Tony Abbott and asylum seekers: another demonization opportunity

There can be no doubt that Tony Abbott, if he is elected prime minister at the next federal elections will take a hardline, perhaps even extremist approach, to asylum seeks arriving by boat.

Indeed the opposition leader is tackling the issue of boat people in the same way he has gone about dealing with the carbon tax; by demonising the matter.

According to Abbott, asylum seekers arriving by boat (or any means bar holding a visa) are criminals.

Last week he was in conversation with ABC Melbourne 774’s Jon Faine – never one to step back in an argument.

This is the relevant bit in the debate, following Abbott’s conjecture that Nauru was “good policy”

Abbott: We’ve had 22,000 illegal arrivals, almost 400 illegal boats,”

Faine: They are not illegal. Tony Abbott, do I need to remind you that the use of words in this is critical? They are not illegal arrivals. There is nothing illegal about seeking asylum when you are a refugee.

Abbott: Well, I am making my point.

Faine: So am I. And it has been made to you before

Then Abbott tries to change tack and talk about “untold tragedies” and shift the blame to the government’s inability to adopt the Coalition’s policy, which he says they are now finally doing.

(You can listen to the whole interview here)

Let’s be clear – Abbott has certainly made it plain that he equates those that seek asylum by coming to Australia by boat as nothing more than criminals.

Here’s what he said about them in July in an interview on ABC Radio Perth:

“I don’t think it’s a very Christian thing to come in by the back door rather than the front door. And I’m all in favour of Australia having a healthy and compassionate refugee and humanitarian intake program. I think the people we accept should be coming the right way and not the wrong way. If you pay a people-smuggler, if you jump the queue, if you take yourself and your family on a leaky boat, that’s doing the wrong thing, not the right thing, and we shouldn’t encourage it.”

Essentially, this is just a re-hash of John Howard’s fiery assertion in 2001 at the height of his power that: “We will decide who comes here and under what circumstances they do.”

There’s an excellent rebuttal piece to Abbott in The Drum written by Julian Burnside, QC, a barrister and human rights advocate, who makes the point that there is “no queue when you run for your life”.

Burnside goes on to write: “The recent execution of an Afghan woman by the Taliban (another example of a very well-established pattern) gives some idea of why people seek asylum.

“A significant proportion of boat-people in the past 15 years have been Afghan Hazaras fleeing the Taliban.”

He then points out that firstly, the Australian embassy in Kabul is kept secret for security reasons, and then, even if a refugee could find it, (Burnside quotes from the Department of Foreign Affairs website) that the “Australian Embassy in Kabul has no visa function”.

So, there’s no front door for many refugees – only the backdoor (or the illegal route a Abbott prefers to call it)- even if that be on a dangerous, unseaworthy craft – it’s better than torture and persecution.

Burnside also points out, what should be bleeding obvious on both sides of politics, that these are people to whom “we owe a duty of protection according to our own laws, and according to the obligations we voluntarily undertook when we signed the Refugees Convention”.

Burnside also reminds us that Abbott, a well-known Christian who once trained to be a member of the clergy, is vilifying a group of people, many of whom are Muslims.

“It is inconceivable that he failed to notice that some people, hearing his comments about boat-people being “un-Christian”, would have understood him as criticizing boat-people because they are Muslim, not Christian,” says Burnside.

“It is a sad reflection of the depths to which political debate has fallen in this country that an avowed Christian could stoop to such shabby tactic.”

And it’s a sad reflection on our society that opinion polls point to Abbott winning power at the next election.

If they do, we’ll get the government we’ve voted for – conservative to the extreme and hell-bent on turning the clock backwards (even beyond the Howard-era compromise that’s being put in place) on refugees, the environment, labour relations and many other important issues.

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