WHEN future historians sit down to write our history, they will be puzzled and doubtless dismayed at the increasingly harsh treatment meted out to asylum seekers who fetch up on our shores after enduring hazardous voyages in small boats. Instead of receiving our sympathy and succour, they are thrown behind razor wire for long periods of mind-destroying detention. How did it come to this?
Back in early 1990, when I was writing a history of the Australian Customs Service, I flew along the Kimberley coastline in a small Coastwatch aircraft looking mainly for Indonesian fishermen. There was also the possibility of sighting a refugee boat, following the arrival weeks earlier of such a boat from Cambodia, the first to have come all the way from that war-racked place.
Looking through the Customs records in Broome, I came across the correspondence relating to that first boat, which had brought an extended family of 26 people. They had come ashore and been reported by the local Aboriginal people, who thought the people were Indonesians.
Even when their true origins became known, there was none of the hysterical hullabaloo that now infects the political debate. Instead, matter-of-fact newspaper reports showed pictures of grinning women and children relieved that their month-long journey was over, while headlines noted their ''amazing 5000 km voyage''. In that more innocent age, a Broome tourist operator even offered to house the whole group and employ its adult members.
Such an outcome would have been ideal. The refugees would have had immediate livelihoods, while Broome's labour shortage would have been eased. Alternatively, they could have been taken to a reception centre elsewhere, where their needs could have been assessed and housing and jobs organised. Instead, a posse of immigration officials escorted the refugees into months of detention in Sydney.
The bureaucratic reception was in marked contrast to the humane treatment of other refugee arrivals, whether it was Jews fleeing Hitler, displaced Europeans after the Second World War, Hungarians in 1956, Vietnamese fleeing their homeland or Chinese students seeking refuge after the Tiananmen Square massacre. And it had the unfortunate effect of locking both sides of politics into an approach that would get increasingly harsh as populist politicians and radio shock jocks began to bang away at the drums of fear and suspicion.
To his eternal discredit, John Howard took the drum-banging to new heights over the Tampa, when shipwrecked asylum seekers were met by gun-toting members of the SAS. This extreme response was a chance for then Labor leader Kim Beazley to show his mettle and remind Australians of their humanitarian obligations. But he funked his chance. There was an election in the offing and there was no time for talk of values or principles. Labor has been boxed in by the debate ever since and recently pushed into ever more extreme positions of its own desperate devising.
Now Australians are presented with the bizarre solution of sending 800 asylum seekers into the harsh clutches of the Malaysian government in return for 4000 of their refugees. The best that Tony Abbott can offer in response to this exercise in human trafficking is to suggest reopening the failed Nauru detention centre.
Back in the Howard years, when the Woomera detention centre was a byword for infamy, I suggested that it be kept as a historical monument to remind passing tourists of the moment of madness that had gripped us back then. Perhaps because of my suggestion, when the detention centre was closed, the site was bulldozed. Although there are no reminders at Woomera, every state now has a monument to our continuing madness.
Neither side of politics can take pride in the stands they have taken, the fears they have evoked and the damage they have caused to the most vulnerable of people. There is a solution, but it will take political courage. Political leaders on both sides have to restore decent Australian values and principles to the debate, which demand that people be treated with dignity, respect and humanity. Why should that be so hard, and why have political leaders of the major parties lacked the courage to do so?
Kim Beazley failed to display ticker over the Tampa, choosing short-term political results over long-term reputation, and was punished for being a tin man. Julia Gillard follows that sorry example as she thinks up ever more extreme ''solutions''. Labor has allowed Tony Abbott to portray himself as offering a more humane solution on Nauru than Labor offers in Malaysia or on Manus Island. And so Labor continues to be boxed in by John Howard's cruel political trap.
In the 21 years since that first Cambodian boat, while the politics have become increasingly fraught to the point of obscenity, the practical problem of dealing with asylum seekers has remained just as manageable as it was in 1989. There was no need to use detention centres back then and there is no need now.
Instead of fortified camps for mandatory and indefinite detention, we need reception centres where new arrivals can be briefly housed and processed, before being moved quickly into one of the many Australian communities that would welcome them. We also need a staff of immigration officers in Jakarta to process refugee applications, with preference for family reunion to deter desperate people heading here by boat. It just requires a leader with the courage to reframe the debate in terms of decent principles and values. Only then will the arguments of the fearmongers be neutralised once and for all.
The Age, Melbourne, June 15, 2011