Home > Oz Politics > Is there a solution to the refugee problem?

Is there a solution to the refugee problem?

July 21st, 2013

The announcement by Kevin Rudd and PNG PM O’Neill that asylum seekers arriving by boat would, from now on, be settled in PNG came as a shock to most of us. I’ve waited a while to respond, because I’m neither happy with the policy nor satisfied with the critical responses from the Left. It also remains unclear whether the policy will actually work as planned, but that will take some time to determine.

The benefit of waiting is that I’ve had time to see this piece by Tad Tietze, who I think sums up the issues pretty well, making the point that, while Rudd has outflanked Abbott regarding a hard line on boat arrivals, he has also outflanked critics on the left by increasing the total refugee intake, which is already claimed by the government to be the highest in the developed world on a per capita basis. [1]

Tietze’s proposed solution, an open border policy is appealing in principle, and potentially as a basis for a radical left campaign. Obviously, however, it’s not likely to happen any time soon, and particularly not on the basis of unilateral action by Australia.

Is there any solution that is both politically feasible and humane? The various iterations of Pacific Solution, Malaysian Solution, PNG Solution and so on, based on Australia solving our own problems through our position as regional hegemon, don’t give a lot of hope.

But what about a global solution? According to the UNHCR, there are around 10 million refugees “of concern” at present – this figure doesn’t seem to vary much over time. Suppose there is a net inflow of one million people a year. Then if the world could resettle 2 million people a year, it ought to be possible to substantially reduce the number of people in refugee camps and similar conditions, and the length of time (currently many years) it takes to be resettled. That’s about 0.1 per cent of the population of the OECD, and comparable to the increased Australian intake.

Of course, things aren’t so simple. The decision on whether to flee a dangerous situation, or to stay and hope for the best depends in part on the destination. Only the truly desperate would willingly choose years in a refugee camp, even as an alternative to war and persecution. If the outside option improved, more people would flee such situations. But even this would be an improvement.

The treatment of asylum seekers has shown Australia at our worst, driven by fear and bigotry. But with a serious effort to drive a global response to the problems of refugees, we could go a long way to redeem ourselves.

fn1. The claim is phrased in terms of resettlement, so it presumably excludes countries of first refuge like Pakistan. But, as far as I can tell, it appears to be correct with respect to developed countries. This has been a big change in a relatively short time – older data shows us a long way down the list.

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  1. Fran Barlow
    July 21st, 2013 at 10:41 | #1

    As a matter of generality PrQ your comment is worthy. It seems to me that we ought to drill down a bit to some detail. Here are some ideas.

    There needs to be a strong relationship between the size of the presenting problem (forced human displacement) and the willingness of states to assist. Not all states have the land needed to host new longterm settlements and in some cases the host communities would not be a good fit. Also one needs to take into account the relative wealth of states in determining the burdens.

    Accordingly, matters such as per capita GDP, population, land mass, political feasibility, existing infrastruture quality and scale need to be taken into account in a formula for allocating burdens by size and quality.

    Not every state should contribute equally. Not every state should host. Those that are wealthy in per capita terms should contribute most greatly in financial or direct settlement terms, or in some combination of these two. Australia has a comparatively wealth (in per capita terms) population. Australia accounts for about 5% of world GDP (assuming $1.4/70trillion). OTOH Australia represents only about 0.3% of world population. Taking world refugee numbers at 15m, this would imply taking responsibility for somewhere between 45,000 and 750,000 refugees (not necessarily all on the Australian land mass) and some similarly scaled commitments amongst other jurisdictions purporting to be “concerned”. It will come as no surprise that I see Australia as needing to be much closer to the high side of this framework than the low side.

    There are a number of states that are very wealthy indeed, but have almost no feasible landmass onto which to settle. Luxemburg and Lichtenstein come straight to mind, but Saudi Arabia and the UAE and Japan all come quickly in their wake. Coextensively, we are supposed to have a “Millennium Development” process and few states are honouring their commitments under that. It seems to me that in many cases one could devise non-coercive solutions in which under-capitalised places in the second world or the developing world could have development funds above MDG based on the willingness of communities to be hosts for resettled people. Rather than providing infrastructure merely or mainly for resettled people, the package could ensure that roads, ports, hospitals, schools, housing, water and power infrastructure etc was rolled out for the benefit of the entire community. In places where governance was fairly weak, communities could be supported in developing a certain qualified autonomy within the broader jurisdiction. This would provide a degree of security both to existing communities and those resettled.

    It seems to me that this is the kind of model that might work, not merely for the immediate presenting problem — refugees — but for those displaced or marginalised more generally — which is the antecedent to the conditions that produce displacement.

  2. Jim Rose
    July 21st, 2013 at 10:45 | #2

    It is time that arguments for open borders – repudiating the absolute right of states to control the movement of people (even as they enable the free movement of capital) – were rediscovered as a consistent and, indeed, realistic response. The alternative is to stay trapped in the sadistic bread and circuses exercise that dominates official discussion today, picking at its worst excesses but unable to reverse its awful logic.

    Dr Tad

    I do not think that open borders will win as many votes as Dr. Tad thinks.

    It is good for rallying the young troops around policies that shock the out-group. I wonder if he still supports tariffs on goods imported from developing countries?

    Dr Tad or a fellow travellers should run for parliament on this idea. It is dead easy to get into upper houses in Australia. Even the DLP rose from its ashes to get into the Senate.

    Rudd’s PNG policy aims to stop people entering by dangerous means: leaky boats. stopping leaky boats is a separate issue from the size of the refugee quota, which is generous in size.

    Every country has a limited amount of sympathy for foreigners. As Adam Smith argued long ago, sympathy drops away with social distance.

  3. Ikonoclast
    July 21st, 2013 at 10:48 | #3

    I am conflicted by the refugee question. On the one hand, I want to treat genuine refugees and asylum seekers fairly, humanely and according to UN conventions to which we are a signatory. On the other hand, I recognise the limits to growth. No nation can grow for ever, nor can the world population grow forever. At some time very soon we need to stabilise Australia’s population and world population.

    Thus, a migration policy (immigration, emigration and the net result) cannot stand alone without a population policy. First, we need a population policy with a cap number and a target year for getting to a capped stable population. An open borders policy would be a direct contradiction of this necessary policy. Australia is a dry, barren continent. Our human carrying capacity will not be large, maybe as high as 30 million but maybe as low as 20 million. The latter number would indicate we are already in over-shoot. Ipso facto, an open borders is neither deisrable nor possible. Politically, it would never fly either of course.

    I would suggest that we adopt a migration neutral policy right now. Immigration should only equal emigration. To meet the requirements that refugees be treated fairly, humanely and according to UN conventions, standard voluntary migration should be reduced to allow bona fide refugees into Australia acording to a fair quota system where we take a fair proportion of the world’s refugees. This quota would consider our proportional population size, our poulation capacity and our developed nation status. There should be no discriminatory rules invoked about how they arrive.

    Rudd’s Papua New Guinea solution is bizarre. PNG is a sovereign nation. Were they asked? Did they agree? Are we using our aid monies or lack thereof as bribes or threats respectively? Importing those refugee peoples and cultures into an impoverished PNG with more than enough of its own problems will set up enormous future problems. Cultural conflicts, riots, sectarian and internecine strife all seem more likely than not to flow from such a crazy policy.

    It does seem rather reminiscent of Colonial policies of drawing arbitrary lines on maps and keeping people on one side or other of those arbitrary lines despite local demographics and conditions. It is clearly a colonial policy; using PNG as a colony to dump people we don’t want because of a politicised and irrational debate. Such a policy will cause great strife in the long run.

  4. Ikonoclast
    July 21st, 2013 at 11:01 | #4

    @Fran Barlow

    Land mass is irrelvant if you forget to factor out land mass that is barren. Australia’s non-arid land mass is about the size of France and probably about half as productive.

    Are you proposing “750,000 refugees (not necessarily all on the Australian land mass)”? Meaning are you proposing we take 750,000 refugees annually? And where would some of them go if not on the Australian land mass and how would be “taking” them in this case?

    Australia currently has 190,000 migration places available. I am not if refugee allocation is in addition to that. So, you are proposing an increase from 190,000 per annum to 750,000 per annum? You did say you favoured the high end.

    Do you think limits to growth are real or that populations can keep growing indefinitely in a finite space on finite resources (stocks and flows)? Do you think Australia need a population policy first so that we can logically frame an immigration and refugee policy? Or do you think we can bring in 750,000 people a year without regard for the environment and sustainable human carrying capacity? Just asking, because such a policy seems both highly idealistic and highly unrealistic.

  5. Mork
    July 21st, 2013 at 11:06 | #5


    I think you’re missing the point. The policy is predicated on the assumption that there will never be any significant number of refugees resettled in PNG because the prospect is so appalling that people smugglers will have no customers.

    And yes, PNG signed up for this (bribed, of course, but still…).

  6. July 21st, 2013 at 11:07 | #6

    To my mind the point I’m about to make seems a bit trite, but given what I see on the front page of newspapers at the supermarket I guess I can’t escape the conclusion that there are a great many people who have missed the connection: If Australia had talked the US out of invading Iraq instead of saying, “Yeah, sure, we’ll go along with that. What could possibly go wrong?” then the refugee problem would not be as large. If in the future we could at a minimum try not to directly contribute to creating refugees and even attempt to ameliorate refugee creating problems, then that would be a good start.

