People smugglers, asylum seekers, and Ozzie Rules

John Key opened Pandora’s Box when he revealed that Australia had considered using its navy to shepherd a boatload of asylum seekers to New Zealand, but nobody seems to want to look inside. It isn’t a pretty sight.

It isn’t surprising that the people-smugglers and asylum seekers intercepted by the Australian Navy say they’re really heading for New Zealand. Anywhere other than Australia’s off-shore “processing “ centres on Nauru or Manas Island would be a sound choice.

What is surprising is that Australia actually considered shepherding one of these boatloads across the Tasman instead of whisking them out of the water and into the cauldron of their border protection system. Even more surprising is the fact that John Key didn’t hear about this matter directly from his very good friend Julia Gillard.

Under questioning in Parliament, the Prime Minister told Opposition leader David Shearer he heard about it from “my intelligence agencies”.

He was more fulsome the previous day at his post-Cabinet press conference. The Herald’s Audrey Young relayed this quote:

“… what I can tell you is that I get more than enough correspondence from my intelligence agencies, fed from the Australian intelligence agencies, to tell you that this situation and the likelihood of a boat wanting to come to New Zealand is very real and very alive, and I was dealing with it just before my Christmas holidays."

So, did the Australian intelligence agencies tell the New Zealand intelligence agencies that Australia was considering deploying its navy to escort a boatload of asylum-seekers across the Tasman? If so, why are Australian intelligence agencies spilling confidential information about their country’s intentions?  Or, are we spying on them?

Communication between intelligence agencies seems a very odd back-door way of dealing with an issue that should be handled through diplomatic channels – or even directly via a PM-to-PM phone call.

I’ve no doubt the veil of secrecy will be quickly draped over anything that went on between Australian and New Zealand intelligence agencies – and we all know how difficult it is to get anything meaningful out of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade. But why aren’t the Opposition and the Press Gallery questioning the Prime Minister on his strange admission?

After all, the Prime Minister has been very adamant that he took the initiative with an offer of an annual intake of 150 asylum seekers a year  - after they’d served their “no advantage” time in Australia’s off-shore processing centres at Manas in Papua New Guinea or on Nauru.

He was also very adamant that New Zealand had not been pressured into this offer by Australia. Yet, it’s hard to see Australia’s tip-off about its  Trans-Tasman shepherding thoughts as anything other than pressure – particularly when John Key himself says that one of the benefits of his deal is that it will put a stop to such an operation.

The Prime Minister has been ominously silent on how he reacted when his intelligence agencies gave him the good news just before Christmas. It’s hard to imagine that he just shrugged and packed his bags for Hawaii. Obviously, someone was quickly assigned the homework to set up the statement of agreement that Key and Gillard released after their recent Queenstown meeting. It says:

“The Prime Minister of New Zealand advised that New Zealand will work closely with Australia to annually resettle 150 refugees who have arrived irregularly in Australia by boat to seek asylum, as part of a regional approach to irregular migration. The arrangement will be within New Zealand’s Refugee Quota Programme and operate so that irregular maritime arrivals gain no advantage through choosing irregular migration pathways.”

Australia’s recently adopted and highly controversial “no advantage” test  undermines John Key’s effort to liken his new asylum-seeker arrangements to Helen Clark’s decision in 2001 to accept 150 asylum seeker rescued from a sinking boat by the Tampa and held in Australia’s offshore centre on Nauru. The “no advantage” test did not exist in 2001.

“No advantage” means asylum-seekers desperate enough to run Australia’s interception gauntlet spend the unspecified amount of time – probably years – that it would take a refugee to gain asylum in Australia via regular migration pathways.

These asylum-seekers will spend this undefined period living in conditions that were condemned as inadequate and inappropriate by the United Nations refugee agency just one month ago. The UN High Commission for Refugees has told the Australian Government in blunt language:

“The current policy and operational approach of mandatory, indefinite and arbitrary detention should be addressed as a matter of urgency.”

That statement was in the public domain a month ago. This week our Prime Minister unveiled another, previously unknown element of the Key-Gillard agreement: it would enable New Zealand to use the Australian “processing” centres on Manas and Nauru if a big people-smuggling boatload of asylum-seekers ever makes it all the way to New Zealand.

He told Radio New Zealand News that he had been assured by his Australian counterpart that conditions at its off-shore “processing” centres meet international standards. It may be Australia’s intention to meet international standards at the centres – but a UNHCR investigation mission has determined that they do not today. John Key should be asking “my intelligence agencies” and his other official advisers how they missed this critical point. Maybe a few other people should be asking him the same question. 

The Prime Minister says it would take a law change to put New Zealand-bound asylum seekers into the Australian off-shore processing centres. Perhaps that will open up the debate. It isn’t as if there aren’t plenty of questions that should be asked about a deal that looks like something that crawled out of Pandora’s Box.