PM wins praise for tough stance on refugees

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 August, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 August, 2001, 12:00am

The Australian Government's decision yesterday to turn back a Norwegian ship carrying 438 asylum-seekers was well received by the public.

But welfare agencies and refugee advocacy groups condemned the policy change.

Australia has a federal election at the end of the year and Prime Minister John Howard knows a tough stance towards asylum-seekers is a likely vote-winner.

Director of the Catholic Church's official welfare agency Centacare, Dale West, said there were two reasons for the Government's tough response.

'Firstly, it argues that such a policy will act as a deterrent to people-smugglers in the future,' he said 'Secondly, it knows that politically this is a very wise thing to do.

'I'd say around 80 per cent of Australians are right on side with the Government's position. The average Australian believes we have been too generous to asylum-seekers . . . there are people who seriously advocate blowing these refugee boats out of the water.'

Mr Howard played on those fears yesterday in refusing to let the tanker dock at remote Christmas Island, off Western Australia.

He said while Australia was a humane and decent country, it must reserve the right to decide who could cross its borders.

He said the Government's decision would 'send a message to people-smugglers and others around the world that . . . we are not a soft touch and we are not a nation whose sovereign rights in relation to who comes here are going to be trampled on'.

The opposition Labor Party supported the Government's decision, calling it appropriate.

With a population of 19 million, many Australians worry the country cannot absorb large numbers of refugees.

'There is a fear that our culture will be diluted and the country will be overrun,' Mr West said. 'It goes back to the White Australia policy [started in 1901 to curtail Asian immigration].'

Mr West said the Government had encouraged such feelings.

'They give the impression these boats are carrying machete-wielding Afghans. That plays to the redneck response. The Government talks about these people bringing diseases into Australia, which taps into Australians' fear that they will somehow bring about our downfall,' he said.

The move was criticised by church and welfare groups.

Head of the Melbourne-based Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre, Martin Clutterbuck, said it was an 'absolutely extraordinary' decision.

'I think the Government is sending to the world a very clear and alarming message - that we won't take any responsibility for refugees,' he said.

But for every outspoken critic of Australia's policy, there are many supporters. The national director of the right-wing One Nation party, Frank Hof, said Mr Howard's decision to block the arrival of the refugees was the first courageous decision he had made for years.

On Christmas Island former councillor Dave McLane also welcomed the tough stance.

'You can't help but see that Australia's kindness is being exploited . . . They should have done it three years ago, but better late than never,' he said.

Critics of the policy said the number of refugees Australia took in was minuscule compared with European countries.

While about 11,000 refugees had reached Australia's shores in the past decade, 3,000 of those have arrived this year.

'There is a feeling that Australia could be swamped and won't have the resources to deal with the problem,' Mr West said.

'This is exactly what John Howard needed to show - that he can stand up and be tough.'