Rudd’s Refugee-Policy Shift Fails to Woo Australian Voters

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s efforts to ease voter concern at a jump in asylum seekers under the governing Labor party has failed to help overcome a deficit with the opposition ahead of a Sept. 7 election.

Rudd’s administration today got a chance to highlight its stepped-up attempts to cut the arrival of boats carrying would-be immigrants. Thirteen countries agreed at a meeting in Jakarta to review visa policies to stem the smuggling of people from countries including Iran, a practice that’s led to the deaths of at least 800 people trying to enter Australia since October 2009.

While Rudd toughened Labor’s stance after retaking office in June by pledging to send undocumented asylum seekers to camps in developing nations such as Papua New Guinea, voters prefer opposition chief Tony Abbott’s plan to put a military commander in charge of executing his “stop the boats” edict. A Newspoll survey last week showed 52 percent of respondents view the issue as “very important,” and 42 percent see the Liberal-National coalition as best able to tackle it, against 27 percent for Labor.

“It’s a major hurdle” for Rudd’s prospects, said Stephen Stockwell, a political analyst and professor of journalism and communications at Griffith University in Brisbane. “He has to make gains in marginal, working-class seats to win and the asylum-seeker surge has been his party’s biggest policy failure in those regions.”

Asylum Summit

Australia’s navy today rescued another boatload of asylum seekers, Immigration Minister Tony Burke told reporters in Jakarta. The vessel capsized north of the Australian territory of Christmas Island, with 106 people pulled from the sea, the Australian Broadcasting Corp. reported, citing the Australian Maritime Safety Authority. The AMSA didn’t respond to calls to its media phone number.

Officials at the Jakarta meeting agreed to hold exercises to improve search and rescue operations, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa told reporters today. Afghanistan, Papua New Guinea and New Zealand were among the countries represented at the meeting called by Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono after a state visit by Rudd in July.

The countries agreed to review visa policies periodically or when there is evidence of abuse, Natalegawa said. Indonesia revoked a visa-on-arrival policy for Iran last month after a request from Rudd, the Australian Broadcasting Corp. reported July 19.

Labor Heartlands

Labor is battling to retain its working-class heartlands in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, in an election in which it already starts off with a minority of seats. After winning in 2007 under Rudd, 55, it formed a government with the support of independent and Greens party lawmakers in 2010 under Julia Gillard, who ousted Rudd and then was replaced by him in June.

The Newspoll on the asylum-seeker issue was conducted Aug. 9-11 by surveying 1,134 voters and had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

A subsequent Newspoll conducted Aug. 16-18 and published in The Australian yesterday showed Abbott’s coalition had doubled its lead in the two-party preferred measure over Labor to an eight-point margin. The poll surveyed 1,692 voters and had a margin of error of 2.4 percentage points.

Popular Discontent

Labor voter Youhorn Chea, a current representative of the Greater Dandenong City Council in the state of Victoria, embodies popular discontent even among immigrant communities with asylum seekers who don’t file paperwork for admission to the country before attempting to enter it.

“We all need to respect Australian law,” said Chea, 67, who fled his native Cambodia three decades ago with his wife and four children as the Khmer Rouge regime oversaw the deaths of millions. While Chea, a resident of Melbourne suburb Springvale, wants the government to increase its humanitarian intake, applicants must go “through the right channels and not cheat the system,” he said.

The arrivals, who can pay their life savings to people-smugglers in Indonesia to ferry them in unsafe vessels, are derided on some radio shows as “queue-jumpers” who soak up welfare payments or are linked to terrorism.

Penal Colony

The rhetoric risks tarnishing Australia’s image as a nation with a history of accepting immigrants. The former penal colony established by Britain in the late 1700s ranks as the third-biggest resettler of refugees, after the U.S. and Canada.

“Australia’s political debate about refugees and asylum seekers is negative, divisive and destructive,” said Paul Power, chief executive of the Refugee Council of Australia, which supports immigrants fleeing homelands abroad.

Voter angst over the issue rose as the number of boats increased -- to 260 vessels bearing 18,187 people making the attempted entry so far this year, compared with three boats carrying 69 refugees between 2002 and 2004, according to figures from the Department of Immigration.

The influx remains a fraction of the 15.4 million people globally classified as refugees last year. Australia received 29,610 asylum applications and recognized 8,367 people as refugees in 2012, according to the Refugee Council.

‘Economic Migrants’

Foreign Minister Bob Carr says many asylum seekers are “economic migrants” from nations such as Iran. The government put a A$200,000 ($183,000) bounty on people smugglers, targeting gangs stretching from Australia to nations such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan and Iran. Along with Papua New Guinea, the Pacific island state of Nauru has been designated to house asylum seekers.

Abbott, 55, has called Rudd’s changes a “pre-election fix.” He’s vowed to tow boats back to Indonesian waters, a move Rudd says could risk military conflict. The opposition leader plans to appoint a three-star military commander to oversee “Operation Sovereign Borders,” streamlining decisions into a single structure as opposed to the current system, which involves 12 separate government agencies.

Abbott on Aug. 16 announced that 32,000 asylum seekers who had arrived in Australia by boat would never get permanent settlement. If elected, he also said he’d strip them of the right to appeal to the courts.

“For this to become one of the paramount election issues is mystifying to people abroad,” said Deborah Zion, a senior lecturer on ethics and human rights at Melbourne’s Monash University. “Countries much poorer than us just get on with the job of dealing with asylum seekers in a humane way, not by trying to score political points from it.”