  7. Fran Barlow
    July 21st, 2013 at 11:36 | #7


    Meaning are you proposing we take 750,000 refugees annually?

    Firstly, I’m not saying that should be the figure. I’d like a non-arbitrary formula, and that formula should take into account the quality as well as the extent of the landmass, at least in terms of hosting. In practice, Australia, due to its relatively small population in world terms would probably, on a fair formula, host/take responsibility for something like 450-500,000 refugees.

    As there are not 15 million new refugees every year, we wouldn’t be taking that figure every year, and very probably, due to the need to provide the infrastructure for resettlement (here or somewhere else) we probably wouldn’t host/take responsibility for anything like that figure in any year. We might well take on something like 100,000 in any year, as I said, not all of them here. Obviously, those stats that were actively participating in orderly resettlement would have that number set off in their global commitment when calculations were done.

  8. Fran Barlow
    July 21st, 2013 at 11:37 | #8


    True, but what’s your point. Carr all but said that openly this morning.

  9. Fran Barlow
    July 21st, 2013 at 11:49 | #9

    Oops … in another place someone has drawn my attention to the fact that 1.4t/70t is 2% not 5% … ergo, not 750,000 places but about 300,000 places … I shouldn’t have stayed up for the cricket, obviously.

    Anyway, my maths failure notwithstanding, the principle sounds robust to me.

  10. Ikonoclast
    July 21st, 2013 at 12:35 | #10

    What about a population policy? Human carrying capacity of Australia? Sustainability? Would you consider those issues? It’s no good saying you will take the whole team to soccer if your car only carries 5 people (legally / sustainably).

  11. Ken_L
    July 21st, 2013 at 13:08 | #11

    I can’t help wondering what kind of facilities for housing refugees we might have built near Perth for the enormous costs we have incurred building infrastructure in other countries, Christmas Island and remote locations on the mainland. Would it really act as such an incentive to would-be asylum-seekers if they knew they were going to be housed for an indefinite period in a camp on the mainland? It would at least allow for an orderly processing of applications for asylum coupled with compassionate, civilised treatment of fellow human beings.

    I guess Labor lost the opportunity for such a sensible solution back in 2001 when they panicked over Howard’s ‘We will decide” ranting.

  12. Angus Cameron
    July 21st, 2013 at 13:11 | #12

    I’m no fan of Rudd and won’t vote to keep him in his job but I find a lot of merit in his PNG gambit even if it has to be abandoned wholly or in part after, e.g. serious problems of violence against the asylum seekers in PNG.

    It should do a great job of sorting out the genuine refugee from the merely economic migrants and also make the genuine refugees much more willing to avoid people smugglers’ boats. The flow on effects on Indonesia and its policies and performance will also be interesting and, at worst, offer opportunities for dealing.

    The increase (is it on top of the promised increase to 20,000 already announced?) in refugee intake is fine just as long as we no longer idiotically farm the job of selection out to UN jobsworths but make sure that, out of the many millions who qualify, we select those who are most likely to become consistent English speaking Australian taxpayers and produce families of the same without having to spend fortunes and deploy our very limited skills in bringing pre-modern people into the modern mainstream. (Check question: anyone think we have lots of great policy makers, teachers and social workers who have proved that they know how to help Aborigines?). With the money saved we could then help some of the remaining millions in the countries of first refuge with health and education more than incidentally creating local jobs at wages that get a lot more done for a dollar than in Australia.

  13. Ron E Joggles
    July 21st, 2013 at 13:31 | #13

    It is all too easy to condemn Rudd’s initiative, and propose instead a superficially ethical refugee policy more welcoming to the clients of the people smuggling criminals, when you know damn well that no Australian government will ever introduce it.

    We don’t have a choice about this. Living standards and security are only going to get dramatically worse in all those densely populated countries to our north-west. A boat-arrival-tolerant policy can only result in significantly increasing numbers undertaking the risky voyage, therefore we have to find a way to stop the cynical people-smuggling trade.

    It is also all too easy to dismiss those many Australians who want the trade stopped as ignorant and xenophobic – many such people are primarily concerned about the weekly deaths at sea, about the tacit approval of the criminal activity, and about the plight of those equally deserving families who can’t pay the people smugglers.

  14. Doug
    July 21st, 2013 at 13:31 | #14

    This is really a neo-colonialist effort by Australia that shows no regard for PNG, its development challenges, existing West Papuan refugees.

    to the extent that it reduces the flow of boats it simply backloads the problem on to Indonesia. Any substantial handling of the reality of asylum seekers is going to require a coordinated regional engagement with Indonesia and Malaysia.

    To the extent that there is an issue with economic migrants it shows up in the flow of people arriving in Australia by air. The refugee assessment process in Australia handles this pretty well. Around 50% of those arriving by air have their claims rejected.

  15. July 21st, 2013 at 13:50 | #15

    While I mentioned earlier that participating in land wars in Asia may not be a great idea if one does not want to increase the number of refugees in the world, I feel I should also point out that failing to take adequate action on reducing greenhouse gas emissions has the potential to result in a vastly greater numbers of refugees. The opposition’s current determination to do as little as possible about climate change indicates they don’t seem to care about the potential for huge increases in refugee numbers in the future. Labor’s failure to push for greater emission cuts suggest they aren’t too worried about increases in the number of refugees in the future either, but are at least ahead on the opposition in this regard.

  16. Troy Prideaux
    July 21st, 2013 at 14:27 | #16

    From a purely electoral perspective:
    Unfortunately the Greens have made a costly decision here – it was an unenviable decision to be made; they were backed into a very dark and scary corner and the result is likely to be substantial electoral losses for them – alas this has the potential of being a perfect electoral storm.
    The numbers of boat arrivals clearly indicate the Pacific Solution worked – with all its inhumane and unfair measures – it (for all intents and purposes) stopped the boats. The numbers illustrate that unambiguously. Likewise, the Rudd policies of ditching the Pacific Solution are illustrated within the numbers of boat arrivals to be a monumental blunder of policy – a blunder that has cost many orders of magnitude more lives than the home insulation fiasco.
    Much of the mainstream print media have enthusiastically illustrated these numbers with easily comprehensible graphical plots and whatnot, happily dedicating pages to convey these messages and will likely continue to do so.
    What’s more, certain key ministers from the Government have (rightly or wrongly) further nudged the focus of the debate further to the right by claiming that a vast percentage of the recent arrivals are “economic migrants”. If these claims can be substantiated (and I’m not sure they can be), then I’m afraid the “conviction politics” of the Greens that has held them in good electoral standing over the recent decade, might come back to bite them hard.
    If you’re willing to publicly grandstand on any highly controversial issue – especially if it’s against a conservative constituency – you don’t just need to be on the right moral or humanitarian side of the debate, you also need either science or numbers to be on your side too. In the case of Climate Change, the science was clearly on the side of the left, but alas, with regards to boat arrivals, the numbers are unambiguously on the side of the conservatives.
    Rudd lost so much electoral credibility with Labor’s handling of boat arrivals, that he needed to one-up Abbott in a substantial swing to the right. The electorate is already sick and tired of hearing the same old: “well, you know what, these are complex issues that can’t be solved overnight or with 3 word slogans”. The electorate understands that this is an emergency that appears to be worsening on an *exponential* scale! Again, the numbers of boat arrivals clearly illustrate this.
    I truly hope the Greens don’t suffer the electoral backlash that could be coming, but it’s not looking promising.

  17. TerjeP
    July 21st, 2013 at 14:34 | #17

    Three policy positions that I support.

    1. Abolish the minimum wage.
    2. Abolish unemployment benefits.
    3. Implement an open border policy.

    In each case I’ll only support the policy if every policy higher up the list has been implemented first. So in order for me to support an open border policy we would first have to legalise low skill work by abolishing the minimum wage and then eliminate sit down money as an alternative to low wage work. And before I’d support abolition of unemployment benefits we would have to scrap the minimum wage.

    There is some wriggle room however. For instance we could draw a sharper distinction between residency and citizenship and then reserve wage regulation and unemployment benefits for citizens. This would entail a far longer waiting period for residents before they can become citizens. Maybe 20 years or so. We want people coming to Australia because it represents an opportunity to prosper through work, not because it represents an opportunity to prosper through handouts.

  18. Mel
    July 21st, 2013 at 14:36 | #18

    I’m disappointed by the standard of PrQ’s thinking here, something that has only happened two or three times before since 2006, when I first begun reading this blog.

    First, the number of refugees worldwide:

    The annual ‘Global Trends’ report shows that as of the end of 2012, more than 45.2m people were forcibly displaced compared with 42.5m at the end of 2011.

    The same article says UNHCR identifies 35.8 milion people “of concern”, these being refugees, asylum-seekers,returnees, stateless persons and certain groups of internally displaced persons .

    It isn’t possible to relocate this many people and any genuine attempt to do so would create the conditions that would balloon the current number of “of concern” persons out to huge proportions. It should surprise no-one if most of the population of the developing world suddenly did whatever is necessary to get on UNHCR’s list. This could include any Hindu in India who isn’t from the dominant caste and anyone in China with a political objection to the rule of the Chinese Communist Party.

    I would gouge out my own eyeball with a fork if less than one billion people made every effort to get on UNHCR’s list if they seriously thought they could get a Green Card or citizenship in any other developed country.

