Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Christmas Island / Abbott Plays The 'Race' Card / The Population Debate

Part 2 of our Australia update:

Hunger Strike

So far this year 9 boat with more than 500 refugees have arrived on the shores of Christmas Island after being intercepted by the Australian navy. On Monday the 181 passengers and 4 crew arrived on the island and parliament was warned that the detention centre was "just one boatload away from reaching capacity." This means that there are more than 180 detainees on the island, with 1460 in the detention centre itself, including 200 in tents, with 288 in the nearby construction camp facility.

Throughout January the Australian government has been receiving other warnings about the potential for unrest due to overcrowding. On 14 January the Immigration Department warned its Minister that the government should start processing asylum-seekers on the mainland or risk further riots and disturbances at Christmas Island's detention centre. Two weeks later on 26 Jan the head of Kevin Rudd's bill of rights consultation committee, Frank Brennan, reiterated the need for the government to transfer asylum-seekers to the mainland, saying conditions on Christmas Island now resemble those seen in the darkest days of the Howard-era.

The government's response to this latter warning was to transfer 115 mostly Afghan refugees moved off Christmas Island to mainland and to announce another batch of visas to be issued within days. Unfortunately, on the 28 January, after raising everybody's hopes, only 8 visas were actually issued, sparking protests over the slow processing of asylum applications. More than 150 Sri Lankans (the official government figure was 133) started a hunger strike.[1] Gathering in the camp's recreational area, they refused to go back to their compounds and held up placards reading: 'Oceanic Viking six weeks, Christmas Island six months', 'How long do we have to stay here?' and 'Protection not detention'. Another point of protest was against the recently introduced ban on mobile phones and the treatment of the 9 Tamils charged with November's disturbances.

According to official figures the average wait for an asylum-seekers on Christmas Island to be processed is 107 days. But unlike the mainland, where they had to be processed within 90 days, Christmas Island is officially outside Australia's migration zone and therefore operates wiith no time limit for asylum processing. This has led to some Tamils having been detained on Christmas Island for up to 11 months, however the official line on this is that it is due to security concerms over links with the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam). Immigration Minister Chris Evans warned the Tamils to quit their hunger strike, saying that even peaceful protests could actually hinder it. "I want to make it very clear to them and to the community ... we're not going to be responding to this."

The opposition parties were swift to exploit the issue, with the Liberal (read: Conservative) immigration spokesman Scott Morrison, who was on a visit to the Island at the time, claiming that the protesters had nothing to complain about. "I think Australians can rest easy about the treatment of asylum seekers on Christmas Island ... this is more of a cry for attention rather at this stage rather than anything of any great seriousness, and frankly they have nothing to complain about in terms of the facilities or the services, or the treatment that they're receiving on this island. I think we have a lot to be proud of in the way that people are being looked after here. I thought the standard of facilities at least met that standard, if not better in some cases." Independent Senator Steve Fielding, who was accompanying him, went even further and claimed that "facilities on Christmas Island are pretty good and look more like a motel than a detention centre"!

21 November 'Rioters' Charged

On 20 January 11 Tamil and Afghan men appeared in Christmas Island Magistrates Court charged with 23 counts of riot, assault and possessing weapons following the disturbances on 21 November last year that left 40 people injured, including 3 that were hospitalised in Perth with broken bones. Immigration Minister Chris Evans said: "If any of them are found to have committed a serious offence, it may affect the granting of a visa." Practically, if sentenced to 12 months or more, they will not be granted leave to stay in Australia, and even then could still be refused visas. However, ever eager to point score, Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison called on the Government to rule out visas for the men whatever the outcome.

Abbott Plays The 'Race' Card

On 22 January, Tony Abbott, the new leader of the strangely misnamed Liberal Party, decided he would seek to occupy the moral low ground of the immigration debate. Having ousted the previous party leader Malcolm Turnbull in a row over his emissions trading bill, part of a far from Green Liberal environmental policy, to be replaced by Abbott the head of the party's flat-earthers. Turnbull's position on immigration, despite having been a leading member of the government that brought in the 'Pacific Solution', also played a part in his downfall.

So Abbott's pronouncements ahead of Australia Day were also part of his efforts to try and lay out his agenda, and a bizarre mixture they were too. Whilst saying that Australians should be especially concerned if Indians are victims of racially motivated crime (as has been occurring increasingly frequently), he also warned about the rise of "ethnic gangs" and that perceptions of "ethnic street crime" threatened public support for immigration, support that he then went on to try and undermine.

He also argued that "It would help to bolster public support for immigration and acceptance of social diversity if more minority leaders were as ready to show to mainstream Australians values the respect they demand for their own."

