When he was Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd let it be known that he did not have a high opinion of people smugglers; following an explosion on 16 April 2009 in which several asylum seekers were killed and others badly injured on board an apprehended boat, he said (see here):
People smugglers are engaged in the world's most evil trade and they should all rot in jail because they represent the absolute scum of the earth.
People smugglers are the vilest form of human life. They trade on the tragedy of others and that's why they should rot in jail and in my own view, rot in hell.
We see this lowest form of human life at work in what we saw on the high seas yesterday.
That's why this Government maintains its hardline, tough, targeted approach to maintaining border protection for Australia.
Julia Gillard shares Rudd’s view; in her remarkable address to the Lowy Institute on 6 July 2010 (downloadable from here) she said that one of the organising principles for developing asylum seeker policy upon which she felt we could all agree was:
That people smuggling is an evil trade to be punished.
I say this was a remarkable speech because in this, an address to one of the nation’s leading foreign policy institutes, and her first major opportunity after becoming Prime Minister to present her views on foreign policy, she chose to address the matter of asylum seekers and little else.
If Rudd and Gillard were speaking only of the people traffickers who lure young girls into sexual slavery on the fraudulent promise of employment as household help or nannies I would be with them, but as an all-encompassing statement I think the proposition needs to be tested. Like John Passant in his 10 July blog post immediately following Gillard’s address (see here), I think that as well as having a dark side, people smuggling has a long and honourable history, and that Gillard’s attack on people smugglers is a crude dog whistle. Her real target is the asylum seekers themselves.
I am not suggesting for a moment that the people smugglers who organise the boats on which asylum seekers make the perilous voyage to Australia are all admirable people. Clearly some of them are not. But we should not fall for the implied message that the people smugglers are the cause of the asylum seeker “problem”. People smugglers exist because there are people fleeing persecution in their homelands, and a huge unmet wish on the part of people stranded in countries not party to the UN Convention on the Status of Refugees to get themselves and their families out of unsafe, unsavoury and unsanitary conditions in the camps in which they languish forever – with the ever-present danger of being bashed, caned, raped or robbed – even after being found by UNHCR to qualify for refugee status.
Solve the resettlement problem and there will be no people smugglers.
So let us not fall for the blandishments of the politicians on both sides of the house who rail against people smugglers as a dog-whistle proxy for attacking those seeking asylum.