    An open borders policy may appeal to some on the extreme left but it is politically impossible. Incidentally, the very same idea is kicked around by anarcho-capitalists and other fringe right wing groups who want to emasculate the state. It isn’t hard to see why:

    – the trust that social democracy relies upon would be smashed
    – the welfare state would be abolished
    – unskilled worker wages would fall to developing country levels
    – wealth and property ownership would become concentrated to the extent it is in some Central and South American jurisdictions, and
    – trashing of the environment.

    In truth there is no external solution to the refugee problem which is in itself only a part of a much larger problem- the miserable state of existence that exists for most folk outside the developed world (and whatever elite and middle class exists elsewhere). Folk in such circumstances will simply need to go through the same painful journey as our European forebears in order to find peace and prosperity and this will undoubtedly, at best, take several generations.

    Also, as Mirko Bagaric suggests, why should we be privileging relatively wealthy asylum seekers over hungry and malnutritioned people based on nothing more than an outdated convention that wasn’t written for current day circumstances?

  19. Troy Prideaux
    July 21st, 2013 at 14:44 | #19

    Doug :
    This is really a neo-colonialist effort by Australia that shows no regard for PNG, its development challenges, existing West Papuan refugees.

    Aparantly (according to Tony Burke as of this morning) it was PNG PM Peter O’Neil that approached Kevin Rudd suggesting such an arrangement.

  20. iain
    July 21st, 2013 at 15:06 | #20

    Every person that supported the illegal invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, should be forced to house and feed refugees from these countries, for as long as the boats come. The allocation of these refugees should be prioritised to those who had most influence over the invasions

  21. Di Pearton
    July 21st, 2013 at 15:20 | #21

    I’m with Iconoclast. Why is it that we do not understand that the paddock has a holding capacity?? We desperately need a population policy in Australia, and while we are thinking globally, until there is planet B, we need a global population policy. It is not good enough to continue to produce children without responsibility.

  22. Troy Prideaux
    July 21st, 2013 at 15:30 | #22

    Di Pearton :
    I’m with Iconoclast. Why is it that we do not understand that the paddock has a holding capacity?? We desperately need a population policy in Australia, and while we are thinking globally, until there is planet B, we need a global population policy. It is not good enough to continue to produce children without responsibility.


  23. Ken_L
    July 21st, 2013 at 16:18 | #23

    People demanding that some other issue be resolved before they can say anything constructive about refugees have contributed to the problems that have led up to the current situation, IMHO. There isn’t going to be a national population policy anytime soon, let alone a global one, but the boats are not going to paddle around in the Indian Ocean while we all talk about something else for a few years. Refusing to accept refugees until something else happens is tantamount to supporting Abbott’s ‘turn back the boats’ position and people should be honest enough to say so.

    Does the left’s professed concern with inequality extend to refugees, especially those from countries which Australia has made its own modest contribution to destabilising? Or is the concern strictly ‘locals only’? Is the true position that people on the left will do anything to help those less fortunate than themselves, as long as it doesn’t involve any diminution of the high living standards they currently enjoy?

    There are economic and environmental factors that need to be included in any discussion of refugees, but the over-riding frame ought to be one of ethics and morality. Labor’s refusal to develop an ethics-based policy, its craven electoral opportunism from 2001 to the present day, is symptomatic of the broader cancer of amorality that has destroyed the Party. I really wish the Libs would replace Abbott with Turnbull; then I would welcome a Coalition government as a necessary step in the demise of the ALP and the emergence of a new socially progressive political coalition in this country.

  24. July 21st, 2013 at 16:36 | #24

    December 8 2007, JQ:

    Without a great deal of fanfare, the new government has ended the shameful “Pacific solution” under which refugees were held in offshore camps, located on the territory of neighbouring countries which the Australian government bullied and bribed into hosting them. Most of the refugees held at the Nauru camp have been allowed to settle in Australia.

    Defenders of the Howard government can make whatever claims they like about this evil system, whether to say that it was justified by results or to claim that Labor’s policy isn’t really all that different. The fact remains that this was a cruel and brutal response to community panic; panic the government itself did a great deal to stir up, and even more to exploit politically. Those responsible, most notably Howard himself and Phillip Ruddock, will carry the stain of the Pacific solution to their graves and beyond.

    And Rudd et al will similarly carry the stain of the PNG Final Solution to their graves and – if they are right about post life existence – beyond.

  25. Ikonoclast
    July 21st, 2013 at 16:51 | #25


    Sorry Ken, I don’t agree with your characterisation of the problem. It is entirely consistent, moral and realistic to say as I have that;

    (1) Australia needs a population policy;
    (2) Australia should not dump its refugee problem on PNG;
    (3) Australia should determine, within its capacity as per point 1 and following UN agreements to which it is a signatory, what its refugee policy is;
    (4) If we are at or approaching our sustainable population capacity then our voluntary accepted immigrant quota should be reduced by the total refugees we take in.

    Our immigration, emigration and refugee combined outcome should be population neutral. Then we only have to get natural increase down slightly to par.

    It may give one a warm moral feeling to say we should take in endless streams of people but it simply is not realistic. We have both an absorption rate capacity and a final sustainable capacity or cap. To formulate policy otherwise is totally unrealistic, would be the height of irresponsibility and would create in the long term more total suffering not less.

    The above shows very simply that we can take all genuine refugees by UN definition and to a reasonable quota for Australia, whilst having a population policy and a population ceiling in mind. It ticks all the boxes. It is resource realistic, politically realistic and morally reasonable in an imperfect world.

    Finally, if people want a reality check about the coming refugee crisis, there will be hundreds of millions of refugees with a decade or two due to climate change, resource depletion and all the attendent social problems and conflicts. Round about that time all remaining integral states will close their borders completely. So people should stop kidding themselves this is going to be a nice, polite problem.

  26. Ken_L
    July 21st, 2013 at 17:08 | #26

    Sorry Ikonoclast but to base an argument on the the premise that there are only two alternatives, [insert preferred response to refugee issue] or ‘take in endless streams of people’ is false dichotomy argumentation of the most egregious kind, indistinguishable from the false choices put forward by the turn back the boats brigade. And of course you neatly avoid addressing the actual problem, which is the way in which asylum-seekers should be dealt with while people discuss what the population policy should be for two or six or 15 years.

    Anyway I’m done arguing about it, it’s clear that the majority of Australians have no interest in considering the refugee issue as an ethical one.

  27. Ikonoclast
    July 21st, 2013 at 17:18 | #27


    Hmm funny, I am usually the one around here accused of being on a moral high horse.

    Did I not say “If we are at or approaching our sustainable population capacity then our voluntary accepted immigrant quota should be reduced by the total refugees we take in.”

    This indicates that we should right now take all bona fide refugees as per the UN conventions and our obligations under them. We could do this right now without presupposing the results of determining our population capacity. We could simply keep the effect on current immigration, immigration neutral until such time as we hammer out a population policy. You heard what you wanted to hear, not what I said. This allowed you to enjoy a gallop on your moral high horse.

  28. Mel
    July 21st, 2013 at 17:26 | #28

    Wow. Thanks for that Megan.

    Those responsible, most notably Howard himself and Phillip Ruddock, will carry the stain of the Pacific solution to their graves and beyond.

    And those on the Left who welcomed Rudd et al’s decision to drop the Pacific Solution must carry the stain of their contribution to the subsequent 1,000 deaths at sea to their graves and beyond.

    PrQ, don’t you think you should fess up and admit this is your very own Bolt, ten years on moment?

    Sorry if that sounds snarky but it was always bleedingly obvious that ending the Pacific Solution was going result in, at best, hundreds of corpses. You must have known this would happen.

    The funny thing is that the silent majority of moderate lefties (at least in my experience) know this, but many of the smart, more vocal and radical lefties prefer to engage in magical thinking.

  29. TerjeP
    July 21st, 2013 at 17:47 | #29

    Is the true position that people on the left will do anything to help those less fortunate than themselves, as long as it doesn’t involve any diminution of the high living standards they currently enjoy?

    Ken – usually they vote for government to help the less fortunate using taxpayers money. Which is vastly different from “will do anything to help”. I don’t see much evidence that people of the left are in reality any more than average in their generosity towards unfortunate people.

  30. John Quiggin
    July 21st, 2013 at 17:57 | #30

    @Mel & Megan You seem to be claiming inconsistency, but from opposite directions. As I said in the OP, I don’t find the government’s use of its role as regional hegemon any more appealing than in the past.

    On the other hand,the fact that the total refugee intake has been greatly expanded under Labor, and is to be expanded even further, makes a fundamental difference to my evaluation of the policy as a whole.

    To Mel in particular, the SIEV X disaster occurred under Howard, and most of the recent disasters have occurred under an offshore detention system similar in most respects to the Pacific solution. If Rudd’s policy works (still unclear) it will be because it involves resettlement rather than lengthy detention, used as a punishment/deterrent.

  31. Mel
    July 21st, 2013 at 18:03 | #31

    Wow again.

    I’ve just read the whole of that 2007 thread Megan cites above and two people, Chris Loyd and Harry Clarke, stand out for their moral decency and perspicacity. The rest are RWDBs or vacuous hardline Leftists celebrating a dumb decision that would kill people. Harry Clarke in reply to PrQ’s moral posturing:

    This isn’t a fact. Its a viewpoint.

    The Coalition admitted more refugees (around 12,000 per year) than the previous Hawke/Keating governments. It wasn’t a response to ‘community panic’ but to stop a potential flood of queue jumpers.

