Gillard can run, but she can't hide from the Nauru backflip
In the aftermath of another tragic loss of life, the Gillard Government has decided that the detention facilities on Nauru could be reopened.
For this to happen, the Government does not need to negotiate with its allies in the Greens or the Coalition. It does not need a deal with anyone. It does not need a deal with Tony Abbott. It should stop talking; it should just do it.
Labor caused the current problems by repudiating every aspect of the Howard government policy.
Labor said that the detention facility on Christmas Island would soon be a white elephant and now they are expanding facilities. They said they disagreed with Nauru, but now they say they are ready to reopen it. They said the increase in arrivals was caused by "push" factors, but now they argue the opposite. Now they say Nauru will not work without Malaysia, but Nauru worked without Malaysia under the Howard government.
At the time of the children overboard controversy, Labor was apoplectic about Coalition policy towards refugees, but Labor's Malaysian deal is tougher on refugees than anything the Coalition ever proposed. Labor was beside itself about the treatment of children but kept many in detention. Left-wingers all round the country berated the Opposition for years on its offshore processing policy, but most have largely fallen silent while Labor has incorporated parts of the Howard government policy into Labor's platform. Labor said Coalition policy was too expensive, but Labor's budget has blown out by $3 billion.
A political backflip is not necessarily a bad thing. It can be the right thing to do. For example, encouraging the US to put marines into Darwin or selling uranium to India. Paul Keating was good at backflips. Bob Menzies was not against pinching a Labor policy if it was a good one. One of the tricks to a well executed backflip is to declare that you are performing a difficult manoeuvre with élan and confidence. There is no point hiding from a backflip.
With the Nauru backflip, Julia would have been better to do it herself and try to turn the politics into a plus. Instead, she thought it was best done when she was on holiday; she might run, but PMs can't hide. She also made a mistake in trying to get Tony Abbott to give her some political coverage. He would not cross the street to help Labor and why should he? In a democracy, the Opposition is entitled to stick to the policy that their supporters voted for in the last election.
The other trick about a good backflip is to execute the flip as if you mean it. This one looks a bit hesitant because Gillard says she is considering Nauru to persuade the Coalition to support the Malaysia project. In effect she says Nauru will not work. So why do it at all?
She is going to a lot of trouble to remove 800 boat people from Australia. We will then take 4,000 refugees from Malaysia.
There is no other plan. There were 892 boat arrivals in November and more than 1,000 this month. The people smugglers could easily send 800 by early 2012. What then? No-one in the Government can say what happens to boat arrival 801.
I speculate that in the pre-Christmas discussions, Scott Morrison asked Minister Bowen to go back to the Malaysians on this point. Obviously if Australia takes five people for every one that we return to Malaysia then the arrangement has limited benefits. Why does Labor want the swap? If the Coalition agree to Malaysia and if Nauru is just a token operation and the boats keep coming, Labor will say that Nauru is a failure. This is already Labor's stated expectation. Maybe they just want to prove it; that was Minister Bowen's reason, as reported by the media, for putting up Nauru to the Cabinet when the High Court knocked out the Malaysia deal. Maybe Labor's hope is that then the Coalition will be compromised in its ability to criticise Government policy on temporary protection visas (TPVs), their policy on turning back boats, overcrowding in detention centres and the myriad of other problems caused by Labor's wrong policy and incompetence.
I remember Bob Hawke as PM tried pulling the usual "sharing the problem with the Opposition" on John Howard. He did not fall for it.
Tony Abbott is far too wily for Ms Gillard.
It is standard practice for the public to denounce both sides as equally useless and "too political", but this attitude should not apply on the asylum seeker issue.
The Coalition cannot be accused of playing politics when it has had a consistent policy on boat people for about 10 years. The Opposition should not be under attack simply because it is not prepared to change its policy. No-one can fairly say that Tony Abbott has been negative on the issue of boat arrivals. He has opposed the Government on its policy, he has enunciated his alternate policy and has been totally vindicated by events.
Labor gave up any pretence of taking the moral high ground on this issue so they should stop talking about how the Opposition needs to demonstrate good faith. Labor's use of the term "good faith" in policies on both workplace relations and boat people is devaluing the normal meaning of "good faith".
If the Government is fair dinkum in wanting offshore processing, they should immediately reopen Nauru, reintroduce temporary protection visas, restart talks on Manus Island, and renegotiate a permanent arrangement with Malaysia without the 5:1 swap limitations, but with fair protections for refugees.
Instead of talking about "good faith", Labor should perhaps show some commitment to fix the problems for which they are responsible, and then they might finally act in "good faith".