Is anyone surprised?

JUST seven days ago three Rudd government ministers held a dramatic news conference to announce a policy volte face on illegal boat arrivals and applications for asylum.

Chris Evans, Stephen Smith and Brendan O’Connor, representing the departments of Immigration, Foreign Affairs and Home Affairs respectively, talked tough on asylum-seekers from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan, and even tougher on penalties for people-smugglers.

It was a calculated response to the Coalition’s increasingly successful claims that the Rudd government had gone soft on illegal boat arrivals and its policy changes since the 2007 election had encouraged rather than deterred arrivals. Polling was showing that voters thought the government was not handling the issues well and were giving the Coalition the edge.

Despite the government’s fervent wish to concentrate on the health reform package, the frequent arrival of boatloads of mostly Sri Lankan and Afghan asylum-seekers was capturing public attention and media time.

Evans started the press conference with the statement: “Look, today I want to announce that the government is implementing an immediate suspension on the processing of all new applications from asylum-seekers from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan.

“Evolving country information from Sri Lanka and Afghanistan is likely to have a significant effect on the outcome of assessments as to whether asylum-seekers have a well-founded fear of persecution within the meaning of the Refugees Convention.

“The likelihood of people being refused visas and being returned safely to their homelands will increase.”

Evans, Smith and O’Connor then proceeded to outline the policy and justifications for it that turned the government’s rhetoric on asylum-seekers for the past six months on its head.

In the week since the announcement the policy and justifications have been shredded and exposed as a cynical and deceitful political exercise.

What’s more, it’s a policy that is unlikely to achieve what it is intended to achieve because the government continues to attempt to please everyone and put politics ahead of policy.

While the changes are a sham and built on illogical or false premises, even the government admits they’re unlikely to have any effect on boat arrivals in the short term and will not stop moving detainees to the mainland.

The shift leaves those who want tougher action on asylum-seekers, such as Tony Abbott, with his no permanent visas “no ifs, no buts” approach, dissatisfied and those who want a greater degree of compassion outraged.

Last year, the initial reaction to the first “irregular maritime arrivals” was to deride the opposition’s claims, discount projections as being fanciful and point to illegal boat arrivals during the Howard years.

This year, the central political argument has been that waves of asylum-seekers are a global problem and that they are being driven to Australia by so-called “push factors” – war and strife pushing them from their home countries – rather than by the so-called “pull factors” – guaranteed permanent visas and a better life.

Labor continued to demonise the Howard government’s asylum policies and promote its own commitment to processing refugee claims within 90 days.

Evans continued to tell the Senate that people in detention for long periods faced mental trauma and Labor figures derided mandatory detention of boatpeople in remote centres.

But cracking a century of boat arrivals also cracked the government’s nerve and the decision was made to dump all the compassionate rhetoric made before and after the election.

Not only was 90 days no longer the maximum period for processing on Christmas Island, as Evans had aimed for, it was now the minium time in detention for Sri Lankans – 180 days for Afghans.

Also, the detention is effectively indefinite because there is no guarantee the suspension will end when reviewed.

The government’s justification for these actions is risible. Why doesn’t the Rudd government just live up to the Prime Minister’s election promise to “turn back the boats”, buy a fight with the human rights and refugee groups and appeal to voters who want some real action?

Part of the answer to that question is that the government thinks it can escape concerted criticism from the harshest critics of the Howard government as long as it performs a pea and thimble trick to satisfy appearances.

That assumption appears to be correct if the muted response to the government’s decision is any guide.

After claiming the increase in asylum-seekers was all push factors because of the bad conditions in Sri Lanka and Afghanistan, the Australian government is now arguing the situation is getting so much better in those countries the asylum-seekers should be encouraged to return of their own volition and the number of refugee visas will drop.

The grounds for this claim are based on US State Department advice, a proposed review by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the suggestion that a “number of countries” had suspended refugee applications from Sri Lankans.

The US State Department’s advice on Afghanistan is that it’s getting worse, the UNHCR’s review is a regular update unlikely to change dramatically and the citing of other countries is misleading. The ministers have still been unable to name other countries that acted before Australia and there have been reports since the press conference last week that Denmark had suspended its refugee applications.

What the Danish Refugee Appeals Board did almost exactly a year ago was to suspend the appeal of six Tamil families who had lost their refugee application and had been ordered to be repatriated so that those six families would not be sent back. The suspension was extended in June last year to cover all Sri Lankan refugee appeals, not applications, until the Danish Foreign Office provided more information about how dangerous Sri Lanka was.

The suspension of appeals was lifted in December last year, after the advice was given, and applications for refugee status from Sri Lankans were not suspended. Whatever the politics of all of this, it’s not good policy, either way.