6/20/05 The Age Tony Kevin
Some commentators are praising John Howard's political acumen, in knowing when to cut a deal with the Georgiou-Moylan group, "while maintaining the essence of mandatory detention" and thereby "enraging" the refugee lobby. Against this, one commentator wrote: "It was a huge climb down by Howard He obviously figured the political climate had changed.
He would not have put in so much time and negotiating effort if he did not realise there was a mood and a cause for change."
The success of the dissenters has many parents but could not have happened without their confidence in the growing community support behind them. This month-long conflict caused huge lobbying efforts in the diverse Australian human rights movement, and a sense of determination that it was now or never.
The public discussion re-engaged Australian society with the unfinished SIEV X history. If Howard supporters claimed mandatory detention stopped the boats coming, many replied that it was the sinking of SIEV X and the drowning of 353 people on October 19, 2001, that stopped them.
One need only examine the timeline data of arrivals, and ask former boat people why their relatives stopped trying to come here, to get the true answer - that after SIEV X, people rightly feared for their lives in these perilous voyages.
The Howard camp tried ruthlessly until the last day to intimidate Petro Georgiou and his fellow dissidents into withdrawal. The negotiating history will now be set aside under the usual political courtesies of a done deal, but observers will recall key markers:
The large numbers in the party room debate who condemned the Georgiou bills, trying to isolate the group and break their nerve.
The meaningless concession first offered on bridging visas - promptly rejected as totally inadequate.
Last-minute abuse by MP Sophie Panopoulos, and planted stories that Georgiou's Kooyong seat was coming under threat (promptly rebutted locally).
Howard's harsh rhetoric in question time last week.
Some corrosive media commentaries suggesting that "the strain is visibly showing in the rebels". (On the contrary, I saw only dignity and resolve there.)
Three things finally brought Howard to realise he had to offer meaningful concessions:
1. The dissidents' determination, and Georgiou's and Judi Moylan's negotiating skills;
2. evidence that Liberal dissident opinion (so-called "doctors' wives") was spreading fast and the disgust the Panopoulos intervention inspired in those circles; and
3. the political savvy of the Greens in moving identical bills to Georgiou's, for debate in the Senate this week, leaving Howard with the disturbing worry - what might senators Payne, Troeth and Humphries (and who knows who else on the Coalition side) have said and done there?
For those on the activist side who criticise the final deal as not enough, I believe it was the best that could be achieved now. For in politics, the best is often the enemy of the good.
Howard is exposed again as a leader without principle -for how could he concede so readily now what he would not concede for years, causing such huge human misery along the way? Real ground has been gained, and a monitoring platform now exists for renewed protest if cruelty persists, as it probably will.
Things to watch now:
. Family home detention. This crucially depends on how it is done. Will it be a humanitarian "honour" system regime, with volunteer social workers as "guards" and families formally reporting in, say, once a week? Or will it be the whole distressing totalitarian apparatus of electronic surveillance, confinement, professional guards around houses, etc?
. How quickly will TPV holders achieve permanency now: ow many bureaucratic hoops might still snare them?
Will the Government stage another phoney "people smuggling" incursion, as it did in late 1993 (the Minasa Bone bringing 14 Kurds to Melville Island) and in 1994 (the unknown boat leaving 15 Indonesians at Ashmore Reef), to demonstrate anew that Australia still needs deterrent mandatory detention? The machinery for this exists, in the undercover agents in Indonesia of the DIMIA/AFP People Smuggling Strike Team.
There are hints in Howard's statement last Friday: "We will maintain our strong position on border protection, that is the excision of islands, the maintenance of offshore processing and, in the unlikely event of it being needed in the future, the policy of turning boats around."