    Yes it did work and that’s why it looks like a soft option for the new PM to abolish it. He does not now have much of a problem to address – but give it a few years.

    Take a bow, Harry.

  32. July 21st, 2013 at 18:07 | #32

    It’s one thing to acknowledge that “the paddock has a holding capacity”—and entirely another to assert that it is already full.

    Look, Malthus was worried about population growth in the 18th century. Do you really think we would be better off today if everyone had agreed to put the Industrial Revolution on hold until they figured out whether or not the planet was already full?

    A couple of hundred years have passed, and the sky still hasn’t fallen in yet. We can’t ignore every other problem in the world because we’re worried that this could be the year.

  33. July 21st, 2013 at 18:14 | #33

    Carrying capacity of the Australian continent? *Scratches head* Not sure what that means with regard to human beings, but I suppose we could find a minimum number by looking for another chunk of clapped out ancient continent in a warm part of the world that doesn’t get too much rainfall. I guess the best example would be India which happens to be part of the same clapped out craton as Australia is and as luck would have it is jammed into a roughly similar latitude as the top half of Australia but in the Northern hemisphere. India has a higher average rainfall but is less than half the size of Australia. Its example suggests Australia could support at least its population of 1.2 billion. But it probably makes no sense to consider Australia’s carrying capacity in isolation as we are all dependant upon the state of the atmosphere which is no respecter of national boundries. Rather than ask what is Australia’s carrying capacity, which is not a very clear question, it may make more sense to consider if the planet as a whole is becoming less capable of supporting human life as we know it. The answer is yes and we should do something about that. Not that there aren’t people doing something about it, but we should do much more than we currently are on account of how even having the complete collection of Justin Bieber toothbrushes doesn’t compare well with having a stable climate.

  34. hc
    July 21st, 2013 at 18:16 | #34

    Thanks Mel.

    I still find John amazing in suggesting “open borders” is attractive. It will never happen and should not happen even if TerjeP’s conditions for not encouraging adverse selection (no minimum wage, no unemployment benefits) are implemented.

    Australia is an autonomous nation state and has an interest in determining its population with regard to its own interests. End of story.

    The current draconian policy by Rudd is a product of Labor Party policy failure on this issue. This failure was fostered by phoney humanitarian concerns that had left 1,000 dead and a necessarily worse policy than ever prevailed under John Howard.

  35. Mel
    July 21st, 2013 at 18:28 | #35

    To Mel in particular, the SIEV X disaster occurred under Howard, and most of the recent disasters have occurred under an offshore detention system similar in most respects to the Pacific solution.

    Nope, that isn’t the point. The Pacific Solution was implemented only weeks before SIEV X. It is doubtful that persons on that boat were aware of the policy change.

    The ALP belatedly changed to a harsher policy setting when the boats started returning and people started dieing but they failed to get the message across to prospective asylum seekers. I’ve linked numerous times to an SBS Dateline story that involves interviews with failed Tamil asylum seekers who thought the Oz government would help them with a home, a job and a money. At the same time the Dateline report noted Oz Tourism running ads on Sri Lankan telly showing Oz as an earthly paradise while no noticeable campaign was being run to highlight the realities of mandatory detention.

    What is needed is a harsh deterrent and a media blitz in the appropriate countries. AIUI, Rudd now plans to do both.

  36. Will
    July 21st, 2013 at 18:29 | #36

    And yet another reminder as to why I despise the libertarian cult ideology. While the left are generally in favour of social solutions that can be inefficient and half-hearted , the right wing are willing to starve millions to death in the name of the “free market”. I can’t figure out if they are sociopaths or just plain stupid + greedy. They can take their rotten social darwinism (which historically has had a truly stellar track record, end snark) and cram it.

  37. July 21st, 2013 at 18:39 | #37

    @John Quiggin

    No,I wouldn’t say I was going for an inconsistency – at least not a JQ inconsistency.

    I was more highlighting similarities between the two “Solutions” using a critique of the former as a template:

    “neighbouring countries which the Australian government bullied and bribed” – tick (unless you believe Bourke’s claim this was all the PNG PM’s idea!)

    “this evil system” – tick

    “this was [is] a cruel and brutal response to community panic; panic the government [and opposition and establishment media] itself did a great deal to stir up, and even more to exploit politically.” – tick

    I was using the 2007 post not as a ‘Gotcha’ but in an attempt to hopefully make others who desperately want to wish this thing that quacks and waddles is not in fact, a duck.

    I’ve always found blind party loyalty (both ALP and LNP) hard to understand. It’s strange to be labelled an absolutist by people for agreeing with a position they held until recently, and will probably hold again shortly.

  38. Ikonoclast
    July 21st, 2013 at 19:12 | #38

    @Ronald Brak

    The geography, soils and rainfall regimes of the two “craton twins” are very different. Let us look at the geography first.

    Australia abuts no other plate or land mass and has no crustal upthrust zone. The India plate is moving north and colliding with the Asian Plate. This has created and is creating the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau. The existence of these high mountain ranges (to which Australia has nothing even remotely comparable) radically transforms and the rainfall regime, rain volumes, snowfall volumes, snowfed river volumes, erosion, siltation and the creation of fertile plains, large rivers and vast deltas. This is the real reason for the huge carrying capacity of northern India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The Indian continent is a profoundly different place geograhpically and ecologically to Australia.

    The soils of this area were created by these conditions. This is unlike Australi where there ha sbeen no large upthrust, followed by epochs of erosion, to produce high rains, snowfed rivers and great plains of silt.Then the are the Western Ghats in western India.


    There is absolutely no comparison to arid Australia. The proportion of Australia with passable rainfall is about the size of France. Due to poorer soils and higher unrealiability of rain patterns a rule of thumb would be that that portion would be about half as productive of France. This would suggest a capacity of about 33 million for Australia as a maximum. Given that many other resources are running out both globally and locally, why push it? I would hope we would stabilise at 25 million tops.

    The population of the Sahara is 2.5 million people in 3.5 million square miles. The enormous arid interior of Australia is in many ways comparable to the Sahara in terms of human carrying capacity. An Australia with a population of 1.2 billion is highly improbable.

  39. July 21st, 2013 at 19:18 | #39

    I’ve pointed this out before, but the “solution” depends in part on how you define the “refugee problem”.

    If it’s death at sea: Easy, go and get them. Fraser did it. No ‘smugglers’, no ‘business model’.

    If it’s the fact there are so many: Easy. Stop initiating, promoting, funding man-made death and destruction (the causes of human displacement and misery are overwhelmingly within the control of the “West” and especially the US, its ideology, its economic and foreign policies).

    On the other hand, if the “problem” is simply I don’t want “them” here then brutality, violence, fences, force and so on are the obvious “solution”.

  40. kevin1
    July 21st, 2013 at 19:49 | #40

    @Ikonoclast #27
    Ikonoklast, Ken L is right, you want to freeze net immigration until we have a “population policy”, combining the immigration program of family re-union, labour needs, etc. with asylum seekers as one one big fungible bunch of human beings. That’s a flaw to start with, but effectively changing current policy before the research in order to “stop the boats (net)”, is based on a panic that Armageddon is closer than we think.

    I know you’re inclined that way, but after reading your prediction of the coming refugee crisis in a decade or two, with hundreds of millions on the move, and all states shutting up shop, I just had a quick look at WB stats. They show that Australian population annual % growth rates were often above 2 from 1960-1975, and since then has always been below 2, in 2011 being 1.17%. According to McCrindle Research, “Australia’s population reached 11 million in 1963 and it took 46 years to double it to 22 million. If the current population growth rate was maintained then the population would double again within 46 years.” Are people aware of the ABS stat that 41% of our current population were born outside Australia, or have at least one parent who was.

    I’m not trying to say this is a definitive comment on the stats, but I think we can calm down a bit. I am surprised that population policy so quickly has come to dominate this discussion, and it’s neo-Malthusian implication.

    NOTE I’m not commenting on the “open the borders” idea here.

  41. crocodile
    July 21st, 2013 at 19:53 | #41

    Refugee numbers are up by 15 million around the world since 2007. It’s hard to swallow that undoing parts of the pacific solution is the sole or even greatest contributor to the deaths at sea based on the massive increase in their numbers. With daily chants of “Stop the boats”, Rudd really has little in the way of options open to him.

  42. kevin1
    July 21st, 2013 at 20:02 | #42

    Does anyone else find it passing strange that the number of boat people of Indonesian descent is so small, despite the 250 mill population and large numbers of poor people? Does this put any dent in the imagery of the Asian hordes busting to get to the promised land down south?

    While living there for a couple of years, I found lots of interest and Hollywood-generated perceptions of our lifestyle, but they are so attached to their culture – food, family, religion etc. – that the idea of giving that up to come to Australia was offputting for most. The Lowy Institute does regular polling of their attitudes and the 2012 poll (available on their website) said “Indonesians have high levels of economic optimism, see their country heading in the right direction, view globalisation as a positive force and are extraordinarily welcoming of sovereign foreign investment.”

  43. Luke Elford
    July 21st, 2013 at 20:41 | #43

    Professor Quiggin, the resettlement statistic is a bit misleading, since it refers only to refugees processed in another country who are allowed to resettle in Australia. It’s not a measure of total refugee intake, because it doesn’t include on-shore asylum seekers granted protection.

