Time to weigh anchor on Australa

The most compelling argument for bipartisanship on boat arrival policy is that we could finally stop talking about the issue and deal with something else.

Let’s face it. If you didn’t see the boats on TV or hear politicians yakking about them, you’d have no idea what is consistently referred to as a ‘'problem’‘ even existed. This contrasts with cost of living rises, affordable housing shortages or the extreme weather patterns caused by climate change, which affect us – or those we know – directly.

On some levels, Australians know this. A parliamentary paper on the issue noted that even the roughly half of the population that support offshore processing and mandatory detention don’t let it affect their vote.

The totemic meaning of the issue can be found in the public conversation about boat people, which we’ve been having since the 1970s. Boat arrivals trigger fears of losing control, anxiety about being duped and the age-old fear of missing out.

Political rhetoric about boat arrivals and once-over-lightly media coverage conspire to refine and encourage these fears. The trickle of rickety sea vessels ‘'violates our borders’‘, while unarmed men, women and children, it is slyly implied, could be Islamist terrorists.

For those who persist with compassion, the evil people-smuggler is rolled out to show us the folly of our trusting natures. The queue-jumping charge and call for an ‘'orderly’‘ resettlement program play to concerns about control and the need for fair process to determine and resettle ’‘genuine refugees’‘.

It is this last anxiety that most interests me. Formal processes designed to guarantee fairness are part of our democratic heritage and are rightly valued. Writ large, they encompass notions such as the rule of law, which makes us all answerable to the law, equal before it and similarly subjected to its rigours.

It is not surprising that a nation descended from members of Britain’s less-privileged social classes is alive to the necessity of rules being both fair and uniformly applied if those without privilege are to have a shot at accessing scarce resources.

But this brings the question: How scarce is the resource boat people want? If the resource is onshore processing, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has noted that Australia has both the territory and resources to manage it.

But what boat people are really seeking is resettlement in Australia and, while most deemed refugees processed here will begin their new life straight away, those found worthy offshore may languish for years there.

It is this latter fact that drives the boat traffic. Where faced with the prospect of resettlement in the West in a reasonable period of time, few would spend what money they have to risk their and their children’s lives on a perilous trip.

I don’t judge those trying to take matters into their own hands. Most of those who escaped Nazi Germany or survived the rigours of the Warsaw ghetto would have been similarly determined to survive and thrive.

The solution is plain. We must increase the number of refugees we resettle from our paltry quota of 6000. Of the 71 countries that take refugees, we rank 38th on a per head basis behind Kazakhstan, Guinea, Djibouti and Syria.

The long-game is about reducing the insecurity and strife that drives people to leave the land and language of their birth and do whatever it takes to call a haven like Australia home.

Publication history

Time to weigh anchor on the boat people "problem"   The Sunday Sun-Herald