The conservative approach to asylum seekers as I understand it is this: the primary concern in all of this is to protect life. This is a commendable and admirable goal. Towards this goal the Libs’ plan, cooked up with their tinpot general, was evidently to have RAN boats patrolling Indonesia’s search-and-rescue zone for asylum seeker boats, and return their inhabitants to Indonesia before they officially became Australia’s problem in their own zones. They would do this by exploiting international conventions on rescue of boats in distress. On paper, this strategy went some way towards solving the inevitable problem of asylum seeker deaths at sea, or at least made it look more like Indonesia's problem if the deaths happened a few clicks off the coast of Java rather than on the rocks surrounding Christmas Island.
This policy is an embodiment of strong conservative values, and on that score I respect it. Its fundamental origin is not in partisan point scoring, but in the preservation of the lives of the poor bastards hanging for dear life to the rickety scows and fishing dinghies that the smugglers furnish them with. Conservatives are well within their rights to throw their hands up and wonder what to do, because this is their best shot if they are remain pure and true to their beliefs.
Nevertheless, that policy was never going to work long term without an agreement with the Indonesians, and a more realpolitik approach is necessary. Since before the election, Julie Bishop has been engaged in a public spat with Indonesian diplomats whereby Bishop has bunged on the death stare over the Timor Sea, willing the Indons to abrogate their own sovereignty in favour of Australia defending its own. The hoo-hah about a new Konfrontasi, while overblown as was much of Rudd's rhetoric, underlined the division between Abbott's earnest position and the reality of bilateral relations. The Indonesians are not nearly as subservient as the politicians in Papua New Guinea, though, as Bishop and the team are no doubt finding out now in their private talks. The Indons are a formidable international presence, and deserve to be treated with more respect than the current government have accorded them.
I have also been accused of delighting in the prospect of deaths at sea. Admittedly, I am enjoying the exposure of the incompetence of the right to deal with problems when in government, problems that they took every opportunity to score points on when in opposition – turns out government is a lot harder than they pretended. This is not the same as cheering on the problems themselves.
Abbott’s whole schtick on this issue was to turn back the boats. Now it comes out that he has unloaded the last three boats (according to the report in the Jakarta Post, though the exact numbers are under question) and dropped them off on Australian-controlled soil. It was his central election promise, his version of “there will be no carbon tax under a government I lead”. He is currently putting a lie to that promise, as of the last handful of boats. If he doesn’t turn them back, he won’t have changed the policy that was operating (briefly) under Rudd.
Many of the right's talking points under Rudd/Gillard have been exposed as nonsense, or have also befallen Abbott leading to the inescapable conclusion that some aspects of the asylum seeker issue are so difficult as to be beyond partisanship. In particular, if Abbott continues to run a valet service for boats as Rudd and Gillard did, the right can not keep banging on about superior policy with regards to pull factors. For years, Abbott railed against sugar being on the table under Labor like a Pernicious Knid, yet he's now Willy Wonka. Indonesia's vice presidential spokesperson Dewi Fortuna Anwar continues to insist that a people swap deal is on the table, similar to the Malaysian deal which the right condemned as akin to child sex slavery.
Given Scott Morrison's continued silence on every matter including the time of day, the Indons are winning the PR war by leaking out details from the talks that favour their side. They have Abbott over a barrel on this one, and they will not let him escape. Abbott is learning a quick lesson in how hard international relations are with equals. Other people can say “no” to you if you treat them poorly, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Yudhoyono and Natalegawa have treated the new chums like they do on the HMAS Ballarat: by hazing them right up the khyber.
So, what would I have Abbott do? Is there a policy that can satisfy his base, prevent deaths at sea, avoid sending children to refugee camps or barely civilised jungle towns, keep Australia 'fugee-free and give the media something else to talk about? No. Asylum seekers are a part of the international landscape as it has developed over centuries, you can't actually stop those boats unilaterally any more than you can declare an end to wars or abolish child poverty. You might as well ask him to change the weather. Oh, oops!
Update on Operation Valet Service: