Reviving the Pacific Solution: The Houston Panel Recommendations

This is a story of embittered stinginess that never ends.  Poorer countries have done more, and have been more conspicuous in the way they have been flooded (yes, flooded) by refugees.  Nation states with porous borders, located in areas of regional conflict, have had to live for generations with the movement of displaced peoples.  But it seems to be a golden rule that the richer the country, the more pinched it becomes.  Australia, land of amoral mining advocates and rising living prices, couldn’t care a fig.  Distance doesn’t so much make the heart grow fonder but harder. It also makes it more irrational.

Any visitor to Australia will be struck by how beset it is by worry.  If it isn’t the stream of insurance advertisements concerning what to do with the funeral expenses heaped upon the living by the dearly departed (“No worries, we got it covered!”), it’s the barrage of militant metaphors about invasion.  Paradise is under siege, and those haphazard boats with human cargo are to blame.

Over the weekend, Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare was talking about how the Australian public had been having a ‘gut full’ (a nice visceral metaphor) at the dangers occasioned by travelling to Australia, until one realised that he was merely concerned about them coming here at all.  If they drown, the Australian conscience is pricked.  Such a conscience is bound to be spared if these “arrivals” are decent enough to pack up and head to Pacific processing centres.

An expert panel was recently appointed to examine the situation of increased arrivals, suggesting that expertise is required to deal with this “problem”, one so grave it threatens Australia’s existence.  That it was headed by Air Chief Marshal Angus Houston was itself a worry.  “We recommend a policy approach that is hard headed but not hard hearted… if this package is embraced by the government and implemented it will start to have an effect fairly quickly.”

The recommendations are intentionally mixed, taking swipes at each position that has been taken on refugees from the Greens to the conservative Coalition.  The Houston panel, also consisting of Michael L’Estrange and Paris Aristotle, suggests increasing the humanitarian intake from the current 13,750 to 20,000, a position that the Gillard government has baulked at previously.  Processing centres are to be opened at Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and Nauru, both suggestions that might well be shot down in flames by a High Court challenge.  It is worth noting that the panel sees an expansion of this network of processing centres – a trans-Pacific network of facilities built with the express purpose of preventing refugees from arriving on Australian shores.

The desperation of the Gillard government is such that they accepted, even in advance, all 22 recommendations of the panel.  This is the Pacific Solution redux, an Orwellian, perhaps even Havel-like farce.

Ever since the odious dealings with the MV Tampa in August 2001, when the Howard government deployed SAS personnel against 400 asylum seekers off Christmas Island, boat arrivals have been packaged with the rhetorical material of terror, disease and revolt. Military vessels have been employed to deal with the arrivals, suggesting that such citizens are to be treated in the manner befitting any invasion force.  They are to be “processed”, preferably somewhere far from Australia.  (Quarantine is not something restricted to the introduction of food and plant matter.)

The Australian opposition has been smug to the recommendations of the panel.  Nauru is the way to go, while Malaysia is not, or, as opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison put it, “The Houston panel has green-lighted Nauru, and they have red-lighted Malaysia.”  The awful premise of off-shore processing, suggesting the innate terror of the political establishment to assess claims in Australia, has been further entrenched in the Houston panel.

What the Houston panel does is simply reiterate the long standing argument that those who are willing to perish on route should be punished for even considering the option of coming to Australia by boat.  Distractions are offered in debate – straw men such as ‘people traffickers’ and ‘people smugglers’ are erected in order to be easily battered down.  Random figures are drawn out of a hat – it might be the UNHCR-mandated spots for 6000 people detained in refugee camps across the globe, or the 7500 arrivals this year who terrify such papers as The Australian (August 14) into thinking that “orderly” resettlement will be impossible.

Such terms mean little in the context of the refugee debate.  What matters here is how institutions punish the cargo, not the carrier.  To take this flawed logic further, the slave trader, while considered despicable, is less invidious than the slave who was silly enough to become a chattel in the first place.

No side in Australian politics is willing to accept the core premise that the refugees will not stop arriving and will not be “turned back”.  Global conflicts and immigration routes are such that Australia is not the sylvan idyll beyond reach, a paradisiacal retreat that only those born first in a lottery can savour.  Australia will be reached, and the only solution is to find a measure of humanitarian worth that dignifies, rather than disgraces, the situation at hand.  It is the refusal not merely to accept that task but implement it, that reeks.  Whatever the panel and whatever the recommendation, these people are not wanted, and that is just about the only thing that Australian politicians agree about.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and can be reached at: Read other articles by Binoy.