The Australian Labor Party’s defeat at the polls on 7 September seemed likely long before the country had any sense of the opposition’s spending projections. Kevin Rudd and his campaigners were sure they could see the spending gap. They stuck in a finger and tried to create a gaping hole. But when they proclaimed a $10 billion shortfall in Tony Abbott’s budget plans, two senior figures at the Treasury and the Finance Ministry cast doubt on their sums. Whatever voters thought about the last six years of Labor government on the eve of the election, the civil service seemed to have reached a view.
Australia has had far less to worry about than most post-2008 economies, with China hoovering up its minerals and crude oil, and Labor – praised for its efforts by the IMF – bent on generous public spending programmes, making the country one of the OECD’s top performers in dark times. But the party’s fatal pledge to bring down the government’s overdraft turned public expenditure into a hot issue that dogged Rudd during the closing stages of his campaign. Three weeks before the vote a piece by Larry Elliott in the Guardian – all editions, including the new Australian one – announced the imminent demise of a star economy and envisaged ‘a large hole in the ground ringed by some expensive property’: the China build was slowing down and Australia’s property bubble was causing jitters.
Candidate Abbott banged away on public debt, with the Murdoch press behind him, until Rudd was left brandishing Labor’s impressive record like a court card that had suddenly morphed into a three of clubs. But then, when the Coalition finally revealed its own detailed budget figures less than 48 hours before the vote, the last-minute, dramatic cuts it proposed were around $9 billion, or 0.1 per cent of GDP. It was hard to know what the fuss had been about. Carbon tax, by contrast, was a real issue: Prime Minister Abbott and the Coalition now have a handsome majority in parliament (91 to Labor’s 54) and mean to replace carbon tax with a package of energy-saving grants which they will cap at $3.2 billion: good for industry, useless for greenhouse gas reductions. Labor’s defence of the existing system, with all its faults, was one of its strong suits: further proof, if you needed it, that Rudd was fighting a losing battle.
The other overstated issue, which upstaged carbon tax until the last ten days of the campaign, was asylum. ‘Boat people’ are the object of sublime anxiety among politicians and intense but depressing debate in the media. The Coalition contends that arrivals smuggled from Indonesia into Australian jurisdiction violate the country’s sovereignty, even though they’re claiming asylum and Australia is a signatory to the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees. (The convention states that asylum seekers may have to opt for unlawful departure from one country and unlawful entry into another and that this must not prejudice their claim.) But Labor has never been far behind the Coalition. In the 1990s Paul Keating’s administration introduced mandatory detention for anyone entering Australia without a valid visa. In 2012, during Julia Gillard’s tenure, it emerged that the security services had ruled against the release of more than fifty asylum seekers on the grounds that they were a threat to national security. They were not allowed to know the reasons for their ‘adverse security assessments’ – nor were their lawyers – and were told they could be held indefinitely. The story of the ASIO detainees, so-called after the acronym of the security services, has led to bitter arguments with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, even though a handful of ASIO cases have recently been processed, and despair from human rights activists: ‘advanced’ democracies are not meant to lock people up indefinitely without the prospect of a hearing.
Long before she was pushed aside for Rudd in June, Gillard had tried to outsource the asylum problem with camps in East Timor, but the Timorese declined. It was one of many solutions to come unstuck. In 2011 she revived an old Coalition idea for a ‘Malaysian solution’, which would have allowed Australia to offload eight hundred boat people and take in several thousand refugees who had already been processed, but the High Court worried about the rights of boat claimants and ruled against the plan. In July, with the election looming, Rudd announced a ‘regional resettlement solution’, proposing to beef up an existing holding centre for asylum seekers in Papua New Guinea: in return the government would put much needed money into PNG’s higher education and health infrastructure. The policy announcement came with a shrill codicil: henceforth no asylum seeker arriving by boat would be settled in Australia as a refugee. Shortly before Rudd’s defeat, the government of PNG got cold feet. Abbott meanwhile had gone one better by sketching an Indonesian solution: full security co-operation, more intelligence and a crackpot notion that the government should wade into Indonesia and buy up as many rickety boats as it could lay its hands on.
