Successful politicians are invariably long on broken promises but short on extending mea culpas for errors.
Kevin Rudd's recently announced Papua New Guinea solution to stopping unauthorised boat arrivals may or may not work. The outcome could well turn on the ability of PNG Prime Minister Peter O'Neill to sustain support for the policy within the political leadership in Port Moresby. However, it is understandable that Rudd took the action he did. Especially since unauthorised boat arrivals are running at more than 2000 a month with deaths by drowning estimated to be at least three a week.
Few democratically elected leaders could do nothing when faced with such statistics. John Howard had to deal with a not dissimilar situation when he implemented what was termed the ''Pacific solution'' more than a decade ago. Among Howard's fiercest critics at the time was the Labor for Refugees group, headed by current NSW Opposition Leader John Robertson.
It's possible that Rudd's approach will work politically. Here Labor's problems have turned on the response to unauthorised boat arrivals by the electors of western Sydney. Some of this group object to those declared refugees obtaining preference in the allocation of public housing. Some others resent the fact that new arrivals are being admitted to Australia ahead of relatives and friends currently residing in refugee camps or seeking visas as immigrants.
Rudd's vulnerability on this issue stems from his inconsistency. He made his run to oust Kim Beazley and become opposition leader with the publication of his essay “Faith in Politics” in the October 2006 issue of The Monthly. There Rudd branded Howard's ''Pacific solution'' as a matter which “should be the cause of great ethical concern to all the Christian churches”.
Rudd replaced Beazley as Labor leader in December 2006. However, he soon changed his position on asylum seekers. On the eve of the November 2007 election, Rudd declared that, if he became prime minister, he would continue Howard's policy of turning back asylum seeker boats when safe to do so. Then in July 2008 the Rudd government announced that it had ended the ''Pacific solution'' and would be winding back the threat of mandatory detention to advance the cause of “compassion and tolerance”. Now Rudd has proposed an approach which seems harsher than that ever implemented by the Howard government.
What's missing here is any recognition of fault. The Prime Minister claims that circumstances have changed since Labor publicly junked the Howard government's policy which had led to a situation whereby there were neither boat arrivals (and associated drownings) nor asylum seekers in mandatory detention. This glosses over the fact that Rudd Labor's policy of 2008 was erroneous.
Sometimes a confession of error works better than evasion or denial. Howard erred when, as opposition leader in August 1988, he called for a reduction in the Asian proponent of Australia's immigration intake in order “to ensure the maintenance of social harmony and cohesion”. Howard soon distanced himself from this comment and came to express regret that he had ever spoken in these terms since his position was clearly wrong. The mea culpa worked and Howard went on to establish excellent relations with Asian communities in Australia.
A Rudd mea culpa would diminish some of the opposition to the Prime Minister's current stance by those who resent his apparent denial. Also it would give greater authority to his new position.
The fact is that no other Australian political leader has had to deal with the unauthorised people movements experienced by Rudd, Julia Gillard and Howard – a combination of large unauthorised arrivals along with a disturbing number of drownings.
Interviewed by Beverley O'Connor and Michael Rowland on ABC 1 News Breakfast last Friday, refugee advocate Julian Burnside, QC, declared that there was no need for anyone to get “hysterical” about the number of boat arrivals over the past year. He said “the number who arrived in Australia in the last 12 months was slightly fewer than the number which arrived each year from Indo-China in the late 1970s”. Burnside added that “there was no fuss about it then because Whitlam and Fraser decided to make a bipartisan approach”.
Not so. Gough Whitlam did not welcome Indo-Chinese refugees when prime minister in 1975 or as opposition leader in 1976 and 1977. It was his successor Bill Hayden who supported Fraser's approach. Moreover, all but 2059 of the Indo-Chinese refugees who were accepted in Australia between 1976 and 1982 were processed offshore and arrived by plane with valid visas and identity papers.
Burnside was not corrected by either presenter. However, his misleading claim diminishes the very real difficulties faced by Rudd, Gillard and Howard. Perhaps Burnside should also issue a mea culpa. Don't hold your breath.
Gerard Henderson is executive director of The Sydney Institute.