Sydney: The conservative front-runner to become Australia’s next prime minister declared “this is our country” as he unveiled a tough new temporary visa policy on Friday that would strip boatpeople of basic rights.
Tony Abbott, who opinion polls show is on track to win September 7 national elections, said he planned to return to punitive refugee policies of the former conservative administration, also flagging an axing of appeal rights for failed asylum claims.
“This is our country and we determine who comes here,” Abbott told reporters, deliberately harking back to the ruthless stance of veteran Liberal-National coalition leader John Howard.
Abbott’s policy will see the 32,000 boatpeople currently awaiting processing by Australia, and any future arrivals, placed on three-year temporary protection visas if they are found to be genuine refugees.
They will be forced into an indefinite work-for-welfare programme, denied permanent residency or family reunion rights and stripped of any appeal avenues over their refugee claim.
Abbott has already announced plans for a military-led patrol operation off Australia’s northwest coast, where people-smuggling ships typically make their way from Indonesia and Sri Lanka, vowing to turn the boats back.
His latest policy was condemned as cruel by refugee activists and the left-wing Greens party, who described it as posturing by Abbott on the sensitive political issue.
“This is a Tony Abbott stunt to thump his chest and look tough,” Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young told reporters.
“There is no national emergency, there is a humanitarian emergency, and nothing Tony Abbott has offered today does anything to deal with that.”
Under Howard’s so-called “Pacific Solution” last decade refugees who arrived on people-smuggling boats were banished to Nauru and Papua New Guinea and held behind razor wire in spartan detention camps for a prolonged period.
The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, an advocacy and activist group, said Australia would be the only country in the developed world to deny refugees the right of appeal under Abbott, accusing both major parties of effectively abandoning the UN Refugee Convention.
The ruling Labor party unwound many of Howard’s policies when it took office in 2007 in favour of a more humanitarian approach, but successive years of record boat arrivals saw it return to offshore processing in the Pacific and roll out an even tougher scheme.
Under current Labor policy — launched in July in a bid to stem the ever-growing tide of boatpeople — all unauthorised maritime arrivals are sent to impoverished PNG and Nauru for permanent resettlement, regardless of whether they are found to be refugees.
The hardline plan, which has been criticised by human rights groups and the United Nations, is already having an effect according to Labor, with people-smuggling clients demanding their money back and the flow of boats slowing.
“In the first week after Kevin Rudd announced that change over 1,000 people came to Australia by boat. This week it’s about 300,” said Home Affairs Minister Jason Clare.
Immigration Minister Tony Burke said temporary visas had not worked as a deterrent last time they were used and denial of appeal avenues would be unlikely to withstand a legal challenge.
“People that get on boats under our government’s policy don’t get Australian visas at all,” Burke said of Abbott’s “irrelevant” pledges.
“So the only possible reason to make an announcement like they’ve made today is for a political desire to look tough and mean just for the hell of it.”
Refugees are a major election issue in Australia, even though they come in relatively small numbers by global standards, accounting for just three per cent of the world’s total asylum applications in 2012, according to the UNHCR.