Paul Toohey, That Sinking Feeling: Asylum Seekers and the Search for the Indonesian Solution (Quarterly Essay Nº 53, 2014)
Possibly the most hope-inspiring thing about this Quarterly Essay is that a journalist who works for the Murdoch empire is writing for a publication whose presiding intellectual presence is one of that empire’s most stringent critics. Perhaps Australia isn’t Echo Chamber Land after all.
Toohey spent time in Indonesia interviewing refugees who planned to travel to Australia with people smugglers. He observed the different attitudes and behaviours of the different groups (Iranians, Afghans, Iraqis, Sri Lankans). He visited the villa of at least one people smuggler, and told a number of people the latest developments in Australia’s policy regarding the boats (this was before last year’s election). He was there at a small coastal town soon after a boat foundered after setting off with a full load of would-be asylum seekers, interviewed the survivors and did what he could (which turned out to be nothing) to help a small orphaned girl. These passages convey a vivid sense of the desperation that leads people to become ‘boat people’, and the tragedy involved in just one of ‘the boats’ going down.
He went to Texas, where he explored the differences between our response asylum seekers and the USA’s to illegal immigrants from Mexico. (The main difference is that the USA knows that the ‘illegals’ who survive serve a useful function in the economy, whereas refugees who arrive in Australia by boat are perceived, absurdly, as a security threat and a potential drain.)
He visited the detention centre on Manus Island after the riot in which Reza Barati was killed, and spoke to some of the locals.
He argues for an ‘Indonesian solution’, that is, cooperation with Indonesia in processing asylum seekers there, which would indeed stop the need for boats. The main obstacle to such a solution is the general misperception of Indonesia in Australia, fostered by the media and pandered to by governments. He doesn’t say in so many words that this misperception is grounded in racism, but that’s how I understand him. He is particularly scathing on Tony Abbott’s mishandling of relationships with Indonesia and his deliberate thwarting of Julia Gillard’s attempts to solve the problem, but equally scathing about all three recent Prime Ministers playing the politics rather than seeking a real solution.
Toohey may be a Murdoch man, but he’s one with mud on his boots. He makes it clear he’s not an ‘asylum-seeker advocate’, a member of the ‘detached elites’; he does some muted ABC-bashing, and he misrepresents the ‘pro-asylum view’ as supporting the ALP, but he has a journalist’s admirable commitment to getting at the truth that puts our political leaders of every stripe to shame. It’s a serious, challenging, grounded contribution to this important debate.
As I finished his essay, I read an article in The Big Smoke, in which by Julian Burnside made a proposal that Toohey would probably see as so much wishful thinking, but looks good to me:
• Boat-arrivals would be detained initially for one month, for preliminary health and security checks, subject to extension if a court was persuaded that a particular individual should be detained longer;
• After initial detention, they would be released into the community, with the right to work, Centrelink and Medicare benefits;
• They would be released into the community on terms calculated to make sure they remained available for the balance of their visa processing;
• During the time their visa applications were being processed, they would be required to live in specified regional cities. Any government benefits they received would thus work for the benefit of the regional economy. There are plenty of towns around the country that would welcome an increase in their population.
Let us make some bold assumptions. Let’s assume that the spike in arrivals that we saw in 2012 became the new norm (highly unlikely); and let’s assume that every asylum seeker remained on Centrelink benefits (also highly unlikely: they are highly motivated). It would cost us about $500 million a year. We would save $4.5 billion a year by treating them decently. And the $500 million would be spent in the struggling economies of regional towns and cities.
I wish I could have some faith that our government, committed as it now is to silence and three word slogans, or the opposition, which shows no sign of diverging, might give serious attention to some of the actual thinking that’s going on.
As always, up the back of this Quarterly Essay there is correspondence about the previous issue. Sometimes the correspondence includes stringent debate. This time, responding to Linda Jaivin’s Found in Translation, it gives a tiny glimpse into the community of translators, the people who struggle valiantly to break down the parochialism of our alarmingly monolingual society.