Safety at Sea: Abbott Supports Turn-Backs That Have Stranded Thousands

Words By: Matt Norman
Image Credit: dw.de

Now, nobody loves a good Abbott-bash more than I do, but I’ve been doing my best to behave. I want to say it’s because I’m striving to be above purely negative politics, and biting my tongue when I don’t have a positive alternative to put forward. Realistically, it’s probably got just as much to do with an internalised hipster instinct – Abbot-bashing is just so mainstream, you know. Regardless, I’ve been good. I’ve kept quiet. But the King of Gaffes has a gift for inspiring uncontrollable outbursts, and a recent Tony-related headline had just that effect on me. When I read Abbott’s comments on the South-East Asian Migrant Crisis, I simply couldn’t resist.

Firstly, some background. You may have heard about something called the South-East Asian Migrant Crisis. If not, quick update: there are up to 8,000 asylum seekers, many of them members of northern Burma’s persecuted Rohingya minority, stranded at sea after being turned away by the governments of Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia. Reports of violence and murder sparked by rapidly diminishing supplies have been given by one boatload of asylum seekers, who were rescued by Indonesian fishermen and taken ashore in Langsa, Indonesia. According to one survivor, “[a] family was beaten to death with wooden planks from the boat; a father, a mother and their son … and then they threw the bodies into the ocean.”

What has this got to do with Tony Abbott? Well, Abbott has taken the opportunity provided by this impending tragedy to reaffirm his tough stance on turning back the boats. “I don’t apologise in any way for the action that Australia has taken to preserve safety at sea by turning boats around where necessary,” he said. “And if other countries choose to do that, frankly that is almost certainly absolutely necessary if the scourge of people smuggling is to be beaten.”

When Abbott focuses on his quest to obliterate the people smuggling industry, his position is actually stronger. Sure, it’s hard-line and cold-hearted as anything, but at least it’s logically consistent; if we can break the business model of the people smugglers, the boats will stop. It’s when he starts talking about “safety at sea” that my left eye begins to develop a violent twitch.

Australia’s turn-back policy has been the recipient of consistent criticism over the many years of its operation, not least because it often puts the asylum seekers involved at serious risk of injury or death at sea. Historically, Australia has been able to get away with its uncompromising policy due to the flexibility of our neighbours – there has always been somewhere else to go. But the current SE Asia Migrant Crisis is bringing to light the disaster that can unfold when that flexibility goes missing.

Current world events are sitting Tony down and showing him what happens when Australia’s South-East Asian neighbours follow our lead: 8,000 people are left stranded at sea. Australia’s turn-backs policy has been taken to its logical and terrifying conclusion.

Abbot has demonstrated his willingness to take a hard-line approach to this policy area, and if our Prime Minister is willing to support our South East Asian neighbours in issuing a warning to people smugglers that might cost 8,000 lives, we have little choice but to take that as a (brutal) captain’s call. But what we can do is to call Abbott out on the audacity of trying to justify his policy with the maxim of “safety at sea”, when that same policy is precisely what has led to the crisis we see before us. Boat turn-backs are right now producing the exact opposite of safety at sea, and it’s incredible that in the face of this international emergency, Abbott can even think to deny it.

Perhaps we ought to cast Tony out to sea on a rickety boat with limited supplies to be refused entry to every country he approaches. If we asked him then how safe he felt at sea, he might see things differently.

(Note from the editor: Malaysia have agreed to grant asylum to 7,000 of the stranded.)