacity the Government’s argument makes sense. Except that’s really not what he wants to do at all; at least, not until he becomes Prime Minister himself. As long as refugees continue to make the voyage from Indonesia to Australian waters, a disconcertingly large proportion of voters will continue to be outraged at the Government’s apparent inability to “protect our borders”, and will (by a trivial process of elimination) look to Abbott instead. Thus, for the moment, Abbott has a crucial political interest, perversely, in ensuring the boats do not stop.
Abbott did not have any power to actually act in this interest until the High Court ruling (along with the Greens’ opposition to off-shore processing). Now that his support is needed, he can casually mull over the effectiveness of any Government proposal, and then vote perversely. The likelihood of Abbott supporting any change is inversely proportional to its likely effectiveness (and legal robustness), because that’s what maximises his political advantage. Bowen has attempted to call him out on this, but Abbott plays the rhetorical game much more skillfully. The Government was extraordinarily foolish to even attempt negotiations under these circumstances.
Now, the Government has an untenable policy – both morally bankrupt and politically dead. If Labor had bitten the bullet and gone with the Left faction’s push for on-shore processing of asylum seekers, their policy would instead have been both (relatively) humane and politically viable. The issue would not have magically disappeared, of course – many “patriots” would continue be outraged at the thought of the hordes of persecuted foreigners being given safety and comfort. But what can be done about this? The issue will not disappear now no matter what the Government does.
Meanwhile, Abbott is seizing the moral high ground (rhetorically, at least) on asylum seekers – something many Liberals have long given up on. His excuse for not supporting the Malaysian Solution is that there are insufficient protections for those sent there. This excuse has the advantage of actually being a perfectly valid reason. I continue to say “excuse” though, because I’ve seen too much political expediency from Abbott to have any faith in his adherence to actual principles. The Malaysian Solution would have been a masterstroke of Coalition genius if Abbott had thought of it. But that’s hypothetical, and not many people are likely to care.
Abbott may yet “slip up” in a moment of uncharacteristic honesty, but I’m not counting on it. Indeed, I can only applaud his rejection of this particular policy, regardless of his actual reasons. I suspect the only way out for the Government is still to abandon off-shore processing, and live with the consequences. Of course, it may prefer its own approach of bludgeoning itself to death.