It has taken nearly six years of bluster and bombast, but Tony Abbott has finally come clean – or, if you prefer it, has come down and dirty.
Delivering the Margaret Thatcher lecture in honour of his hero, our former prime minister admitted that his policy on asylum seekers – on stopping the boats – was never really about saving lives at sea; this was useful politically, but it was a side issue. The constant sanctimonious homilies on the subject were a cover – sheer humbug.
The real imperative, he warned Europe, was the need to secure the borders. Not to do so would be catastrophic. The imputation was that if the free flow of refugees was allowed to continue, it would imperil the ethnic and cultural integrity of the entire continent.
To some, his message was seen as disturbing, even sinister; it was reminiscent of another leader some 70 years ago who launched a similar agenda. It was hardly surprising when at least one Tory leader described it as ‘fascistic.’ But most of the rusted-on Thatcherites in his audience were cautiously approving, and Nigel Farage, the leader of the anti-immigration United Kingdom Independence party, called it heroic.
It is all too easy to dismiss Abbott as the exception but the man who supplanted him, Malcolm Turnbull, has already demonstrated that although the words may be more measured, the substance remains the same.
Certainly it struck a chord with the nationalists – the exclusivists, even – among the British who basically disapprove not only of the European Union, but of Europe itself; after all, they say, wogs stop at Calais, so how much more alien can be the barbarian hordes from the Middle East, from Africa and Asia?
But surely Australia is different – it is all too easy to dismiss Abbott as the exception; after all, he is a Pom himself, so what else can you expect. But the man who supplanted him, Malcolm Turnbull, has already demonstrated that although the words may be more measured, the substance remains the same.
Turnbull does not talk in three word slogans; his tones are mellifluous and hushed, and he speaks more in sorrow than in anger. But off shore mandatory detention, or whatever he wants to call it, will prevail. There is, he laments, just no alternative.
This is of course untrue; there are plenty of alternatives, but none of them is acceptable to the government, and probably not to a well-conditioned electorate. But this does not mean that there is not a political problem. While the formula that no boat people can be settled in Australia remains sacrosanct, their incarceration in Manus Island and Nauru is finally producing headlines the government would prefer to avoid.
Tony Abbott would simply have ranted his way through, in the manner of the reconstructed border protection minister Peter Dutton. When Amnesty International released a report on the allegations that Australian officials paid people smugglers to return boats to Indonesia, and supported the claims with some 68 witnesses and photographic evidence, Dutton called it bullying, and ideological attack, beyond the pale – his suggestion that criticism of his paramilitary force was tantamount to treason.
But Turnbull, and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop were a little more circumspect: they too dodged the substance of the report, but replied simply that Australian domestic laws had been obeyed (which was hardly the point) and that international obligations had been followed (which was, at least, contestable). The accusations may have been shelved, but they have not been settled.
And Nauru remains a particular sore spot, not only because of the ongoing saga of the unfortunate asylum seeker known as Abyan, but because it has become increasingly clear that for all the talk of sovereignty and independence, the island is very much a client state of Australia, and a somewhat embarrassing one. It remains essentially a closed society.
The Australian columnist Chris Kenny was eventually granted a visa, and good for him, but he admits that the fact that he is a sympathiser of the Pacific solution and former Liberal apparatchik just may have given him privileges denied to more sceptical colleagues. And the overall secrecy continues; the Save the Children Fund has twice had its officers raided by Nauruan authorities, has not had its contract renewed by the Australian government, that contract instead being awarded to the Transfield Corporation that runs the place*; the fact that the welfare organisation refused to submit to a bond demanding obedience to Transfield’s charter of gagging whistle blowers may have had something to do with its effective sacking.
And whistle blowers have been outlawed by the Australian – not the Nauruan – government with the threat of jail sentences for offenders. The repressive nature of the regime has been too much for many of the medical professionals, who have staged demonstrations in protest of what they see as the abuse of children in the detention centres, and want to keep them out of the places to protect their health and sanity. The voters may still support stopping the boats, but the plight of the individuals who have been incarcerated and the manner of their treatment is becoming a problem
Thus the government is redoubling to its efforts to get them out of the way. Cambodia, the Philippines, Kyrgyzstan – anywhere, as long as they are out of the immediate neighbourhood. And the more venal and impoverished the destination the better. As far as we know the basket cases of central Africa have not yet been approached with offers, but surely it is only a matter of time.
This solution is obviously no more than buck-passing, but the fact that it is being entertained with some urgency is a sign that, at last, there is a recognition that the policy has to change. Mandatory detention has run through the governments of Paul Keating, John Howard, Kevin Rudd (twice), Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott, and has become more brutal with each successive incarnation. Turnbull may be the one to bring about rationality and reform, if not compassion.
Abbott, and his revered mentor Margaret Thatcher, were never for turning. Just perhaps out new prime minister will be innovative, nimble and agile enough to divert from the habits of what has been, for far too many, a lifetime.
* The words ‘the Australian government, that contract instead being awarded to’ were omitted in error from the originally published version of this story.