    It’s true that Australia now has the highest per capita resettlement program, a little ahead of Canada. But Australia isn’t even close to having the highest total refugee intake per capita amongst developed countries. Even if the new 12,500 resettlement quota[1] applied to all of 2012 (it didn’t; it applied to the fiscal year 2012-2013[2], with a quota of about half that number in 2011-2012), Sweden would still have had 1.8 times Australia’s total refugee intake per capita, and Norway over 1.4 times Australia’s number.

    Of course, Australia’s per-capita intake last year was much larger than in Germany, France and the UK. On the other hand, the recentness of this trend is reflected in the number of refugees hosted by each country, rather than the extra intake. As of 2012, Germany had 5.6 times the number of refugees per capita that Australia had, France 2.6 times and the UK 1.8 times [3].

    [1] Note that this is the refugee resettlement component of the humanitarian program.
    [2] My understanding is that it’s essentially unchanged in 2013-2014. And of course, there hasn’t been and can’t be a quota for on-shore arrivals.
    [3] Having trawled the UNHCR website for all of this stuff, I now see that the Refugee Council compares Australia with other countries on the basis of actual resettlement in 2012 here: http://www.refugeecouncil.org.au/n/mr/130719_GlobalStats.pdf.

  44. John Quiggin
    July 21st, 2013 at 20:56 | #44

    @Luke Elford

    These statistics usually are misleading, and chosen to put the best light on the case the speaker is making. Still, it would appear that if Rudd delivers the foreshadowed increase in the quota, we will be at or above the level for Norway, and close to Sweden.

    As you say, this is a recent development, but that’s precisely why the present policy can’t be assessed in the same terms as those of the past, despite sharing some of their ugly features.

  45. Andrew
    July 21st, 2013 at 21:48 | #45

    Obviously we do not make asylum seeker policy in any attempt to reduce harm or to promote fairness or save lives or any other such worthy objective noted here. We make asylum seeker policy to win votes and for no other reason (and/or out of institutional path dependence, probably more of the latter nowadays). Actual reason has absolutely no influence at all.

    With respect, I think you’re being a bit meta, Doctor Quiggin. The immediate issue (and, in my opinion, the substantial one) is how we treat refugees who manage to get here. Do we abuse the hell out of them? That’s what the ALP and LNP have supported for decades, justified firstly on racist grounds and now on the basis of crocodile tears. If we’re remotely serious about treating these people in appropriate fashion, we would instantly institute the same system every other country in the world worth being in a list with has: temporary, legally limited detention onshore to determine identity, criminality and disease followed by processing in the community. This is also the policy we had until the early 90s.

    If we’re concerned about the people who have NOT made it here, we can also do something about that. If we legalise “people smuggling” that would clear up most of the danger. The largest problem with search and rescue operations, the reason they often take days to find people, is because these boats are not openly announced in advance. Because it’s illegal to do so. Change that and you make the situation much better. If we want to make it even safer, we could possibly invest in some higher quality boats and hand them out at a cut-price rate. The sea may be an inherently dangerous place, but it’s not like we try to deter cruise line voyages, do we?

    Obviously, deterrence is totally ineffective since asylum seekers consistently know nothing at all about Australia before they get here. How can people be deterred by a policy they don’t know about? Also, to be effective, a deterrence has to be worse than the the norm. Are we really going to abuse completely innocent people worse than the Taliban?

  46. sunshine
    July 21st, 2013 at 21:54 | #46

    I dont recall John Howard being worried about drownings and the ‘illegal’ trade of people smuggling – somewhere along the way it morphed from the man of steel saying “we will decide who comes ” ,into the more currently stated concern for refugees welfare. First the Australian people apparently insist on (horrendously expensive ) offshore processing for this small but visually spectacular part of our overall refugee picture ,now they insist on a guarantee of no citizenship at all- and I am supposed to believe this is about concern for refugees who may drown ? This should be a small problem with long term solutions of -not starting wars in other peoples countries , -regional cooperation ,- start moving openly and clearly toward a more equitable global wealth distribution . Refugees are a symptom not a cause .Why is the sight of brown people sailing our way so scary ?
    As far as population goes , increasing wealth and education drives birth rates down and carrying capacity goes up with scientific advancement . Hopefully these processes soon are allowed to operate unhindered by market failures caused by unelected oligarchs and multinational mega companies .

  47. kevin1
    July 21st, 2013 at 22:22 | #47


    “Obviously… we do not make asylum seeker policy to…promote…any…worthy objective” Hey, you ring alarm bells – we are a fractious bunch, groupthink just doesn’t happen on this blog. And sarcasm doesn’t work either, we’ve been insulted by experts. As a student, did you get a big dose of Public Choice/Libertarian/Chicago School weltaunschaung? Yes, we can give you treatment for that.

    “Actual reason has absolutely no influence at all.” Strong words, but have you checked whether your comment is empirically grounded? MPs are often denigrated but have you had a heart to heart conversation with one? May I suggest that you make an appt and talk to your local member? If you live in Canberra (just a guess), if you’re lucky it will be Andrew Leigh. (TIP. Think up a way to get a foot in the door.)

    Sorry if this sounds patronising, it’s not meant to be gospel (a bunch of truisms from the Judaeo-Christian tradition, ask your grandparents about it). If you are a bighearted guy you will take it as “questioning” from an old fart.

  48. rog
    July 21st, 2013 at 22:28 | #48

    @kevin1 Indonesians incl Balinese who have visited and lived in Australia have told me they find it remote and lonely here and they can’t wait to get back home.

  49. Mick
    July 21st, 2013 at 22:41 | #49

    The greens have absolutely no plan to stop people drowning in the Timor Sea, which isn’t very progressive of them, to put it mildly. Indeed they seem oblivious to the bodycount.
    Rudds wheeze should stop the carnage. Few people will sail to Australia, thus few people will drown and few people will end up in PNG, which has effectively hired itself out as a bogey man.
    The biggest winners will be those currently in refugee camps without the money to hire people smugglers. They will have a better chance of resettlement in Oz.

  50. Fran Barlow
    July 21st, 2013 at 23:36 | #50


    Because it’s so much better for us if people suffer and die out of our sight. Your attitude is simply repulsive — pure cant.

    The ALP may win but everyone else loses.

  51. July 22nd, 2013 at 00:03 | #51


    The biggest winners will be those currently in refugee camps without the money to hire people smugglers. They will have a better chance of resettlement in Oz.

    Obviously you can supply some rough estimates of much sooner these lucky winners can expect to be accepted onto our boundless plains?

    Considering that some of those lucky people have been in detention in refugee camps for decades, what are these improved odds? 50/50?

    How should they celebrate? Champagne perhaps?

  52. July 22nd, 2013 at 00:09 | #52

    All “solutions” for refugees which don’t recognise the personal immorality of gross wealth disparity between me and them are pretty icky to me. Our government is not the only way we can act to address that injustice. However I’ll leave that aside in order to keep things on the party political level.

    I’m too left for Labor generally and I’m still trying to figure out if Rudds policies ticks enough of my boxes. My gut instinct says that it can be tweaked rather than rejected to make the best government policy likely at this time.

    Rudds’ “you will never be settled in Australia” threat bears some similarity to the tone in which people are kept under TPVs and Indefinite detention. It needs to be clarified that refugees settled in PNG can still make applications to emmigrate to Australia under other categories. It may be that after 5-10 years any “record” of having tried to enter Australia by an unsafe vessel to claim refugee status is forgotten to allow for a fresh refugee application to Australia.

    Obviously its repugnant to have PNG shouldering the economic burden of people who want to come to Australia given our economies strength compared to PNGs. We have to properly compensate PNG for whats happening. Questions should be asked of the PNG people (not the leaders but the whole community) about how they feel about the deal.

    We ought to remember that this policy doesn’t affect the many people who (generally with more money and privilege) enter Australia by plane and make applications for residency from within Australian borders. This is a policy specifically targetting the poorest and most desperate of applicants. Is it justified to save them from themself and their exploiters? Only in the context of Australia doing a lot, lot more. Rudd needs to make good on his promise to increase our overall intake of people under the humanitarian category.

  53. July 22nd, 2013 at 00:23 | #53

    @Tony C.

    You inadvertently make a very good point.

    1. “We” as Australians absolutely must not tolerate any people coming here, by subterfuge, to seek asylum.

    2. “They” should come through the proper channels – ie: the queue.

    3. The vast majority of the “queue jumpers” therefore come by commercial airlines.

    4. In order to get into Australia by air they must have got a visa.

    5. Solution: when applying for a visa to Australia you must swear that you will not seek asylum – we insert a special provision into the Oaths Act such that perjury in procuring a visa results in immediate forfeiture of all assets and deportation to PNG.

    Makes perfect sense. No more asylum seekers, ever!

    Happy Australia!

  54. kevin1
    July 22nd, 2013 at 00:41 | #54


    So much sarcasm makes it difficult for me to know your meaning (pls. take the hint).
    So is 4. & 5. correct?

  55. July 22nd, 2013 at 01:08 | #55


    Sorry to bother you with sarcasm, but could you be a bit more specific about your objection?

    Specifically: Why not deport all those who seek asylum (from onshore in Australia) to PNG regardless of mode of arrival in Australia?

    At least the ones who came on boats didn’t lie to get here, those who came on planes did.

  56. kevin1
    July 22nd, 2013 at 01:20 | #56

    I’m asking what you know about a matter of fact. What happens to people who come from VOA countries as they don’t need a visa (or a lie) to arrive?

