When politics matters

In Indonesia, the people-smuggling operations to Australia are becoming increasingly more sophisticated.


    It was pretty harrowing stuff.

    One lady, pregnant, just pleaded with me to 'help' her. A mother brought out her sick son. Three or four people pulled their fingers across their throats to indicate what would happen if they ever went back to Iran.

    The group I met in a squalid hostel in a nondescript town in Western Java were at a low ebb. Even for asylum seekers.

    Two nights previously they'd been caught just before they were about to board a fishing boat bound for Australia's Christmas Island.

    The journey would have been risky - one man showed me photos of his wife and daughter who'd drowned when their boat sunk eleven months ago. But all had felt the risk worth taking.

    Most boats don't sink. Most asylum seekers who board one reach Christmas Island. Once there, they become part of the Australia's formal asylum process, which - for most - means Australian residency within two years. A new life. 

    Worth the risk

    This group had been very unlucky caught after they'd each handed over $7,000 to people smugglers, but before they'd cast off from shore. They were in a lose-lose position.

    But this isn't a blog about their plight - heart-rendering though it was. It's a blog about why they had ended up there, and - therefore - why I had too. Responsible for that were a few hundred residents of a small town not in Iran, or Indonesia, but in Australia. A small town just west of Melbourne.

    Shopkeepers. Taxi drivers. Nurses. Lawyers. But, crucially, voters.

    Corangamite was, at the last Australian national election, the most marginal seat in the country. It fell to Labor by just a few hundred votes. Had it, or one of a dozen or so other close constituency votes, gone the other way - Liberal - that party would now be in government.

    As it was, Labor leader Julia Gillard was able - just able - to form a minority government, propped up by a three independent and one Green party MP.

    Just about every major political issue in Australia right now is a product of that hung parliament.

    The Labor government has a policy it thinks will stop asylum seekers even trying to reach Christmas Island. Called the 'Malaysia Solution', it would send those asylum seekers who arrived there straight to Malaysia to have their refugee claims processed, with little hope of a life in Australia at the end of it. Just before it was to begin, though, Australia's highest court decided the policy violated Australia's own laws, and blocked it.

    In normal circumstances, that would be a minor hurdle. A government with a majority could simply change the law so the policy didn't violate it.

    But Julia Gillard doesn't have a proper majority. One MP - the Green - who supports the government on most things, doesn't like the Malaysia option and won't vote for it. With opposition, mainly Liberal MPs also sure to vote against it, the change in law can't happen.


    The incentive to reach Christmas Island is as strong as ever. The number getting on boats - or trying to get on boats - is at an all time high.

    The story's similar for other policies too. The single most controversial in Australia is a tax on companies producing carbon dioxide. It's intended to filter down and affect purchasing decisions - and nudge greener behaviour - throughout the economy.

    Julia Gillard had explicitly ruled such a tax out before the last election. But then she needed the support of the Green MP - and the price of his support was the carbon tax. Whether good or bad - and everyone in Australia has strong views on that - it's only a reality because of minority government.

    Political nerds right around the world will use Australia as a case-study of what can happen after very close elections.

    But for many many people, the implications aren't academic but real. For good or bad, lives have moved in fundamentally different directions because of those few voters Corangamite.

    Just sometimes, even in famously stable countries, not just politics, but the political process matters.



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