Australia still dancing to Howard's tune on asylum seekers

Demise of the Malaysia deal offers us a chance to take a different path.

THE most affecting image of the 2001 election campaign was not of the defeated Kim Beazley or the triumphant John Howard. It was of three pretty girls with earnest expressions, sad eyes and ribbons in their hair.

The family snapshot was described in The New York Times's preview of the election that Howard went on to win with an increased majority - a preview that reduced the contest to a single question: which Australian candidate has the harder heart?

Advertisement: Story continues below Beazley was in Brisbane the day news of the SIEV-X tragedy broke. I was in Perth, following Howard in Australia's first khaki election since the Vietnam War. The campaign had just passed the halfway mark and Labor was coming back in the polls, but was still very much the underdog. The Labor leader was wrapping up a morning doorstop when someone asked for his reaction to reports that 535 asylum seekers had drowned. ''I don't have the detail, but it's a major human tragedy if that has occurred, and that is very sad indeed,'' he replied. ''What it points to is the failure of policy.''

The failure, he explained, was the absence of an agreement with Indonesia on how to stop people risking their lives on leaky boats. In a radio interview on the way to the airport, Beazley clarified the remarks, making it clear that he was not holding Howard responsible for the deaths. The ''appalling evil'' of the people smuggling trade was to blame, he said.

When news of the initial comment reached the Howard camp, the PM was enraged. The inference that the government was to blame was a ''desperate'' and ''despicable'' slur, Howard said, one that reflected Beazley's ''opportunist political character''.

An unedifying debate ensued, but the truth of it was that Labor's approach differed little from the Coalition's. Neither side wanted Australia to be seen as a ''soft touch''; neither saw any need to lift Australia's humanitarian intake. Sound familiar?

Most disturbing of all was the plight of the grief-stricken parents of the three little girls. The mother was among 45 survivors to be taken to Jakarta after being rescued; the father was already in Australia, having been deemed a refugee and issued with a temporary protection visa (TPV) after sending months in a remote detention centre.

Because of his temporary status, he would not be allowed to return to Australia if he left the country to console his distraught wife. Immigration minister Philip Ruddock chose not to give him special dispensation and announced that only survivors found to be refugees who had strong family links in Australia would be accepted into this country. Ultimately, just seven met this test.

When, a few days later, Howard launched his campaign for re-election in Sydney - and, to resounding applause, delivered the immortal line that ''we decide who comes into this country and the circumstances in which they come'' - the girls' crying father was among the protesters outside, holding a picture of his daughters.

His wife was eventually able to join her husband on a five-year TPV (both have since been afforded permanent protection), but I am not sure if the couple will be attending any of the events to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the tragedy this weekend.

One thing that might hold them back, says Keysar Trad, who acted as an interpreter for the couple, is the state of the debate 10 years on. ''Refugees feel more unwelcome than ever,'' he remarked yesterday. Another is that the woman is still suffering flashbacks. There are also the questions about how the tragedy came about that remain unanswered.

A year after the tragedy, I interviewed Harry Minas, one of this country's most respected psychiatrists. He was confident that, within just a few years, Australians would be wondering why the very clear advice about the harmful consequences of asylum seeker policies had been ignored. ''I don't think that anybody is going to look back on this as an example of the best that this country is capable of,'' he told me.

''Well, 'a few years' turned out to be wildly optimistic,'' Minas conceded in a recent lecture at Ballarat. ''In 2011, we still have mandatory detention. Both the government and the opposition are committed to third-country processing, with only the choice of venues to be determined.

''Temporary protection visas are gone, but the opposition is committed to bringing them back and, with them, the traumatic uncertainty and family disruption that obtained during the Howard years.

''And so we are led to one conclusion: the damage inflicted in August of 2001 by Coalition opportunism and Labor weakness has yet to run its course.''

So here's the rub. Ten years on, John Howard is still framing the debate, asylum seekers are still being demonised and the sole preoccupation of both major parties is sending messages to the people smugglers.

The demise of the Malaysian people-swap is an opportunity to take a different path, one based on real regional co-operation, a more equitable sharing of the burden, accelerating the shift to accommodating boat arrivals in the community and reasserting the quality that went missing in 2001 - compassion.

Michael Gordon is The Age's national editor.

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