  57. July 22nd, 2013 at 01:46 | #57


    Nope sorry, not familiar with the jargon. Is “VOA” Visa On Arrival?

    Unless I’m unaware of a massive rort, almost everyone – if not absolutely everyone – who flies into Australia and might be going to seek refugee status MUST have a visa in order to make it into the country.

    Please enlighten me if I’m wrong about that.

  58. July 22nd, 2013 at 01:54 | #58

    To make my point abundantly clear:

    Why shouldn’t Australia send to PNG anybody, regardless of mode of arrival, who seeks asylum from inside Australia?

    Are there two queues?

    Obviously the vast majority of air-arriving asylum requests are from Chinese but only about 30% of those are successful.

    Why the differential treatment?

  59. rog
    July 22nd, 2013 at 06:05 | #59


    Australia is an autonomous nation state and has an interest in determining its population with regard to its own interests. End of story.

    This is a very curious statement Harry and smacks of paternalism and eugenics.

  60. Ikonoclast
    July 22nd, 2013 at 06:34 | #60


    What would be wrong with freezing net immigration? You now want to conflate voluntary immigrants with refugees. I indicated there is a way to take all current bona fide refugees up to required and equitable levels according to our international agreements. This way is to balance the numbers by reducing our voluntary immigrant numbers.

    Until we decide a population policy, the wise thing to do would be to call a freeze on annual immigration numbers. From a risk management point of view, it is unwise to keep running a large net immigration program when we do not know what the sustainable population for this arid continent might be.

    Those calling for open, unending immigration without a population policy are essentially subscribing to the theory that infinite growth can occur in a finite system. It’s another case of limits to growth denialism which is every bit as unscientific and irrational as climate change denialism.

    It reminds me of St Augustine’s plea “Lord, make me chaste, but not yet.”

    Now it’s, “Gaia, make us sustainable, but not yet.”

    People just want to put off into the never-never the very crucial problem of transitioning from unrestrained growth to a sustainable and steady state economy and population.

    The other source of blind fascination with endless population growth in Australia is nationalistic jingoism. People have visions of Australia becoming much more powerful with a much bigger population. That is actually the dark undertow of the fascination with boundless immigration into Australia. This is not for you, I am sure, but it is certainly the case with our major politicians and much of our rather unwise and ill-educated population.

  61. Ikonoclast
    July 22nd, 2013 at 06:42 | #61

    Reply to Ronald Brak. My last reply is in moderation for too many (actually two) links, one being the link to Ronald’s post.

    The geography, soils and rainfall regimes of the two “craton twins”, Australia and India, are very different. Let us look at the geography first.

    Australia abuts no other plate or land mass and has no crustal upthrust zone. The India plate is moving north and colliding with the Asian Plate. This has created and is creating the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau. The existence of these high mountain ranges (to which Australia has nothing even remotely comparable) radically transforms and the rainfall regime, rain volumes, snowfall volumes, snowfed river volumes, erosion, siltation and the creation of fertile plains, large rivers and vast deltas. This is the real reason for the huge carrying capacity of northern India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. The Indian continent is a profoundly different place geograhpically and ecologically to Australia.

    The soils of this area were created by these conditions. This is unlike Australi where there ha sbeen no large upthrust, followed by epochs of erosion, to produce high rains, snowfed rivers and great plains of silt.Then the are the Western Ghats in western India.


    There is absolutely no comparison to arid Australia. The proportion of Australia with passable rainfall is about the size of France. Due to poorer soils and higher unrealiability of rain patterns a rule of thumb would be that that portion would be about half as productive of France. This would suggest a capacity of about 33 million for Australia as a maximum. Given that many other resources are running out both globally and locally, why push it? I would hope we would stabilise at 25 million tops.

    The population of the Sahara is 2.5 million people in 3.5 million square miles. The enormous arid interior of Australia is in many ways comparable to the Sahara in terms of human carrying capacity. An Australia with a population of 1.2 billion is highly improbable.

  62. Mick
    July 22nd, 2013 at 08:39 | #62

    @Fran Barlow
    You make no suggestion, I note, that the Greens have any plan to stop people drowning in the Timor Sea. I won’t throw around nasty words. It’s unnecessary.

  63. Mick
    July 22nd, 2013 at 08:42 | #63


    Sarcasm is usually a sign someone doesn’t have a handle on a debate. My guess is that people in camps will have a significantly better chance of getting to Australia under Rudd’s plan, but if they are forced to rely on the Greens they’ll never get to leave.

  64. Tyler
    July 22nd, 2013 at 09:17 | #64

    Is getting on a boat actually anymore dangerous for an Afghan refugee than spending 5-10 years in a camp in pakistan? It’s often asserted how dangerous the boats are, with good reason, but the comparison is never made (or at least not anywhere i’ve seen)

  65. Mick
    July 22nd, 2013 at 09:27 | #65

    I note that members of the labor left like Doogie Cameron have swallowed this pill because they understand that the best way to get more refugees into this country is to ensure the population believes the process is orderly. Coorey’s article in today’s AFR is (surprisingly) very enlightening in that regard.
    TYLER: Your argument destroys itself. The object of the Rudd policy is to have fewer drownings AND more people coming from refugee hell-holes (like those in Pakistan).
    The Green solution is to solve all of our problems by moving immediately to a utopian society.

  66. John Quiggin
    July 22nd, 2013 at 09:30 | #66


    I agree that the policy is contradictory. I have a few thoughts on this.

    First, since the total number of asylum seekers arriving by plane is small and most are unsuccessful, it’s mainly a question of equitable treatment rather than something that will cause a policy breakdown

    Second, while I’m unimpressed by arguments that rely on the legal details of the Refugee Convention, it may be that they constrain what the government can do

    Third, and most important, the thing that troubles me most about the Rudd plan is continued reliance on offshore detention, even if the punitive element that was the dominant theme under Howard is removed. Subject to legality, I’d much prefer a plan where asylum seekers were assessed in Australia, not subject to detention, and either deported or resettled depending on the outcome.

  67. July 22nd, 2013 at 09:44 | #67

    Ikonoclast, see what I mean about “carrying capacity” not being a very clear question? There is certainly lots of room for debate and unless you give me a definition of “carrying capacity” as it relates to humans I can’t give you a clear answer. But to suggest Australia’s carrying capacity might be 33 million seems kind of nuts to me. Australia already produces enough food kilojoules from plants to feed about 200 million. Eliminating the current meat industry, adding millions of new agricultural workers, adding trillions in investment, and destroying most of Australia’s remaining natural heritage (bye-bye tree kangaroos) would increase the amount further.

  68. July 22nd, 2013 at 09:51 | #68

    But as I mentioned earlier, I don’t see how it really makes sense to look at Australia’s carrying capacity in isolation. As we are connected to to the rest of the world by oceans of water and air, Australia doesn’t really have an individual “carrying capacity”.

  69. paul walter
    July 22nd, 2013 at 10:02 | #69

    Fran, the refugee flows originate from big power interference in places like Syria. Can you really expect ordinary people to accept an open ended flow, when the rich and powerful won’t lift a finger to avoid these wars- in fact, arguably actively encourage them for the profit, from resource capture through to ordinance sales and indebtment of third world countries, despite the massive collateral damage and misery that comes from it all?
    People look at profiteers like Murdoch and Cheney- our so-called betters- and think, “if its ok for them to guard their interests regardless of the human toll, how come not us?”
    There is NO solution to any of it, until it comes from the top.

  70. Tyler
    July 22nd, 2013 at 10:04 | #70

    it does nothing of the sort mick, there’s no reason to assume that extra numbers will be taken from places like Pakistan, far more likely that there’ll be a deal to see more taken from our region, keeping the incentive to travel by boat as long as the boats stop at malaysia or indonesia.

  71. Tyler
    July 22nd, 2013 at 10:07 | #71

    particularly given the numbers needing urgent resettlement is around 1 million (from memory) and the numbers taken tend to be around 100k, so even with a functioning ‘queue’ the time spent is likely to be 10 years or so?

  72. Luke Elford
    July 22nd, 2013 at 10:24 | #72


    Are you getting these statistics from somewhere, or are you making them up?

    Let’s take cereals production. Australia has a little over twice as much land in cereals production as France (about 195,000 sq km compared with about 95,000 sq km). Over the decade up to 2011, yields have on average been a little under a quarter of the yields in France, and total production has been half that of France. But France is a major exporter of cereals itself, so it’s no guide to “carrying capacity” based on a presumed need for domestic food self-sufficiency. Domestic supply in France is only about 55% of French production; this implies that Australia could sustain, with current French levels of cereals usage, a population about 90% the size of France’s without any increase in production.

    And of course yields have been increasing over time. In France, they’ve tripled since 1960. Australia has seen significantly slower growth in average yields, but the area under production has increased, presumably taking in less productive land.

  73. July 22nd, 2013 at 10:47 | #73

    @John Quiggin

    I’m not sure what you mean by “small” (re: number of refugees ariving by air)?

    I won’t do the link, but this paper says that refugee applicants by air was about 76% in 2000/01 and was about 48% in 2011/12 (at about 7,000 in both):

    Do most asylum seekers arrive by boat?

