Since when is a slack-jawed guffaw a rational response to a policy? Leave that kind of response to the Institute of Public Affairs.
It’s been alleged that the Government paid money to Indonesian fishermen to turn their asylum-seeker boats around. To no small extent, the pathetic quality of the discussion is directly the fault of the Government’s bizarre secrecy policy. The Government won’t officially confirm anything or deny anything or even try to give a rational reason why the policy is good.
At the same time, the Left is unhinging on an hourly basis. I sometimes wonder if it’s a strategy: by giving the Left plenty of fodder to get worked up into a frenzy, nothing ever comes of any of their protests, complaints, or campaigns. Look how quickly people forgot about the defunding of remote Indigenous communities. Look how quickly people forgot about the ‘asylum seeker comic‘. Whatever happened to the debate about reframing Federation? It seems like forever ago that Brandis shifted funding from the Australia Council to his department.
With utterly no information, the Left goes for whatever fringe theory best satisfies their intuitions about the Government. Bernard Keane has seriously suggested that the Government is funding terrorism. It’s just nuts. This is Independent Australia territory.
But that just throws the question of the alleged payments open: are there any rational reasons to go with this policy? Yes.
First up, there’s the question of how we’re framing the discussion. Tony Jones, in his most politically neutral, objective journalist manner, asked if the Government had committed a crime by bribing people smugglers. Nothing like a bit of court of public opinion, but why on Earth are we discussing ‘bribes’?
But even more pointedly, why are we referring to the crew of suspected irregular entry vessels as ‘people smugglers’?
This rhetorical shift was rapid on the Left. Far from being the modern day Oskar Schindlers as the Greens had been portraying them, now they were people smugglers with links (according to Bernard Keane) to terrorism. Hell, it sounds like the sort of thing that we should police more thoroughly.
In general, when people were discussing people smugglers, they were referring to the people who coordinated the enterprises, not the opportunistic poor fishermen who crewed the boats. This is why the Parliamentary Library statistics counts them as ‘crew’ and not as ‘people smugglers’.
So why would we give money to these fishermen?
On a straight pragmatic level, it’s unclear (as many, many people have pointed out) to what extent Australia can force boats to return to Indonesia. A lot of problems go away if the boats return voluntarily. Still, that’s not really a good enough reason.
On a more complex level, we know quite a lot about these fishermen and why they join irregular migration enterprises. Specifically, we know that it’s economic. It was the same reasoning that led to the rather stupid ‘boat buy-back’ scheme. Under that policy, Abbott and Morrison were going to target poor fishermen and give them boats worth not sacrificing to irregular maritime ventures. That policy would have required rather sophisticated intelligence about likely venturers. The current (alleged) policy intercepts people already en route and offers them an alternative offer: return to Indonesia and buy yourself a new boat.
So what stops others from thinking that there’s a new boat in it for them if they start their own ventures?
Without having more details about the policy, it’s mostly speculation but you’d imagine that they’d use the people who accepted money to get information about the people coordinating the schemes. Suddenly, the fishermen have an incentive to become informants. A well-calibrated system would get the fishermen caught in international waters to spread the word that the Australian Government will pay for information about suspected ventures. In other words, pay the fishermen before they’ve even left Indonesia.
The other thing is that the payment also deters asylum seekers from undertaking the journey between Indonesia and Australia. Why pay the money to undertake the final leg of the journey if the boat crew will sell you out at the first sign of Australians? By paying a few crews to turn around, you deter both fishermen and asylum seekers.
And now we can have a serious policy discussion: is deterrence of asylum seekers through economic interventions a moral way of dealing with asylum seeker flows, especially when there’s no indication that Australia is doing more to assess and settle asylum seekers in the region? Although I think the policy is clever, it doesn’t meet my ideal policy goals of resettling intercepted asylum seekers. The people on the boats should go into a resettlement process; not being forced back to Indonesia where they might be undocumented. The boats aren’t the policy problem; they’re the symptom. This policy addresses symptoms.
But this is an altogether different discussion from the imbecilic ‘Hurr hurr, stupid policy’ or the tinfoil hattery of ‘The Government is committing crimes!’