"Some recent immigrants seem resistant to Australian notions of equality. There is, I suspect, an anxiety that the great prize of Australian citizenship is insufficiently appreciated and given away too lightly."

That asylum seekers must be deterred from trying to reach Australia by boat as "a matter of principle", regardless of how many immigrants arrive by other means. "A strong border protection policy is perfectly consistent with a large and inclusive immigration policy. In fact it's probably essential if the public is to be convinced that Australia's immigration policy is run by the Government rather than people smugglers."

"There is an important distinction between boat arrivals on the one hand and on the other people who arrive without putting themselves in peril, on a valid visa, and only subsequently become unauthorised over-stayers."

And on the issue of population growth he said, "It's easy to worry about the future environmental sustainability of Sydney and Melbourne, each with seven million people, when land and water resources are already under such pressure."

"The immigration rate should depend upon the strength of Australia's economy, the confidence of our society and the readiness of potential migrants to make a commitment to their new country."

[Australia does not have a] "fixed carrying capacity. My instinct is to extend to as many people as possible the freedom and benefits of life in Australia."

However, the killer quote that nails down his bizarre mix of conservative ideology with a dash of liberal dressing, is the rather rose-tinted statement: "For all the misguided and sometimes cruel treatment of Aborigines, the ethnic typecasting and occasional snobbery which still exists, Australia has rarely seen domestic discrimination based on race or culture."

Needless to say, rival politicians were swift to criticise Abbott. Australian Greens immigration spokeswoman Sarah Hanson-Young claimed: "Let's call this for what it is - Tony Abbott has blatantly played the race card in time for Australia Day," He was also using the same tactics as former prime minister John Howard. "The challenge for the [current] prime minister is not to allow this poisonous speech to drag him and his government down into another fear-driven debate."

The president of the Refugee Council of Australia, John Gibson, said Mr Abbott was making pronouncements on border protection without properly appreciating all the contributing factors. "His comments completely ignore our overarching obligation to the refugee convention which is to deal [with] and process humanely people arriving on our shores."

Abbott responded to the criticism by claiming that 'anti-immigration radicals' were too quick to stereotype migrants and refugee advocates were too quick to stereotype critics as rednecks. He said he supported high immigration intakes and described his speech as a "modern defence of a very traditional policy."

"We've always had our anxieties about immigration but I have to say that by and large we've managed a really successful immigration program despite those anxieties. The important thing is to be able to have a mature and intelligent debate about immigration without ... the instant [that] issues are raised, people rushing around with accusations of racism."

The Population Debate

Australia has also been going through a population debate similar to that sprung on the UK by the Tories and anti-immigration fundamentalists like Alan Green (Mr MigrationBotch) and other flat-earthers like Nick Soames and Frank Field. However, instead of the usual round of politicians saying that nay more of those nasty foreigners would be 'bad for us', the Australians by and large appear to be saying 'bring them on' (as long as they don't come uninvited by boat). That is except for the Greens, but more of that later.

Release of the Treasury's 2010 Intergenerational Report, rather than an impending general election, has reopened this debate. When similar projections by the Australian Bureau of Statistics were released last year, Australian PM Kevin Rudd claimed he welcomed of a 'big Australia' despite the misgivings of some like Treasury head Ken Henry and Labor backbencher Kelvin Thomson ("We are sleepwalking into an environmental disaster”). Now Rudd appears to be less enthusiastic, possibly as a result of Abbott's embracing the idea in his Australia Day statement, even though his own party is largely against the possibility.

So both Labour and Liberal parties appear divided and the only one that has come out unequivocally against 'big Australia' is the Greens! Greens leader Bob Brown instead decided to marshal the sort of arguments put forward by the Right in the UK to justify cutting immigration: "Most people think our lifestyle is good, but some of the bigger cities are bursting at the seams. We're at record high immigration and it's got to be reviewed. I think immigration levels should settle down much lower than they are at the moment, without cutting humanitarian immigration." Except that he couched his arguments in terms of maintaining a "sustainable population", something that has earned him criticism from other Green environmentalists. [1, 2]

Against that, along side arguing that failure to address climate change would damage the economy - "If we don't tackle climate change, we not only lose quality of life ... but we lose eight per cent of the gross national product" - he actually marshalled an argument regularly used by No Borders group against immigration controls - "You can buy your way into this country if you're rich or you're highly skilled" - in support of cutting immigration!

SIEV 36 report tomorrow.

[1] One refugee advocate claimed up to 350 people were involved. The hunger strike ended after three days, when a number of people received medical treatment after passing out.

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