    Until recently, the vast majority of asylum seekers applying for protection in Australia arrived originally by air with a valid visa and then applied for asylum at a later date while living in the community.[32] Historically, boat arrivals only made up a small proportion of asylum applicants—estimates vary, but it is likely that between 96 and 99 per cent of asylum applicants arrived by air.[33]

    More recently the proportions of Irregular Maritime Arrival (IMA) and non-IMA (that is air arrival) asylum seekers have shifted due to the increase in boat arrivals. However, boat arrivals still only comprise about half of Australia’s onshore asylum seekers:

    It is from the “aph” site and it’s called: “Asylum seekers and refugees What are the facts?”

    If the electorate is really worried about refugees (as we’re assured they are – not just “the boats”) and the politically brilliant thing to do is “crack down”, it makes no sense NOT to treat the air arrivals the same.

    If we’re going to be honest about the PNG Final Solution we should put air arrivals right in the centre of the debate too.

  74. July 22nd, 2013 at 10:48 | #74

    Actually, to increase Australia’s “carrying capacity” we should move Victorians to India. That would decrease the emission of greenhouse gasses and improve Australia’s “carrying capacity” or at least slow its degradation. Of course, moving Victorians just about anywhere, Norway, Botswana, etc. should accomplish that.

  75. Mel
    July 22nd, 2013 at 10:49 | #75


    Subject to legality, I’d much prefer a plan where asylum seekers were assessed in Australia, not subject to detention, and either deported or resettled depending on the outcome.

    According to wiki, the UNHCR estimates that 200,000 to 400,000 Vietnamese boat people died at sea from causes like drowning, thirst and murder by pirates.

    Your preference would recreate that scenario. Since those who have such a preference know (or ought to know) this would happen, the blood would be on their hands.

    Thankfully the Oz public wont allow it.

  76. John Quiggin
    July 22nd, 2013 at 11:14 | #76

    Mel, I’d be more impressed by your concern if you were advocating large-scale resettlement directly from refugee camps or source countries. Since you’re not, I find it more than a little hypocritical.

    Vietnamese boat people felt it worth risking their lives, and years in refugee camps to escape from conditions ranging from discrimination and persecution at best to imprisonment in re-education camps at worst. As I read it, you are saying they should all have been pushed back – if not, maybe you want to spell out what you do mean.

  77. Ikonoclast
    July 22nd, 2013 at 11:16 | #77

    @Luke Elford

    Luke, those are good individual points points you make but they don’t quite support your case. I haven’t checked your figures. I will take them as correct. It is certainly indicative that we have approximately double the area under grain cultivation compared to France and our yield per hectare is a little under a quarter of the yields in France. The 1/4 yield rate says a lot about our aridity and poor soils. I would like to see our relative use rates of fertilizer and farm fuel compared to France.

    Farming twice the area for half the yield, implies much higher energy input costs. We are cultivating (read powering tractors and harvesters over) four times as much land per unit production. This implies possibly four times the energy costs but it could imply much less, maybe 2 times, due to efficiencies of scale and flatter terrain.

    You make the implicit assumption that these inputs (energy and fertiliser) can be maintained indefinitely for Australian broad hectare, dry wheat farming requiring large fertiliser inputs. This assumption that these inputs can be maintained at current rates indefinitely is false given that peak conventional oil is in the past (2005) and that both IC engines and fertilsers depend on oil and/or natural gas inputs. Natural fertilzers (guano) are all but finished and the world faces a possible phosphorous shortage due to human disruption of the phosphorus cycle.

    You are completing neglecting the issue of limits to growth. These limits are near and indeed in some respects already past. We are in overshoot now. My suggestion of limiting Australia to 25 million is probably on the high side for very long run sustainability.

    Ronald Brak seems to object to my terminology of “carrying capacity” for humans. But it is a valid concept. We are animals after all. The land, even mediated by technology, will have an ultimate carrying capacity with respect to humans. Some people seem to want to believe that the laws of physics and biology don’t apply to humans. This is just hubris. Of course, these laws apply to us. Technology can stretch what is possible within the laws but we can still cannot break physical and biological laws and limits. Not while we remain material human beings.

  78. John Quiggin
    July 22nd, 2013 at 11:17 | #78


    I was looking at the same data. Assuming a 30 per cent success rate, that’s 2000 people a year admitted as refugees after arriving by air, which is about 10 per cent of the around current humanitarian quota.

  79. Doug
    July 22nd, 2013 at 11:22 | #79

    “blood on the hands” discussions depend upon the frame of reference – Australia is implicated for example in the flow of refugees from Iraq due to our participation in the invasion.

    the australian government is implicated in the current drownings by asylum seekers because the policy for dealing with the boats on arrival, confiscation, means that people organising the voyages have no incentive to use a boat that has more than a single voyage in it. As an attempt to claim moral high ground for whatever position you are trying to argue for and dismiss some people as beyond the pail it’s great rhetoric but not particularly helpful.

  80. July 22nd, 2013 at 11:44 | #80

    Ikonoclast, I don’t object to your use of the term “carrying capacity” for humans, I just don’t know what it means. A definition would help.

  81. Ikonoclast
    July 22nd, 2013 at 11:44 | #81

    In answer to the precise topic question;

    Q. “Is there a solution to the refugee problem?

    A. “No.”

    The refugee problem is a wicked problem as defined by Wikipedia;

    “”Wicked problem” is a phrase originally used in social planning to describe a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize. The term ‘wicked’ is used, not in the sense of evil but rather its resistance to resolution. Moreover, because of complex interdependencies, the effort to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems.”

    There is no perfect solution to satisfy even one interested party or view, let alone a perfect solution to satisfy all interested parties and views.

    The best attempt at a solution would be prevention rather than cure. Thus, we should stop our unwarranted invasions and interventions in other countries. We should encourage and aid development (especially female rights and education) and sustainability in all countries. We should seriously tackle climate change and limits to growth as the fundamental crises of our era.

  82. Ikonoclast
    July 22nd, 2013 at 11:48 | #82

    @Ronald Brak

    The Wikipedia definition is quite reasonable;

    “The carrying capacity of a biological species in an environment is the maximum population size of the species that the environment can sustain indefinitely, given the food, habitat, water and other necessities available in the environment. In population biology, carrying capacity is defined as the environment’s maximal load,[1] which is different from the concept of population equilibrium.

    For the human population, more complex variables such as sanitation and medical care are sometimes considered as part of the necessary establishment.”

  83. Mel
    July 22nd, 2013 at 11:50 | #83


    Vietnamese boat people felt it worth risking their lives, and years in refugee camps to escape from conditions ranging from discrimination and persecution at best to imprisonment in re-education camps at worst.

    I’ve associated with Vietnamese people for 25 years and I married a VN woman 9 years ago to get her to Australia and reunite the family. All 12 brothers and sisters are now in Melbourne.

    My alternate view is based on what I’ve learned over 25 years. The VNs who came to Oz were mostly middle class or small business people who sunk in to poverty after the war (1). One of my in-laws (now deceased) was a Captain in the South’s army and he was indeed tortured in a re-education camp and left with permanent disabilities. He was, however, perfectly safe from discrimination once he was released from the re-education camp provided he did nothing to offend the Communist Party. The same rule applied to everyone, not just former re-education camp inmates.

    In the 25 years I’ve talked to hundreds of VN people, many of whom have the most amazing stories to tell about how they got out of Vietnam, not even one of them was facing persecution at the time they fled. They fled VN because they were highly motivated to improve their lives by escaping the grinding poverty that was imposed upon them by their harebrained and hopelessly corrupt government.

    Interestingly, now that the VN economy is capitalist and people can get rich, the younger generation has lost its hatred of the regime and they often use the Communist flag their Facebook moniker. The fact that the regime is just as politically oppressive as before is a secondary concern.

    (2) From what I can gather, the smaller numbers of “working class” VN who left on boats somehow found out about the departures and jumped on the boats just as they were leaving the shore, without paying the usual bribes etc…

  84. July 22nd, 2013 at 12:02 | #84

    Ikonoclast, I’ll take any further discussion of carrying capacity to the sandpit as it getting a bit off topic.

  85. July 22nd, 2013 at 12:07 | #85

    @John Quiggin

    I understand that difference (and I accidently used “refugees” when I should have used “applicants” or “asylum seekers” – to differentiate between the two).

    That still doesn’t explain the different treatment.

    Surely the PNG policy should apply to everybody who seeks asylum after arriving here? If not, why not (apart from cynicism and hypocrisy)?

    (Of course – my preferred treatment of asylum seekers of any sort has been made clear previously).

  86. Ken Miles
    July 22nd, 2013 at 12:08 | #86

    Many of the Vietnamese refugees had Chinese ancestry and were heavily persecuted by the government who feared a fifth column as initially tensions rose followed by the Chinese invasion of Northern Vietnam.

  87. Luke Elford
    July 22nd, 2013 at 12:11 | #87


    Ronald Brak isn’t objecting to the concept of carrying capacity, only to your application of it at a country level, rather than a worldwide level. I agree with him.

    Anyway, Australia’s fertiliser use per hectare of arable land is less than a quarter of France’s: http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/AG.CON.FERT.ZS. Why use France as a yardstick, if you think that modern agricultural production is inherently unsustainable?

  88. Mel
    July 22nd, 2013 at 12:16 | #88


    Many of the Vietnamese refugees had Chinese ancestry and were heavily persecuted by the government who feared a fifth column as initially tensions rose followed by the Chinese invasion of Northern Vietnam.

    The Communists provoked a pogrom against the Chinese after the Fall of Saigon but that was a contained episode. Subsequently the Chinese weren’t subject to discrimination other than some ongoing theft of wealth under the guise of expropriating the wealth of the capitalist classes.

