Buying Indonesian village fishing boats to stop people smugglers acquiring them "saves lives; it saves the taxpayers’ money ultimately".
Scott Morrison on Friday, August 23, 2013 in a press conference, Darwin
Reaping the votes by buying the boats? Seems, er, implausible
It used to be we’d stop the boats. Now, we’re going to buy them.
The opposition’s immigration spokesman Scott Morrison, along with his leader, Tony Abbott, announced in Darwin on August 23 the latest auction bid to secure the "no more boats" vote.
As part of a $20 million package enlisting Indonesian villages to "support people smuggling disruption", Morrison and Abbott promised an unspecified share to fund purchases of dangerous and unreliable Indonesian fishing vessels so that people smugglers are denied this transport option.
"We want to have a program that reaches out to up to 100 villages across Indonesia," Morrison said. "But also the opportunity where the intelligence leads you to have the option to be able to get that boat before the people smuggler does and stop that boat leaving Indonesia. That saves lives; it saves the taxpayers’ money ultimately."
Well, of course it would, provided it worked.
And that’s a big proviso. If it failed - and there’s a lot of opinion it would - it would amount to pouring good money after bad. If it failed, it wouldn’t save lives and it wouldn’t spare Australian taxpayers.
The squandering would be limited, at least, because the scheme would be capped, albeit again to amounts unspecified.
So what are the scheme’s prospects?
Australia would need to spend on each rickety boat more than people smugglers do. Otherwise, there’d be no incentive for Indonesian fishing villagers to sell to Australia rather than to people smugglers.
How much are people smugglers willing to spend? That all depends on how much their desperate customers are willing to pay for their attempted passage to Australia.
Rather than being squeezed out of a lucrative trade by denial of boat transport, people smugglers could up their fares, push more travellers on to scarcer boats (thereby further risking lives, rather than saving them) or both.
Now Indonesians know an Abbott government would enter the boat buying competition, what would stop them from demanding more for their cast-offs, or building more boats so that Australia, people smugglers and fishermen all get a share?
"How many boats are there?", asks Flinders University politics associate professor Haydon Manning. "The smugglers will just find other boats or build new boats that are equally unseaworthy."
In Indonesia, boats are not hard to find. The country has the world’s fourth-largest coastline and its fishing industry employs more than 6 million people and contributes more than 5 per cent of the nation’s GDP. In 2004, according to the United Nations, there were 729,682 boats – though those numbers have apparently been rising.
We asked Dr Sam Bateman, a retired Australian navy Commodore now at the University of Wollongong’s Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources & Security, for his view on the prospects of the plan’s success.
"I didn’t think it was a particularly bright idea," he says. "How will you manage it? You are talking about a vast number of boats. I have doubts about the practicality of it. It is so open to abuse. What is a fair price for a boat in any case?"
Morrison told us he is not planning to buy back every boat in Indonesia.
"It is not the Coalition's policy to buy back all boats in Indonesia," he says.
"Rather the policy is to provide support to aid targeted intelligence-led buy backs where local operational commanders involved in joint police operations deem it worthwhile. The counter-terrorism efforts undertaken by joint Australian and Indonesian agencies post the Bali bombings have been remarkable. Our plan for local community engagement in Indonesia under our Regional Deterrence Framework, including targeted intelligence-led buy backs, would be based on that model."
The co-operation between Australian and Indonesia in recent years has indeed been remarkable though it has been far less successful when taken for granted. The signals that have emanated from Jakarta on the buy-back operations have not been warm.
Mahfudz Siddiq, the head of Indonesia’s parliamentary commission for foreign affairs, said the buy-back plan is "crazy" and "degrading" and offensive to the spirit of "bilateral cooperation". Hikmahanto Juwana, from the University of Indonesia, said the plan was humiliating to the nation’s fishermen and "clearly shows their [the coalition’s] poor knowledge of the situation in Indonesia."
Tony Abbott said Siddiq is just one Indonesian politician and others in Jakarta may support the plan.
Dr Christopher Roberts, an expert on Australia’s relations with Indonesia at the Australian National University’s National Security College, told us that the buyback plan was "fraught with challenges", not least the failure to secure Indonesia’s support before announcing it.
"I question the feasibility of all this in terms of implementation let alone an agreement with the Indonesian side," he says.
"Do people smugglers come forward and say ‘please buy my boat’? It would need a lot of money when people smugglers can put 100 people on a boat at $5,000 a person. We may get people taking up the offer but are they the people smugglers we are trying to target?"
Dr Roberts says some analysts have labelled Kevin Rudd’s plan to resettle all boat people in Papua New Guinea as "a 39-day policy" – an unworkable election fix – and that the boat buyback could perhaps be labelled "a 15-day policy".
"Maybe there will be people in the party who hope this gets forgotten," he says.
"There is a lot of rhetoric on both sides at the moment. We have policies devised on the run with perhaps no real intention of moving beyond the rhetoric to actual implementation."
We asked Dr Bateman whether he thought joint buy-back operations were likely to proceed.
"I would not think so," he says. "Where do you start? Are you looking at the whole of Java, or the whole archipelago? It would be so open to corruption… Indonesians are enormously sensitive to their sovereign jurisdiction. This does smack of being in conflict with it. I just cannot visualise the scene of going around fishing ports and saying ‘We’ll buy up all your boats’. It is just ridiculous."
There’s a broader question. Why would the Coalition need to dream up policy as apparently "ridiculous" as this?
Said Manning: "Given Abbott shouldn’t be desperate at this stage of the campaign, my hunch is it’s the sort of stuff that boils up in focus groups, and someone grabs the phrase and runs with it."
Scott Morrison says the latest addition to the opposition’s border protection policy is intended to show the Coalition is ''focused unashamedly on deterring people''. But deterrence can be only part of the solution.
The flood of asylum seekers worldwide is demand-driven.
Choking off one means of supply can only disrupt smuggling operations, at best. This is an "industry" with boundless resilience so long as enough people are willing to pay the smugglers’ profits. And targeted joint operations – even if Indonesia agrees to them – will hardly make much difference to the abundant supply of Indonesian fishing boats.
Morrison’s proposition is that boat buying will save lives and cost Australian taxpayers less. It will do neither if it proves ineffective. There is no evidence it will work.
On ABC’s Insiders on Sunday the opposition leader Tony Abbott conceded it was possible the Coalition would never buy a single boat from Indonesia. That's a remarkable concession.
Of all the Coalition policies floated in this election, this appears the most ridiculous.
We rate the statement Pants on Fire.
Published: Monday, September 2, 2013 at 8:30 a.m.
Tony Abbott, Scott Morrison, joint media conference Darwin Friday August 23 2013
Telephone interview with Associate Professor Haydon Manning, Flinders University, August 26 2013
United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, Fishery Country Profile for Indonesia, December 2006
Indonesia Investment Coordinating Board, Fisheries Industry - At A Glance, 2011
Email from Scott Morrison’s office, August 30 2013
Jakarta furious over Abbott buyback plan, The Australian, August 27, 2013
Abbott fobs off Indon boat buying concerns, news.com.au, August 27, 2013
Phone interview with Dr Sam Bateman, professorial research fellow at the University of Wollongong’s Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources & Security, August 29, 2013
Phone interview with Dr Christopher Roberts, senior lecturer at the Australian National University’s National Security College, August 30, 2013
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PolitiFact Australia wants to help keep our politicians honest. We fact-check the accuracy of claims by elected officials and other influential people in the Australian political debate.
We research and rate statements with our Truth-O-Meter. Its goal is to reflect the relative accuracy of a statement. The meter has six ratings, in decreasing level of truthfulness:
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