The site of Senators Kate Lundy and George Brandis slugging it out on Monday night’s episode of Q&A on ABC Television pretty much summed up the sad state of affairs in the national political debate on asylum seekers – lots of talk, argument, grandstanding, pontificating, blame, but not much listening.

This, of course, is not an issue that is going to go away quickly, and there are no easy solutions for the ALP, politically speaking.

The most obvious humanitarian solution is for the Government to allow asylum seekers on boats to come to Australian shores and, after mandatory processing for health, identification and criminal checks, be allowed to stay in Australia, eventually seeking residency. This, after all, is what Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister, confirmed would be the Labor party policy on achieving government in 2007.

But will a humanitarian solution work politically? Well, the answer is no, otherwise the ALP wouldn’t be in the predicament that it finds itself in now. The main problem for the ALP is that it doesn’t know how to stand it’s ground, where to be firm, when a policy needs to change (or even how to manage a policy) or how political issues such as asylum seekers coming into Australia by boat can be managed effectively.

When the first sight of the political problem arrived for then Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, in 2009, when a group of Sri Lankan asylum seekers aboard the MV Oceanic Viking refused to embark in Indonesia (they were meant to continue through to Australia), the ALP buckled under its own pressure and continued with a problem that first arrived for Labor during the Tampa crisis in 2001. It simply hasn’t been able to formulate a policy that will work to its advantage, on political or humanitarian levels.

Julia Gillard’s ‘Malaysia Solution’ would have to be one of the more bizarre pieces of public policy seen for some time, opening up all sorts of diplomatic problems for Australia in the south-east Asia region, as well as creating a policy vacuum in Australia, gladly filled in by Tony Abbott and the Coalition. As well, Malaysia is not a country that has agreed to the UN Refugee Convention and the Australian High Court has already ruled the proposed legislation to implement the ‘Malaysia Solution’ as unconstitutional.

It supposedly was put forward to ‘send out the message’ to potential asylum seekers and smugglers that Australia is a difficult place to have asylum and, if your boat does make it so far, you’ll end up in Malaysia for five years and then, if you’re lucky, finally reach Australia. But the ALP couldn’t even make its bill pass the High Court test, or have the conviction to put it to the floor of parliament.

So, where to from here for the ALP? Well, asylum seeker policy really is a vexed issue for Labor and it seems like anything that it attempts will fail for a number of reasons. Firstly, and most importantly, Julia Gilard finds herself in the weakest position a Prime Minister has found themselves, possibly since Federation. A hung parliament means that there are too many distractions coming from so many different political persuasions.

Based on the Coalition’s current tack of not even voting for legislation that exactly replicates their own policy position, it seems that Tony Abbott would never have agreed to any position that Labor put forward over the past two years, irrespective of how closely it resembles their own policy. He realises that asylum seeker policy is Labor’s festering sore, and will pick at the scabs wherever possible. Honourable? God no, but politically the best course of action for the Coalition. After all, Tony Abbott is a politician and people shouldn’t be surprised if a politician behave politically.

The best option for the ALP, as we’ve said many times before, is that it should continue with onshore processing, build as many processing centres as possible, and ensure the smooth transition of asylum seekers into the Australian community. This is the right thing to do.

Then, when it loses office at the 2013 election (which it will do, unless there is some kind of inexplicable collective brain explosion on the part of Coalition – which still could happen – or Gillard decides to invade the Pitcairn Islands in the southern seas), let it become Abbott’s problem when, surely, he’ll discover that asylum seeker policy is not easy and ‘turning back the boats’ is not as simple as launching himself atop the HMAS Maitland and barking out instructions.

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