Rudd’s asylum seeker policy a major U-turn

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, (R) and Papua New Guinea's Prime Minister Peter O'Neill (L) exchange documents after signing an agreement during an announcement of a policy on asylum seekers in Brisbane on July 19, 2013. -- PHOTO: AFP
Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, (R) and Papua New Guinea's Prime Minister Peter O'Neill (L) exchange documents after signing an agreement during an announcement of a policy on asylum seekers in Brisbane on July 19, 2013. -- PHOTO: AFP

BORN-AGAIN Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd took three years to return to his country’s helm, but six years to finally see the light on asylum seekers.

His announcement on July 19 - that the thousands of people who arrive by boat and who do not have visas will be resettled in Papua New Guinea (PNG), rather than on Australian soil - is a significant U-turn for the Labor Party.

In 2007, when Mr Rudd was voted to power, he immediately dismantled the tough Pacific Solution introduced in 2001 by his predecessor John Howard, who headed a Liberal Party-led coalition.

Under the Pacific Solution, asylum seekers were turned away from Australia and sent to offshore detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island.

But after the 2007 reversal by the Rudd government, the boats began arriving again, depositing thousands of asylum seekers on the Australian coastline.

In 2010, there were 6,535 arrivals while this year’s tally has already exceeded 15,000.

But the looming federal election - still scheduled for September 14 - is the major reason for Mr Rudd’s hastily-engineered policy.

“Our country has had enough of people smugglers exploiting asylum seekers and seeing them drown on the high seas,” he said.

Mr Rudd admitted that the PNG deal, known as the Regional Settlement Arrangement, is a “hard-line decision” that will bolster “a robust system of border security and orderly migration”.

Mr Howard, who served as prime minister for 11 years before his government was routed in 2007, accused Mr Rudd last month of being a “policy chameleon” on the issue of securing the nation’s coastline.

But the agreement with PNG shows that the Labor Party, which was lurching in the opinion polls under Julia Gillard before she was replaced by Mr Rudd on June 26, is moving swiftly to repair key areas of vulnerability.

The belated return to a strong border policy should improve Labor’s stocks considerably as it attempts to convince voters that it deserves another mandate.

dmcmahon@sph.com.sg