In what appears to be a desperate attempt to gain some traction, the Opposition has elected to excavate Philip Ruddock from his here-to-fore dormant state on the backbench in order to remind everyone what a ring-a-ding job the Howard Government did on asylum seeker issues. Ruddock’s opinion piece in The Australian today is a blast from the past in tone, and I’m not sure that it can fairly be considered to be a remotely relevant blast. According to Ruddock, the Rudd Government’s actions on border security since November 2007 are “forcing people into the hands of people-smugglers”, and “a fundamental rethink” is required by the government in order to “bring this insidious people smuggling activity to an end.”
The Opposition seems desperately keen to contrast its own historical rhetoric on asylum seeker issues with the slightly softer, more humane approach being taken by the Rudd Government. Forgetting for a moment the rather ugly and sometimes disturbing human rights issues raised by the previous government’s mandatory and indefinite scheme of detention, the Opposition wants to remind us that they were “tough” on boatpeople when in government, and that Labor is “not so tough”. In concert with this mode of attack, every rickety boat that happens to depart Colombo or elsewhere on its way to Australia apparently represents a failure of Rudd Government policy in comparison with the Howard Government’s illustrious record.
It should be apparent to everyone that there is no single activity or series of activities that any government can implement to stop people-smugglers or asylum seekers from trying to come to Australia. It is unrealistic to expect governments to be able to stop people-smugglers from plying their trade altogether. Australia is, without doubt, a desirable destination for people seeking a new life beyond their own borders, particularly for those living in war or strife-torn countries. Regardless of the punitive or draconian penalties Australia might elect to impose upon people-smugglers or indeed the asylum seekers themselves, some will still try to make the journey. The complex causes that drive people to set off from their homelands on boats bound for illegal landing in Australia can not be explained away as being a function of Australian government policy – inconveniently for the Coalition. It is a fair bet that the vast majority of people smugglers do not peruse Australian immigration or asylum-seeker policy before taking money from folk eager to try and make the journey and launching their boats. In short, people-smugglers are unlikely to be cheered by Rudd Labor any more or any less than they were by the Howard Government over the last decade, and “insidious people smuggling activity” can no more be completely eradicated by the policies of the government of the day than any other social ill we might care to consider.