The withdrawal of the Howard government’s legislation aimed at recreating offshore prison camps for asylum seekers is good news all round. The Liberal MPs who crossed the floor to vote against the bill (along with Family First’s Steve Fielding who indicated a vote against and Barnaby Joyce who threatened to abstain) have helped to revive the idea of Parliament as a place where laws are decided and debated rather than a rubber-stamp for the executive. Substantively, the failure of the bill reduces the likelihood of children being kept in detention centres again, though this is still, I think, possible under existing laws.
Despite the usual posturing, the outcome is not a bad one for Howard, as was shown by the rapidity with which he dropped the bill. There are no more votes to be had from anti-refugee demagogery, and the government was happy to back away from its past policies last year, and return to a process in which we implemented, at least in part, our legal obligations to deal fairly with asylum seekers. The problem was the inconsistency between the government’s rhetoric and actions in 2001, dealing with refugess from Iraq and Afghanistan, and the admission last year of refugees from West Papua (note to those who seek to use non-words like “illegals” in this context – those I refer to have had their refugee status confirmed by the standard legal process).
Not surprisingly, the Indonesians were upset by this inconsistency, which implied that the position of West Papuans was worse than that of people escaping from the Taliban or Saddam Hussein, so the government was pushed into yet another reversal. But now, Howard can go the Indonesians and say he has done his best and that the problem is with the Parliament. Not surprisingly, Downer has already done this.