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Ruddock defends his policies

October 17, 2009

Canberra Times : Losing sight of the human dimension
Jack Waterford, 15 October 2009

It is rare nowadays for Opposition backbencher Philip Ruddock to appear in the media spotlight, for which many people may feel thankful. But the former immigration minister and attorney-general can always be relied on for a public comment in defence of the policies which he discharged so assiduously while serving in government. Mr Ruddock called this week for a return to the immigration and asylum-seeker policies of the Howard government, and warned that failure to do so could result in up to 10,000 people a year seeking refuge in Australia. This cri de coeur was no doubt prompted by a recent surge of boat people arriving at Christmas Island. About 700 people have been intercepted in Australian waters in the past six weeks, and the Indonesian navy intercepted, apparently at the request of the Australian Government, a ship on Sunday carrying another 260 asylum-seekers believed to be on their way Down Under.

Mr Ruddock believes the surge in arrivals is because of perceptions by asylum-seekers (and the middlemen who facilitate their passage) that the Rudd Government has made it far easier for them to be accepted as a refugees and resettled in Australia. It is true that the 1600 people who have made it to Christmas Island this year represent a large increase on the 161 who arrived last year, but it is difficult to surmise precisely that this is because Australia is now considered a ”soft touch”. There are, of course, millions of displaced people and refugees around the word, awaiting (or hoping for) resettlement, and their numbers vary according to civil and regional conflicts. The recent spike in arrivals at Christmas Island is most likely caused by the Sri Lankan Government’s problematic treatment of Tamil refugees in the wake of that country’s civil conflict, and increased violence in Afghanistan. It is true the Rudd Government has moderated the immigration polices of its predecessor, the most notorious of which was the Pacific Solution: the warehousing of asylum-seekers in detention camps on remote Nauru and Manus islands and the delays in the timely processing of their claims. There were other equally harsh practices which were later found to have breached Australia’s international treaty obligations to refugees and asylum- seekers. Thus it is richly ironic that a former colleague of Ruddock’s, Alexander Downer, should now claim that Labor’s ”softer approach” is inhumane because thousands of people will risk their lives to reach Australian waters. The sea journey to Christmas island is indeed hazardous, and the fact that asylum-seekers continue to risk it suggests that they have very good reasons for wanting to leave their country of origin in the first place; something not all Australians are willing to recognise. It’s regrettable that some politicians so easily lose sight of the human dimensions of the asylum-seeker issue as they seek to curry favour with xenophobic voters or to uphold dubious legacies. Time to operate T he assessment that Australians wait excessively long to be treated in public emergency departments (or for admission to a hospital bed), and that waiting times for elective surgery are getting longer, is by now a familiar refrain of the Australian Medical Association. Like its previous annual report cards on the performance of the nation’s public hospitals, the AMA’s 2009 reports paints a disturbing picture of the state of our hospitals. In Canberra’s hospitals, for example, median waiting times for elective surgery now stretch to 72 days, and the bed occupancy rate is an ”unacceptably high” 90per cent. Those Canberrans who recall Health Minister Nicola Roxon’s statement before the 2007 election that ”only federal Labor has got a national health and hospital and reform plan which could make a difference” may justifiably wonder what the Federal Government has done to ameliorate this crisis. It is true the Commonwealth has begun to direct more money towards public health, but it has yet to implement anything like the reform agenda hinted at by Ms Roxon. This is not for want of suggestions or ideas. Earlier this year, the National Health and Hospitals Reform Commission delivered a report to the Government replete with recommendations. Like many others before it, however, the report was put aside while cabinet devoted itself to consultations and exploring other ideas. In fairness to Labor, part of the period covered by the AMA report coincides with the end of the Howard government’s term in office. Nonetheless, the problems in our public hospitals highlighted by the AMA now belong to the Rudd Government. It is time Labor showed some leadership by following through with its promises.

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