By Jack Georgieff
The final week of June saw the return of Kevin Rudd as Australian prime minister, ending Julia Gillard’s three year reign and suddenly making the upcoming federal election contestable for the Australian Labor Party again. Gillard was almost certain to have presided over a historic defeat to Tony Abbott’s Liberal/National coalition had she remained in power. Rudd’s return opens a narrow window of time in which he can recast the tone and substance on key policy issues that have plagued the government. The issue of asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat is chief among them.
The so-called ‘boat people’ have been a consistent theme in Australian politics since the 2001 election campaign, when then-prime minister John Howard refused to allow the Norwegian freighter Tampa, carrying 438 asylum seekers, to enter Australian waters. Howard’s strict policies toward asylum seekers came to be known as the Pacific Solution and helped to ensure his victory in the 2001 polls. The Pacific Solution saw all boat arrivals moved to detention centers on island states in the Pacific Ocean, principally Nauru and Papua New Guinea.
Upon first winning power in 2007, Rudd moved to dismantle the Pacific Solution. While maintaining elements of mandatory detention, the government closed the Nauru detention center. But after the Pacific Solution was scrapped, arrivals of asylum seekers by boat skyrocketed and became a political liability for both the Rudd and Gillard governments.
An expert panel recommended in August 2012 that Canberra reintroduce asylum seeker processing in Nauru and Papua New Guinea, and Gillard followed its advice. The government’s current policy, which the newly-minted Rudd government has so far followed, can be characterized as ‘Pacific Solution Redux.’ But upon his return to office on June 26, 2013, Rudd said he would seek a regional solution to the issue.
Tony Abbott has campaigned vigorously on promises that if elected, he would give the Navy orders to turn boats back to Indonesia, from which most leave for Australia, when safe to do so. He has also pledged to reintroduce Temporary Protection Visas, which only allow asylum seekers to settle in Australia until it is safe to return them to their home lands. But Abbott’s policy to turn back the boats has been implicitly rejected by the Indonesian government, with Rudd saying that it could spark conflict if Australia were to act in such a unilateral fashion.
This was Rudd’s attempt to psychologically mess with the opposition. It worked, and has caused some of his opponents to question the need to recalibrate their campaign strategy against the government. The Indonesian government signaled it would not wade into Australian domestic political exchanges, characterized by one Jakarta observer as “pre-election argy bargy.”
The second Rudd government is still conceiving its policy, but thus far the emphasis has been on finding a regional solution to a regional problem, with the help of Indonesia in particular. Rudd is likely to continue to emphasize this policy, given his agreement to attend a regional summit on the issue proposed by Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. In contrast, Abbott frames the issue as one of national security and sovereignty.
How both sides propose to handle this issue does have implications for Australia’s regional relations and, more importantly, how it is perceived as an international actor. The country risks being seen as hostile to outsiders, reminiscent of the 20th century White Australia Policy that favored immigration by certain Europeans. But as long as Rudd continues to emphasize the regional nature of the issue and highlight the humanitarian side of why asylum seekers are coming to Australia, it is possible that any new policy intentions he announces in the coming election campaign could neutralize the appeal of Abbott’s promise to “stop the boats.”
If the opposition wins the coming elections, it is quite possible that the promise to turn back boats will prove too difficult to implement, and even cost Abbott significant political capital early on. The reality of human trafficking and asylum seekers is a complex one that cannot be dealt with through catchy political slogans or quick policy fixes. Gillard’s failed attempt early in her premiership to send asylum seekers to Timor-Leste is proof of that.
Rudd has a small window in which to calibrate the conversation and policy settings, and bring about a mature political conversation on the asylum seeker issue in Australia. The key tenets of ‘Pacific Solution Redux’ will remain, but within the confines of looking for help from regional friends, especially Indonesia.
Unfortunately, Indonesia’s lack of prioritizing the issue means Rudd may struggle to take any concrete steps. Indonesia has neither international treaty obligations nor a clearly defined role when it comes to responsibility for handling asylum seekers at sea. That is why the upcoming regional forum should be watched closely for possible policy developments on this front.