Book Review: ‘That Sinking Feeling: Asylum seekers and the search for the Indonesian solution’ by Paul Toohey

I am conflicted about the latest Quarterly Essay.

Paul Toohey is a talented reporter and the reader experiences the pain, sorrow and anger of people seeking Australia, so often missing from the front pages and talkback. We get an insight into the attitudes of those not lucky enough to be born in Australia. “Australia is a kind country”, says one man, a forlorn attempt to keep faith with a new life just one step away from the hills of Java (p14). He manages to weave together the disbelief of asylum seekers at the PNG ‘solution’ and the discontent of the Australian electorate. His use of individual stories, particularly in the wake of a sinking off the coast of Java, is harrowing.

Away from the personal, he reminds us of history, something many choose to forget or are unable to recall. Bob Hawke’s words in 1989 – “Do not let any people, or any group of people in the world, think that because Australia has that proud record, that all they’ve got to do is break the rules, jump the queue, lob here and Bob’s your uncle, other than in according with the appropriate rules” – are a vivid insight into how language infects this debate and has done so since its inception (p19).

Toohey ventures far and wide, adding some much needed global perspective into our narrative on asylum policy. His take on the U.S.-Mexico border debate is well resourced and an excellent comparative case study. While he misses, perhaps deliberately, the miniature (failing to note the net flow of Mexican irregular migrants has ceased), his reading of the U.S. political system on immigration is sound. He purposefully contrasts this to Australia: “(In Australia) we judge – and change – governments on how they handled the big, live issues, taking a short-term view for fear of what the long-term picture might look like” (p33).

Perhaps most pleasing, Toohey identifies the critical context lacking from shorter takes on asylum policy. This is embodied by his words on one of the most insurmountable barriers in global asylum policy. Iran, representing countries of origin, refuses to repatriate involuntary asylum seekers who are found not to have protection claims (p82). The fact is asylum seekers and governments clearly understand the ramifications of this decision, creating a perpetual waiting game for those refused protection visas. The simple solution – send them home – is the furthest from reality. An immigration source puts it most bluntly: “They have no right to remain in Australia, yet Tehran will not take them back. This will be a hard nut to crack” (p83).

He skewers the ridiculous secrecy pervasive in the bureaucracy, even before Operation Sovereign Borders (p53). The lack of clarity in regard to public statements and the refusal to admit policy realities made for a public debate lacking in substance, heavy on political claims. His journalistic instincts serve him well here, seeing through the baseless claims for operational matters.

Yet despite this excellence, I felt there was something very substantial missing.  The ‘Indonesian’ solution doesn’t exist for a reason yet Toohey’s thesis seems predicated on a concrete solution that is just around the corner.

In this sense, the title is misleading. Publicly, there has never been a search for the ‘Indonesian solution’. I know Toohey makes this point, but it seems ignored in relation to his argument. Why is he even searching for it? His reporting stands up for itself, a gut wrenching account of asylum seekers in Indonesia and the failure of Australia’s political establishment to ‘solve’ the problem without resorting to extremism.

His academic expert of choice – Dr Tim Lindsay – outlines why anything less than a well thought out, substantial Indonesian policy would fail. Toohey presents all the evidence to show why this hasn’t occurred to date. Short-term reaction to public opinion is easier to manage by co-opting mostly powerless nations than having a proper discussion with Indonesia. Even today, we see this play out again, with the Abbott government failing to smooth over the clear irritation from Jakarta and instead hop, skip and jump as quickly as possible to tie up a deal with Cambodia.

There were other, smaller, issues. Early in the article, Toohey claims Australian voters ‘kind of got Sri Lankans’ in the sense they were running from real trouble as opposed to Iranians (p16). Yet Toohey’s gut is not as reliable as the reader might hope, his instincts of how Australians view Indonesia patently false until corrected by Dr Lindsey (p72). It also turns out, perhaps Australian voters don’t ‘get’ Sri Lankans given the lack of outrage over the extreme policy positions designed to repatriate Sri Lankans.

More confronting is his use of narrative to supplement otherwise good reporting. Reza, Toohey’s intrepid interepter, has an instructive story. “Malaysia was a revelation. They were free to work and quick-minded Reza was able to avoid trouble with the authorities” (p27).

Just 12 pages later, the reader is treated to this diatribe:

“Malaysia, a more of less unfriendly semi-ally with a very poor record on human rights, which thrashed prisoners with canes, had a police force with a stop-and-search policy that mirrored South Africa’s Apartheid-era passbook requirements, did not recognise Israel, kept unfavoured citizens in a state of fear and unease, punished homosexuality, did not run free and fair elections, controlled the media absolutely, controlled the judiciary, dealt with the outspoken using subversion charge, and appeared to be a preferred address for questionable individuals on the regional terror map. Gillard and Chris Bowen decided Malaysia was a good idea” (p39-40).

Only a fleeting revelation perhaps? On the one hand we see how asylum seekers can experience Malaysia and then we see the more dominant narrative, yet one which struggles to outline why nearly 100,000 asylum seekers and refugees call Malaysia home while avoiding Indonesia in droves. This post-hoc firebombing of the Malaysia solution runs counter to the expertise of the bureaucracy and reflects the crocodile tears shed in parliament, neither of which are raised in any substantial manner in relation to the Malaysia plan.

Toohey’s article is required reading. The bar is low for quality reporting on asylum policy as simple output reigns. He makes his case while occasionally letting his prejudices spill onto the pages, an acceptable trade-off for such a detailed read.

Most importantly, at least from an Australian policy perspective, he nails the electoral addiction of the Liberal Party and Prime Minister Abbott:

“Labor had made the big mistakes on asylum policy, yet it was Abbott’s refusal to even talk through the possible solution with Gillard’s government that sent a loud message to smugglers and asylum seekers: we’re in bedlam, come on down” (p43).

“Even before arriving in office, Abbott had willfully set course for difficulties with Indonesia by insisting on the turn-backs. It appeared he had no longer view on how it would play out, treating it as a short-course triathlon” (p90).

These are character traits that do not sit well for the years ahead.

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