Right: cartoonist Bill Leak's depiction of "bi-partisanship" on the question of asylum seekers.
The bipartisan consensus among Australia's political leaders is that boats carrying asylum seekers to Australia must be stopped. The Rudd government is largely relying on processing and permanently retaining all asylum seekers arriving by boat on Papua New Guinea. An Abbott government would retain some elements of the Rudd policy and also implement its 'Operation Sovereign Borders' which alters the military chain of command in the management of surveillance, apprehension and return of asylum seekers attempting to arrive in Australia by boat.
These policies are fuelled by a variety of considerations. One of these is claimed to be a desire to protect the lives of asylum seekers attempting to reach Australia by boat. The thousand asylum seekers' lives believed to have been lost since 2007 are used as justification for discouraging people from setting out on such dangerous journeys.
The difficulty is that in adopting such a policy both parties run the risk of fuelling popular hysteria about the situation. Describing the 15,000 asylum seekers who have sought to reach Australia since the start of this year as a 'national emergency' seems more intended to foster panic than concern for asylum seekers' welfare. In a country where almost one in four Australian residents were born outside of Australia and many more are first or second generation Australians, developing a fortress mentality seems likely to foster social and racial dissention among current Australian residents. It is possible to see the asylum seeker issue as at least in part a response to ill-ease about the country's changing racial composition. Thus national leaders need to be very careful that no policies they adopt create or promote racial disharmony.
It is also worth noting that the financial cost of the different policies designed to make Australia both unattractive and inaccessible to refugees arriving by boat is very great. The cost of the Howard government's Pacific Solution between 2001 and 2007 was at least $1 billion equating to over $500,000 per detainee. Critics note that off-shore processing and protracted detention at Australia's expense are extremely costly. Off-shore processing remains a feature of the Opposition's policy, while the financial cost of the Rudd government's New Guinea Solution is also being borne by the Australian government. Both parties are staking a great deal on the deterrent effect of their policies. If these deterrent effects are not achieved it will be interesting to see for how long these enormously expensive asylum seeker policies can be sustained.