Most ordinary Australians are shocked that our immensely civilised country is reviled in polite society here and abroad, when the world has so many blatant human rights abusers. The latest accusation comes from a New York Times article complaining that our policies on asylum-seekers are harsh, insensitive, callous and even brutal, and urges European nations not to copy them. Yet the policies on border protection of Tony Abbott and John Howard before him should be a lesson to Britain.
At the heart of the matter is a firm but fair post-war policy that mass migration is conditional on government control over ‘who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come’, as Mr Howard famously put it. Our population has grown from 7 million in 1945 to about 23 million, largely because of influxes from abroad, especially Asia in recent decades.
Our large-scale immigration intake, in conjunction with an orderly border protection policy, is a declaration that Australia is in charge of its destiny, never mind what any charity, UN committee or Guardian letter-writer demands. If the compact with the Australian people is undermined, public support for high levels of immigration will collapse.
Consider the Howard government’s experience from 1996 to 2007. In the late 1990s, some 8,000-plus people are known to have paid for unauthorised passage to Australia. The result: Pauline Hanson — Nigel Farage without the sophistication — was able to fan the flames of racism. But when a Norwegian freighter, the Tampa, packed with asylum seekers from Afghanistan (via several ports), entered our waters in late August 2001, Mr Howard refused them entry.
That upset the metropolitan sophisticates: he was denounced as an Antipodean Enoch Powell. But his stance won praise across middle Australia, guaranteed a third election win on the trot, and consigned Pauline Hanson to the ash heap of history.
The tough border-protection laws he imposed included temporary protection visas, mandatory detention and refugee camps on Nauru and Christmas Island.
The measures were severe, but Mr Howard rightly argued that deterrence against the people-smuggling racket required firmness; even, if necessary, harshness. At the time, many critics said Mr Howard’s response was a sledgehammer to kill a gnat. But although the numbers trying to enter Australia illegally were relatively small at that point, it was likely that they would have increased significantly thereafter, especially if entry was perceived to be relatively easy.
That is why Mr Howard’s decision to curb the illegal and immoral trade was so prudent. During the second half of his premiership — the period following the Tampa standoff in 2001 — unauthorised boat arrivals stopped, while the rate of legal non-discriminatory immigration doubled. This flowed directly from a sense that we were deciding who is allowed to come here.
When Kevin Rudd broke an election pledge and ended Howard’s Pacific Solution, the disincentives were removed, Australia was seen as a soft touch, and the people smugglers were back in business. From 2008 to 2013, more than 50,000 people arrived in unauthorised boats, and more than 1,000 died at sea.
That all changed two years ago, when Mr Abbott won power and began to reintroduce many of the Howard-era policies, including the deployment of the Australian navy and customs officials to turn back boats. The result: the boats have stopped, lives have been saved, thousands have been released from immigration detention and smugglers have had to look elsewhere.
It also means that public confidence in our immigration programme has been restored — meaning most Australians have no qualms whatsoever about accepting 12,000 Syrian refugees over the coming weeks. When it comes to the resettlement of refugees, Australia leads the world on a per capita basis.
The conclusion from the Australian experience is that those who benefit most from tough border protection are the immigrants who come here fairly and legally. Strict controls help dampen down xenophobia, and ensure that decent treatment is given to those seeking the nation’s hospitality. If only you Poms had not surrendered your sovereignty to Brussels!