Australia’s worries about asylum, like its worries about expenditure, are greatly exaggerated. At 34 per cent, its debt as a proportion of GDP is less than half the UK’s or Germany’s, yet the parties tore each other apart over it. The same goes for its intake of of asylum seekers, which is minimal by any standards. By those of the biggest host nation, Pakistan – 1.6 million refugees or one for every 112 non-refugees – it is footling. Compared with Europe, it is modest. From 1976, when the first Vietnamese arrived by boat, until the end of August, the total number of unauthorised arrivals in Australia by boat was around 50,000. From 2006 to 2011 Italy received 153,000. People heading for Australia on boats are coming from Iraq, Iran, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh, with a good many Afghans in the mix: most of these are model refugee-generating environments. Any Convention signatory with a sense of the world beyond its borders should be able to handle this, but Australia prefers to invoke its resettlement scheme, which brings in around 20,000 refugees a year, as an orderly queuing system that boat-people are trying to jump, even though it isn’t smart or safe for asylum seekers to hang around in orderly queues.
‘Stop the boats’: Rudd thought he could do it by dumping refugees on PNG and paying off its government, Abbott thinks he can do it by policing Indonesia. Like the word ‘solution’, the word ‘regional’ keeps cropping up, and there is much anguish about asylum seekers dying at sea. It may well be sincere, but it’s hard to distinguish from a less charitable sentiment: if only these wretched people and their asylum claims would simply go away. A proper ‘regional solution’ would clear up the confusion. It would concentrate on the people, not the people smugglers, and enrol Indonesia as an active partner rather than a place that needs to be patrolled by Australian security, spooks and boat-buyers with wads of cash. Labor’s last annual costing for marine border security was $2.2 billion: money better spent on building decent reception facilities for asylum seekers in Indonesia, with the government’s collaboration and consent – accommodation, schools, clinics. Their safety would be guaranteed and their claims would be processed fairly and efficiently. From there they would proceed to Australia. The policy could be parcelled up and offered to the public under the heading ‘no more drownings’. Until something of the kind is put in place, dismay about death and injury as boats go down is hard to take at face value.
‘This is our country,’ Abbott said on the campaign trail, ‘and we determine who comes here.’ The echo of John Howard in 2001, refusing entry to a freighter full of rescued boat people, is unmistakable: ‘we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.’ It’s an assertion that regularly does the rounds, despite the Refugee Convention, which qualifies the principle of sovereign borders when it comes to asylum claims. Robert Menzies, Australia’s attorney general, said much the same in 1934, though he was on much more solid ground: there was no refugee convention at the time. The offending party was the Czech journalist Egon Kisch, a boisterous, die-hard communist and anti-Nazi, who was refused admission to address the All-Australian Congress of the Movement against War and Fascism. He wasn’t let off the boat at Fremantle and when it steamed into Port Melbourne he jumped onto the quay and broke his leg. He was carried back on board and, as he remembered it in his book Australian Landfall, it was then that Menzies held forth about the nation’s right to decide who could and couldn’t enter.
The High Court ruled that Kisch was free to visit Australia, but when the ship docked in Sydney, the government countered by making him take its famous dictation test, introduced as part of the 1901 Immigration Restriction Act to exclude non-whites. More red than white, Kisch was asked to take down the Lord’s Prayer, but to make it harder, it was read to him in Gaelic. Neither he nor the reader could speak it and he failed with panache, but in the end he was let out – or in – on bail and hobbled round the country addressing rallies and public meetings. At a torchlight procession in Melbourne to commemorate the burning of the Reichstag he claimed to have heard an ensemble of aboriginal Australian musicians perform a version of the ‘Marseillaise’. He was ecstatic. The remains of the White Australia policy were swept away unceremoniously in 1978, but the idea of selective asylum still dogs the Australian political imagination and Abbott is sure to be a fierce exponent.