Dr Khalid Koser is a Lowy Institute Non-Resident Fellow and Deputy Director of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy.
Prime Minister Rudd's new asylum policy is likely to work.
First, he has filled a dangerous political void. Even Mr Abbott appears grudgingly to condone the policy. The Labor Party can still be attacked for its poor record on boats (as the party that let them back in) but this is a far less potent criticism than being a party without a coherent stand on the issue. If the Labor Party loses the next election, I don't think it will be the boats that bring it down any longer, as many have been predicting.
Second, I think the policy is likely significantly to reduce the number of boats departing for Australia. It is punitive enough to make anyone think twice: no-one arriving by boat in Australia without a visa will ever settle there. It will undermine the smuggling business in all but a few cases where smugglers are unscrupulous (and short-sighted) enough to take their payment up front and dispatch their clients without regard – and these smugglers won't be in business for long.
The policy is also clear, which should make it easy to communicate. No ifs or buts, no quotas, no time limits. There is no way you will settle in Australia, period.
I hesitate to suggest that the policy will stop the boats, and if I were advising Mr Rudd I would urge him to manage public expectations. Even if the policy is strong and coherent, it will take time to achieve an impact. There will be migrants in Indonesia who have already made a payment for the onward trip and I doubt smugglers will be handing out refunds. However clear the policy, experience shows that many would-be migrants simply don't trust information disseminated by governments, so some may continue to try their luck. And there will be some who are simply so desperate that no fate could be worse than the one they are trying escape.
Nevertheless, from a political and policy perspective, Mr Rudd has done things right. But has he done the right thing? I don't think so.
Although Australian politicians lost their perspective on boats a long time ago, and Australia has a peculiar characteristic of resisting comparisons with the rest of the world, it is worth reiterating that Australia hosts a tiny proportion of the global refugee population. Even the rapidly rising number of boat arrivals is small in comparison to irregular migration in many other parts of the world. The new policy is way out of proportion.
This wouldn't matter so much were its potential consequences not so serious.
First, the policy reveals an astonishing disregard for Australia's neighbourhood. Indonesia has become the front line of a war on asylum and Papua New Guinea a dumping ground for unwanted asylum seekers and refugees. To try to dress this up as capacity-building (more training for Indonesian officials so they can screen Iranian visa applications; more infrastructure on Manus Island) strikes me as disingenuous. Europe has done much the same in making Greece and other southern European countries the outer wall of 'Fortress Europe'. Resentment there against the European Union is growing, and violence against the migrants trapped there is rising fast. The EU might have been better advised to focus on Greece's economy than its borders.
Second, the self-centeredness of the policy is bound to raise eyebrows in destination countries for asylum seekers who may otherwise have headed for Australia.
As I suggested on The Interpreter in May, there is every reason to expect more people to leave Afghanistan during the transition in 2014, and more Afghans in Iran and Pakistan to try to move outwards rather than stay or risk going home. If they can't go to Australia they'll go somewhere else. So, over to you, Turkey. I hope you can find space among the hundreds of thousands of Syrians you have accommodated over the last few months. But don't worry, you'll be invited to Mr Rudd's international conference on burden-sharing and Australia may resettle another 7000 refugees at some point in the future.
Finally, I suspect this policy will do lasting harm to Australia's hard-earned reputation as a constructive multilateralist, just as the Pacific Solution did. Then, Australia went from champion to pariah in the eyes of many in the international community. Some might ask 'who cares?', but it is this reputation that has allowed Australia to punch above its weight in the international arena for so long.
No, Mr Rudd has not done the right thing, and he knows it.
Photo by Flickr user HerrWick.