Turning more and more aggressive on his conservative plank, Tony Abbott, the new conservative leader of Australia, today vowed to send back boats carrying asylum seekers - though he hurried to qualify his statement by saying that such ruthlessness would be displayed only in certain circumstances, not always.
Abbott had toppled a less hot-headed Malcolm Turnbull as leader of the Liberal Party early this month, during the debate on Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's emission trading scheme.
AdvertisementSince defeating the scheme in the parliament and the Copenhagen fiasco, Abbott has been ratcheting up his rhetoric on a range of issues.
The interception of three boats carrying asylum seekers by Australian authorities in as many days has revived the debate on immigration issues in the country. In all, 59 boats were intercepted in the year winding down, the government says.
Abbott says if the Coalition (of Liberals and the National Party) is elected to government, it would maintain offshore processing for asylum seekers, and reintroduce a system of temporary visas.
He says close cooperation with neighbouring countries is also necessary, but he has told Macquarie Radio that turning boats back must be an option in some circumstances.
"It can't be a boat that's going to sink and you've got have the kind of relationship with the source countries that if the boat goes back the people will be accepted," he said.
"It's a question of being an effective government and of being fair dinkum with people, and an Australian Government that doesn't have the option of turning boats back in the right circumstances is a government that is not doing enough," he said.
"It's got to be part of your policy arsenal."
He also accused the Prime Minister of going into hiding since returning from the Climate Change Summit in Copenhagen and challenged him to debate the asylum seeker issue and his emissions trading scheme policy in public.
"He can't explain his emissions trading scheme," he said.
"He can't explain why he has lost control of Australia's borders.
"I think it's high time he came out of hiding."
Prime Minister Rudd has another two years to go to face national elections, though there are some speculations he might order an early poll on the ETS issue.
But after the Copenhagen no-show and the terror attempt by the Nigerian youth in USA, he might think the conservative lobby could be on the comeback trail and hence prefer to play it safe.
By the same token, Abbott is stepping up his attacks. But not everyone shares his enthusiasm.
Former Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser says it would not be appropriate to turn any boats back.
He says to do so would breach Australia's obligations under the refugee convention.
"I think it's a policy out of the past, appropriate to the 1930s, and the idea of turning boat people back out to sea is also a total denial of obligations under the refugee convention," he said.
Minister for Home Affairs Brendan O'Connor says the Government has spent more than $650 million implementing a comprehensive strategy to combat people smuggling.
Surely in these times of economic difficulties, economic migrants would have a tough time of it.
Back in 2001, the then conservative Prime Minister John Howard stubbornly refused to allow 450 refugees to land on Christmas Island, sparking international criticism.
The refugees, mostly from Afghanistan, had earlier been picked up from their sinking boat in the Indian Ocean by the Norwegian freighter, the Tampa.
The Tampa was first alerted by the Australian Coast Guard. After rescuing the refugees just as their boat was breaking up, the Norwegian ship steamed directly to Christmas Island, an Australian dependency far out in the Indian Ocean off Java. The Government refused the refugees permission to land and ordered the Tampa out of Australian waters. The captain declined to leave: pointing out that his vessel was not equipped to carry so many passengers.
Prime Minister Howard responded by sending heavily armed SAS troops to occupy the ship. Eventually, of the 433 asylum seekers on the Tampa, 131 were accepted by New Zealand and 302 sent to Nauru, a small Pacific nation, closely allied to Australia.
Perhaps the greatest blot on refugee history is the saga of St. Louis. Around 900 Jews set sail on that ship from Hamburg in 1939, trying to flee the Fuehrer. But they were refused permission to land anywhere in the Americas. They had to return home in despair - many of them ending up in the Nazi death camps.
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