A solution in name only

THE smug sense of sanctimony that seeps out of the mouths of some commentators on the issue of unlawful boat arrivals is hard to stomach. Their own sense of moral superiority appears to make them feel entitled to ignore a few salient facts.

Chief among these is the fact that however generous Australia wants to be to refugees and asylum seekers, there is a limit to what we can afford. That means there is a set number of refugees we can afford to take each year. Argue over where to set that limit, sure, but to speak, write or behave as though there isn't one is dishonest.

Each year our government sets what it sees as the limit. It works with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to decide from which camps around the world we should take refugees. Every time a boat person gets to stay in Australia, someone in a camp gets left to wait. That's just how it has to be if you have a limit. Those who don't like that fact should be honest enough to say that they support an unlimited intake, whatever the cost.

Boat people jump ahead of those who can't afford a people smuggler. The policy changes announced last week in response to the report of former defence chief Angus Houston's expert panel are intended to ensure that boat people have ''no advantage'' over those who wait in camps. The intention is a very good one. It is, however, uncertain that the policy will be able to deliver.

There is, for example, the practical question of whether Australia's neighbouring countries would want to participate in such an arrangement. Not every south-east Asian policymaker recalls the consequences of similar arrangements made in the Fraser government's time with the same doe-eyed enthusiasm as does Malcolm Fraser himself. Surprise.

Some may see such arrangements as working to draw even more asylum seekers to the region. Some of our neighbouring countries may see the proposal as meaning that they will be left with all of those asylum seekers who we don't take. And some may be just sick of listening to so many people in Australia standing on the sanctimony soapbox and reciting what they see as the inadequacies of our neighbours.

Maybe Malaysia's former prime minister, Dr Mahathir bin Mohamad, was a bit over sensitive to then Australian prime minister Paul Keating's ''recalcitrant'' jibe back in 1993, but just ask yourself this: how would we feel and how would we expect our government to respond to the sort of bagging so many of our politicians and commentators regularly dish out to our neighbours?

If we are successful in setting up regional arrangements on asylum seekers, how much of the additional refugee intake by Australia will be drawn from those countries? It has to be enough to make it attractive to the host country. But if all the extra places go that way, we may be exchanging a ''come on down'' policy for a ''fly on down'' one. Bear in mind those poor souls waiting in camps who don't have the money to fly to the host country.

The new policy would in fact give preference to those who can afford to get to the regional centres. I don't say the people who can afford to get to such centres would be bad people, not at all. But I do say they are no better than those in camps. They have no morally superior claim to our generosity. None at all. And yet, while we seek to give them ''no advantage'' if they come by boat, we will give a fairly hefty advantage if they make it to the region.

Under the new policy there will be a toughening up of family reunion opportunities for any unlawful boat arrivals who end up in Australia. The policy moves in the right direction but not far enough. It may be that this was recommended as a toughening up measure that the Labor government could swallow. In one sense that is sensible, but if it doesn't work it is just window dressing. Labor gets to look a bit tougher, but the ''pull'' card of family reunion stays in play. This is a mistake. Hope is the last thing to die. If getting here means asylum seekers still have a chance of bringing further family members, they will still come. That bit of sugar needs to come off the table.

The Labor Party should not worry about changing policy for the better. After all, it once had a policy (during the Howard years) that committed the ALP to using snipers in high-powered helicopters to shoot and render dysfunctional the engines in unlawful fishing vessels.

It was a somewhat unwise attempt at cross-cultural policymaking borrowed from the United States, where snipers were used to shoot out engines in ''cigar'' speedboats coming from Cuba. In that case the engine was at the back. Someone obviously missed the relevant fact that in the case of Indonesian fishing vessels, the engine is often in the middle and covered by a canopy under which one might expect humans to be huddling.

Public policy change for the better is a good thing. Government ministers, indeed all federal MPs, should now put their minds to further changes to our refugee and asylum-seeker policy regime. What would go a long way to stopping the boats, in addition to offshore processing, is a declaration that those who come here by boat would have no access to subsequent family reunion - none, zero, zip. Couple that with a visa that is temporary, not permanent, and the flood will become a trickle almost overnight.

And then the people waiting in camps will have a shorter wait.

Amanda Vanstone was minister for immigration in the Howard government.

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