There was no coincidence in the announcement of Australia's agreement for the resettlement of refugees in Papua New Guinea (PNG) coming two weeks before the start of a national election campaign.
Under the deal, announced on July 19, all asylum-seekers arriving in Australian territory by boat are to be flown to PNG for processing and resettlement, in return for additional foreign aid. A similar agreement with Nauru, a Pacific island with a population of 10,000, was reached on August 3.
Opinion polls comparing public approval of the country's major political parties' handling of asylum seeker policy showed the announcement had improved the ruling Labor Party's figures from 17 percent in mid-June to 25 percent on July 29. During the same period, support for the Liberal-National coalition of opposition parties had fallen from 33 percent to 25 percent. Twenty-eight percent preferred none of the political parties - the highest figure recorded.
Most asylum seekers reaching Australia by boat are from Iran, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan, travelling from Indonesia or Malaysia. This is reflected in detention numbers: 2,401 Iranians, 1,368 Sri Lankans and 1117 Afghans, as of May 31 this year including 1,052 children from those three countries. The journey costs up to $10,000 and 90 percent of those arriving in Australia are found to be refugees.
After an initial flurry of arrivals in the days following the announcement Tony Burke, Australia's immigration minister, said this month that the deterrent was working. "We have widespread examples on the ground, in Indonesia, of people asking for their money back from people smugglers," he told journalists. "There is no doubt that the message is getting through."
The issue is a contentious one in PNG and the opposition has launched legal action against the deal. "Papua New Guineans will most likely revolt and be unfriendly to refugees if they are resettled in big numbers," Philemon Embel, a senior member of the PNG opposition, warned from Port Morseby.
The Australian Government is locked in a race to the bottom with the opposition that is costing this country billions of dollars and severely damaging our international reputation
Australia is seen as a regional "bully and manipulator", according to Embel. With programme costs projected to exceed $910m, the pair's post-colonial relationship - often defined according to donor-recipient foreign aid arrangements, animosity inside PNG may well be exacerbated.
"The majority view is that there are countless social and economic problems that the government needs to resolve first before taking on additional responsibilities, which it can barely handle both financially and administratively," Embel said. "There are likely to be cultural and religious disharmony if the numbers are high."
The population of Papua New Guinea, which gained independence from Australia in 1975, is made up of hundreds of tribal groups, with most people dependent on subsistence farming.
Despite avoiding economic downturn following the global financial crisis, many Australians remain anxious about their economic wellbeing, even though the country has enjoyed annual GDP growth each year since 1991.
The paradox of economic prosperity and indifferent attitudes towards those seeking humanitarian assistance is evident in opinion polls, released on August 13, which show the economy as a top concern for voters - 30 percent. The figure is marginally ahead of immigration and asylum-seekers, which scored 28 percent as the second highest issue of concern.
The Labor Party has struggled to reconcile its progressive traditions with the reality of the contemporary electorate. When Prime Minister Kevin Rudd brought 11 years of conservative government to an end in 2007, his administration was elected on a platform of reforms.
John Howard, Rudd's predecessor, had left an indelible imprint on the country's social and political landscape and the nation welcomed a change. Along with symbolic policies towards the country's indigenous population and the environment, Australia's treatment of refugees arriving by boat was a source of unease within sections of society.
In 2001, Howard engineered an election win in part by politicising and militarising the issue of asylum-seeker arrivals. Australian paratroopers stormed a Norwegian cargo ship seeking to enter Australian waters, after rescuing 438 asylum-seekers from a stricken vessel in international waters. The Royal Australian Navy was subsequently engaged in operations, towing four vessels back to Indonesia.
Along with commitments to return boatloads of people to their points of departure, Howard excised areas of Australian territory from the country's Migration Act, escaping national commitments as a signatory to the UN's Refugee Convention, by granting temporary visas and processing asylum claims in third countries.
|Demonstrators shout slogans against the government during a rally in support of asylum seekers in central Sydney [Reuters]
A vast detention network sprang up - stretching from Australia's capital cities to its deserts and remote territories, and to south Pacific island nations. Incidents of mental-illness, self-harm and suicide became widespread in some migrant detention facilities.
In a 2008 speech to the Refugee Council of Australia, Chris Evans, then-minister for immigration, distanced the new government from the "excesses of the Howard era" and its "cynical politics of punishing refugees for domestic purposes". Howard's policy set was replaced with Labor's attempt at "fairness and humanity".
In retrospect, such ideals appear a luxury of timing. Evans went on to highlight Labor's reduction in the number of people held in immigration detention - from 449 people to 279. According to the Department of Immigration, as of August 1 this year, more than 13,000 people deemed "unauthorised maritime arrivals" were held in a network of detention facilities across Australia and the South Pacific.
By the time Labor formed government in 2007, boat arrivals had largely ceased to be an issue as boats arrived only in limited numbers. By late September 2009, the front-pages of the nation's newspapers again depicted huddled passengers crammed into often unseaworthy vessels in the waters off Australia's northern coastline.
Arrival numbers in 2012 jumped from nearly 5,000 people, in 2011, to over 17,000. More than 16,000 have arrived so far this year. Tony Burke, appointed immigration minister in July, is Labor's fourth in the portfolio since 2007.
'Break the business model'
Labor has gradually returned most of Howard's policies and with the Papua New Guinea announcement, Rudd, who reclaimed the office of prime minister in June after being ousted in 2009 by his then-deputy Julia Gillard, has sought to out-manoeuvre his political opponents by moving the policy framework beyond their proposals.
"The Australian Government is locked in a race to the bottom with the opposition that is costing this country billions of dollars and severely damaging our international reputation," Australian Greens immigration spokesperson Senator Sarah Hanson-Young told Al Jazeera. "These policies are an attack on Australia's generous heart, but both of the old parties in Australia appear to have decided that there are votes in cruelty."
|Australian immigration minister discusses new policies
Public discourse around the issue is reduced to slogans repeated ad nauseum from opposition leader Tony Abbott's "stop the boats" to Rudd's "breaking the people smuggler's business model".
Abbott, whose Liberal-National coalition has been under fire over its costings, announced on August 16 that asylum-seekers arriving by boat and found to be refugees would be denied permanent settlement and working rights. Those having their asylum claims rejected would receive no right of appeal.
"The essential point is, this is our country and we determine who comes here," he said. This follows Abbott's proposed Operation Sovereign Borders, announced following the PNG deal, which would see a military general co-ordinate operations to combat the departure and arrival of asylum-seeker boats through the Immigration Department.
With weeks left until the September 7 election, both sides seem keen to shift political discourse to other areas of attention.