Tony Abbott has celebrated 100 days without a boatload of asylum seekers reaching Australian shores, but experts warn the problem of people smuggling has not been solved, and may be about to intensify as the monsoon ends.
On Saturday, Mr Abbott announced that the last successful people smuggling venture was on December 19, but during the same period a year ago, with Labor in power, “66 illegal boats carrying 3,879 people arrived”.
Standing in a front a placard highlighting the 66-0 difference, Mr Abbott said this was “the longest period without a successful venture since before the Howard Government’s strong border protection policies were abandoned by Labor and Kevin Rudd in August 2008”.
“This is not about scoreboards and banners and slogans.” – ALP
He was joined at the press conference by Immigration Minister Scott Morrison who said it was “a good day for all Australians who believed this could be done”.
Mr Morrison also re-issued his warning to people who might be thinking of attempting to reach Australia by boat in the coming months, saying they will find the “same set of policies that stopped all those coming over the last 100 days”.
But Professor Greg Barton at Deakin University, an expert in Australia’s relationship with Indonesia, said it was too early to call the policy a success.
“I don’t think that we can say that this issue has been solved and we can move on. We are going to have to go back and engage with some of the issues which have been brushed aside,” he told The New Daily.
“One thing we do know about a policy like this is that it’s a response to a very complex problem even if it’s wrapped up in very simple slogans.
“A sustainable solution will be a complex, multi-party solution that needs better cooperation with the Indonesian authorities, and in the long-run it needs other south east nations.”
While Mr Abbott baulked at the chance to declare mission accomplished, he said there had been a “dramatic transformation” under the policies of the new government. He refused to detail how many boats had been turned around during the last 100 days.
But Professor Barton said stopping the boats was only one part of a complex policy problem. Solving it would require getting the Australian voter on side and striking agreements with neighbouring countries.
“It’s all very well to save people from the risks of a perilous sea voyage, but if we then leave them essentially in indefinite detention contrary to international agreement and our own undertaking, then that’s a problem.”
He said the “very harsh tactics” had worked up to this point, but “we’ve got to wonder how long the Indonesians are going to be comfortable with them”.
“If we don’t have a solution which involves a real partnering with our south east Asian antionas, then that’s not really a solution either.”
Critics join the debate
Labor, meanwhile, has criticised Mr Abbott for turning the issue of asylum seekers into a “footy match”.
Opposition immigration spokesman Richard Marles said the government should not be claiming victory.
“This is not about scoreboards and banners and slogans.”
And anyway, it was Labor’s tactics that resulted in the win, he said.
The most important step Australia had taken in reducing the loss of life at sea was the regional resettlement arrangement with Papua New Guinea that Labor put in place last year, Mr Marles said.