Winning votes for Kevin Rudd
IT is election year in Australia and Kevin Rudd has to do what Kevin Rudd has to do – bring back the Labor government. And in PNG Prime Minister Peter O’Neill he has found an unlikely but willing ally to help him achieve his goal. He has unashamedly dragged our PM into Australian domestic politics under the guise of correcting a regional problem which in the long run will affect us all.
It is obvious from the two leaders’ announcement in Brisbane on Friday that Canberra’s best way to deal with its asylum-seeker dilemma is to export the problem to its nearest northern neighbour.
For our cooperation in the deal, we will receive generous aid. In return, Mr Rudd wants to be seen as the iron-fisted leader who can protect “scourge” of people smugglers and their sad cargo. And Mr O’Neill wants to be part of that Pacific final solution.
In a race for Labor’s right conservative votes, the Rudd-initiated Regional Settlement Agreement must be seen as a hardline move designed to match, and even surpass, the conservative Tony Abbot opposition’s promise to tow asylum-seeker boats back to Indonesia, where most, if not all, set sail from.
Critics say Mr Rudd does not have the courage or the moral authority to do the right thing by refugees. For them, this is a day of shame in which PNG is a willing partner.
The new measures may not stop the steady flow of unauthorised arrivals travelling by sea. There are simply too many desperate people fleeing death and persecution, and that Canberra and Waigani’s attempts to stop them simply will not work.
Mr Rudd ousted Julia Gillard as Labor Party leader amid dismal polling figures last month but insists the new arrangements will allow Australia to help more people who are genuinely in need and help prevent people smugglers from abusing the system.
Last year, the Australian government reintroduced a controversial policy under which people arriving by boat in Australia are sent to camps in PNG and Nauru for processing. But the policy has so far failed to deter boat people, who are arriving in increasing numbers. It has also been strongly criticised, most recently by the UNHCR – for the conditions which asylum-seekers face at the camps.
Asylum has become a key election issue in Australia and polls must be called before the end of November.
Opposition leader Tony Abbott – whose party looked on course to trounce Labor at the polls before the leadership change – has said he will turn boats back to Indonesia when safe to do so.
Australia, more than PNG, has international obligations to protect people who come to its shores, not exposing them to further risks elsewhere like Manus or Nauru.
The fact remains that Australia hosts a very small fraction of refugees worldwide compared with PNG and West Papua refugees and yet what we see here is a policy designed not only to deter asylum seekers from going and seeking refuge in Australia, but one that also proposes to shift Australia’s responsibilities on to PNG.
Rights group Amnesty International sums up the situation nicely: the move by Mr Rudd and Mr O’Neill will be marked as the day Australia decided to turn its back on the world’s most vulnerable people, closed the door and threw away the key.
By the same token, Mr O’Neill has to convince a Parliament what benefits there are for PNG. Like the Australian opposition, we want to know the full text of the arrangement and the financial benefits for PNG which one Australian politician described at the weekend as the most impoverished nation in the region.
The bigger question begs answers: Where is PNG going to resettle those identified as genuine refugees?