  89. Andrew
    July 22nd, 2013 at 12:28 | #89


    I’m a little insulted by your suggestion that I’m a Chicago School neoliberal. I’d describe myself as a social democrat madly in love with all things Sweden. My member is Theresa “refugees smell” Gambaro, hopefully the shortest MP for Brisbane since 1909. One more thing: how the HELL do you know I’m younger than you? I probably am, but how do you know that? I’m actually curious. I also don’t mean to be insulting to anyone outside ALP/LNP leadership, and even then not most of them. But that’s beside the point.

    I do not think our current approach to asylum seekers is about them. I think it’s about the perceived prejudices of Western Sydney swing voters, and an flawed institutional memory of the 2001 election.

    I laid out what I consider an appropriate response. Do you agree?

  90. Jim Rose
    July 22nd, 2013 at 14:10 | #90

    what is plan B if rejected applicants burn the manus island camp down, which happened in oz a few years ago. there can be mysterious fires.

    there was an escape up in broome. did not last long after the camp manager told the escappes that he had phoned ahead to the bus company to tell them not to sell them any tickets.

  91. Ikonoclast
    July 22nd, 2013 at 14:16 | #91

    @Luke Elford

    Those stats are kilos of fertilizer per arable land total and “Arable land includes land defined by the FAO as land under temporary crops (double-cropped areas are counted once), temporary meadows for mowing or for pasture”. Exactly how and how much FAO calculates our “temporary meadows for mowing or for pasture” to be could affect and distort the stats considerably. We would have to dig deeper to see if we are comparing apples to apples.

    The France analogy was to try to get us to jettison the arid part of our country from all our calculations. Sans our arid zone we are about the size of France and very roughly about half as productive. Our higher inputs per hectare yield for wheat (if my assertions are correct in this area) would indicate that we will become marginal before France does with regard to wheat production. Thus unsustainability will impact us early in the piece not late in the piece.

    The current model of food production is unsustainable. We will have to find a new model.

    I am taking the discussion off topic so I won’t mention this issue again unless you want to take it to the sandpit.

  92. Hermit
    July 22nd, 2013 at 15:14 | #92

    Each new population addition is presumed to be entitled to emit 20t of CO2 and consume 0.9 ML of water each year, most likely far higher than in their previous host countries. For example it is expected most adult Australians will drive a car. Are family re-unions via legal migration envisaged? This could prove costly if they don’t become taxpayers in the short term.

  93. July 22nd, 2013 at 15:20 | #93

    I agree there is an opportunity to redeem our reputation.

    As an international problem we have to see things through others eyes, in particular from the point of view of Indonesia. For example, why is it possible, as reported, to obtain a $25 visa for 30 days from any international airport in Iran? My guess this may be related to a reciprocal travel arrangement for the Shia of West Sumatra and Aceh.

    Then it seems the major drivers of refugees are war, persecution and natural disasters. Peaceful conflict resolution, as distinct from military expeditions, might be to our long term advantage.

    Thirdly, there is the decline of low skill industrial jobs setting up a potential dynamic of fear and scapegoating, often fueled by what passes for political rhetoric.

  94. Fran Barlow
    July 22nd, 2013 at 15:26 | #94


    Mick …

    People drowning in the waters between Australia and the major aggregation points (currently Indonesia and Malaysia) is a function of the following factors

    1. (Obviously) the geography. Australia is an Island
    2. Australian government policies e.g.
    a) The policy of excising lands in Australian jurisdiction from the “migration zone” so as to deny putative asylum seekers access to the courts
    b) the policy of scuttling all craft seized after an irregular marine passage, which leads those organising the passage to use the cheapest craft possible and to overload as much as is vaguely plausible. This has the added advantage of making towing or boarding difficult.
    c) the policy of crewing such craft with adolescents — since adolescents are treated less harshly by Australian courts.
    d) push factors from the source countries — here, the defeat of the Tamils in Sri Lanka, the chaos in Pakistan and Afghanistan and Iraq and Iran, each of which has been at least partially a consequence of Australian state policy towards these states
    e) slow processing of claims at major aggregation points — some “applicants” have waited 9 years …

    In each of these cases (with the exception of geography), the factors predisposing drowning are the result of action by the Australian state. Assuming, purely for the sake of argument, you really were concerned about “drowning in the Timor Sea” it’s to the Australian government you should direct your question. The Greens opposed the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, called for a peaceful resolution in Sri Lanka and opposed excising territory. We opposed criminalising those assisting with passage — after all, seeking protection is not illegal. We favoured much speedier processing in major aggregation points and we do favour equitable burden-sharing and still do. Very few would risk their lives on unseaworthy craft if there were actually “a queue” and timely regular updates about one’s progress through it and if the camps were actually places where one could live with a modicum of dignity. Regrettably, there isn’t a queue and so people must live (and watch their children live) in squalor for an indefinite period of time.

    To imply that we Greens are in some way, a party to people drowning is mere cant and misdirection. We have advocated solutions, but these offend the political appetites of the major parties — which want to pander to the majors.

    You surely know that if 100% or even 95% of those seeking irregular marine passage met a tragic and untimely end outside of our rescue zone, once the pro-forma crocodile tears had been shed, there would be no policy problem for the regime. Those few that made it here would be processed quickly and that would be that. Perhaps they’d even be welcomed as courageous and deserving of our generosity. The problem is not that the casualty rate is unacceptably high — quite the reverse. The problem for the regime is that the casualty rate is unacceptably low, and this spurs existential angst amongst the mullet and ugg boot demographic which can be used as a wedge against the rightwing populist ALP by the rightwing populist LNP. Along with faux concern about “people waiting patiently in camps” and “the people smugglers’ business model”, “stopping drownings” is, from our xenophobic populists simply deeply offensive cant.

    Calling us out about such matters would be laughable were the misery of those fleeing persecution not so tragic.


  95. John Quiggin
    July 22nd, 2013 at 15:30 | #95


    Australia’s emissions targets are currently fixed without reference to population growth.

    Your water use calculation appears to include irrigated agriculture, which isn’t going to grow much no matter how many refugees we admit. People in Brisbane average less than 200 litres/day, or 0.07 ML per year, for household use.

  96. Fran Barlow
    July 22nd, 2013 at 15:36 | #96


    Each new population addition is presumed to be entitled to emit 20t of CO2 and consume 0.9 ML of water each year, most likely far higher than in their previous host countries.

    Ah, now we are getting closer to the drivers of this problem. Your problem is that if people come here, they will get to live as well as we do here, rather than in squalor. It’s all very well to try avoiding being brutalised by the state or some gang of state-backed thugs, but isn’t there some way in which people could simply accept that the circumstances of their birth would always result in them having lives that were nasty, brutish and short? What gives them the right to think they can start using more than 0.9ML of water each year? 50cc per day should be enough, surely?

    You think there are just too many humans, and frankly you’d like those outside of the country who aren’t much like us to go suffer and die out of sight some place else so that you can continue to live congenially.

    It’s breathtaking and shameful really, and once again so dreadful that people making these kinds of claim so often appeal on against those seeking protection ostensibly on behalf of those people “waiting patiently in camps in Africa”, when they have no desire to see them come here either.

  97. Ikonoclast
    July 22nd, 2013 at 16:26 | #97

    Can’t help telling the latest economist joke I heard.

    “An economist and an ecologist have fallen from a tall building. The ecologist is panicking but the economist remains calm. Don’t worry, he says: “demand will create a parachute”.

    A great element of truth in this joke as neoclassical economists (not our host) clearly think the economy is freestanding from the environment and from all physical and biological laws.

  98. Doug
    July 22nd, 2013 at 16:41 | #98

    The difficulty with success rate calculations is that you need to look at the success rate of appeals from the first decision to the RRT – my memory is that counting appeals the success rate of applications for asylum of those arriving by air was closer to 50% than 30% – but I’m going from memory from an address by William Maley from ANU a few weeks ago.

  99. Ikonoclast
    July 22nd, 2013 at 16:52 | #99

    @Fran Barlow

    “You think there are just too many humans.”

    Actually there are too many humans. The world is overpopulated. And yes, we in the West are over-developed and using too many resources. The BRICs are now attempting to join us. (In living standards I mean, not to all migrate to the West.)

    It would be nice if the world had enough resources to accommodate all of us and the living standards we have or desire to have. However, that is not possible.

    When did discussion of overpopulation become taboo among the Greens? I would have thought that the Greens would still understand the relationship between overpopulation, lack of sustainability and ecological damage. They certainly used to.

    Saying there are too many humans on the planet now is an objective observation given the facts of limits to growth and climate change. It does not automatically imply support for draconian population reduction. It can imply support for enlightened policies to stabilise population. The key policy there is to achieve equal rights, opportunities and education for women which factors best correlate with replacement rate reproduction.

    The cruellest types of population reduction will increase in occurrence (wars, starvation, disease) if we don’t adopt enlightened global population stabilisation policies now.

  100. July 22nd, 2013 at 17:01 | #100


    True, but the latest figures from that “aph” paper (2011/12) put requests for asylum at about 50/50 between those coming by sea and those coming by air.

    The problem is one cohort gets sent to PNG forever and the other gets processed here, and if declared successful get to live here having jumped the imaginary queue far more comprehensively than anyone in a boat. That is double standards and hypocrisy at its worst.

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