Dr Khalid Koser is Head of the New Issues in Security Program at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, and a non-resident Fellow at the Lowy Institute.
Angus Houston, Paris Aristotle and Michael L'Estrange deserve great credit for their expert panel report on asylum seekers, published yesterday.
Just six weeks ago they were commissioned by the Government to provide advice and recommendations on policy options to reduce boat arrivals in Australia. They have consulted widely, across party political lines and among most of the relevant stakeholders. They have produced an objective report that relies on evidence, not political rhetoric. And their recommendations are sensible, forward-looking, and at first glance cost-effective.
Of course there are quibbles – not enough consultation with employers and the private sector; an over-reliance on UN sources and too little attention to international academic research; a failure to prioritise among the 22 recommendations – but overall the experts should be extolled. This is what experts are supposed to do: gather evidence, analyse it methodically, and publish it without fear or favour.
In contrast, the immediate reactions from Australia's political leaders has been lamentable and oh so predictable. The Prime Minister has given in-principle support to all the Expert Panel's recommendations, but emphasised the more hard-line recommendations to restart offshore processing and remove family reunion rights for irregular maritime arrivals. The Coalition claims that the Expert Panel's recommendations vindicate its own policies, and signal a return to the temporary protection visas and 'Pacific Solution' of the Howard era. The Greens have rejected the offshore processing element of the recommendations as inhumane but welcomed the proposal to increase Australia's humanitarian intake.
I’m not an Australian voter, but I'm fairly certain that if I were I'd expect more of my elected representatives – qualities like open-mindedness, honesty, and seriousness of intent.
The experts have done their job; the politicians haven't. Now it's up to the officials to try to make sense of it all and implement the Expert Panel's recommendations. There are three that I think will be especially challenging. First, I suspect that securing cooperation from Nauru in particular but also Papua New Guinea and Malaysia for offshore processing may be easier said than done. Development assistance alone can't buy political support in any of these countries. Building sufficient detention facilities is expensive and time-consuming, and monitoring conditions there is a critical challenge.
Second, I think limiting or denying the right to family reunion to those who arrive in Australia by boat may be illegal, or at the very least subject to serious judicial challenge. Third, I reckon that the Expert Panel has drastically underestimated the cost, political and financial, of large-scale removals and returns.
The officials will do their best with limited resources and not deliver in time for the next election, and the politicians will blame them. I suppose this is what officials are paid to do.
Photo courtesy of the Department of Defence.