Friday, August 19, 2016

Mr Abbott and the Malaysia solution revisited

Sometimes in public policy there are no good solutions, only least bad ones. If you reject the least bad one on the grounds that it's not right, you end with a worst result.

Back in May 2011, I wrote this:
"My first quick reaction to the PM's Malaysian proposal, Gillard's refugee deal, was positive as one step in a possible broader solution. That reaction is not shared by many of my blogging colleagues. 
Given this, I thought that I would set out the principles/issues that underlay my reaction simply and without supporting argument:
  1. The Howard Government's refugee policies were part of a pattern of behaviour that, at the end, swung me against that Government. The refugee policy may have stopped the boats, but it came at a high human cost and was (as I saw it) part of a progressive dehumanisation of Government.
  2. The initial policies of the new Labor Government may or may not have been sensible, but they were a reaction to Howard Government policies. However, Labor then became trapped in the political get tough rhetoric. Just as Mr Howard's policies ignored key regional dynamics, so East Timor regional processing got thrown in without thought.
  3. The Howard policy was simple. Make things tough at this end and we stop the boats. Mr Abbott's single minded rhetoric on the issue has been effective only because of apparent failures in Labor policy, as well as Labor's failure to articulate a clear alternative approach.
  4. Both the Howard and, to a degree, the Rudd-Gillard approach were crafted for domestic consumption and really didn't take into account broader issues.
  5. The refugee problem is complex. Further, the problems that countries like Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia face are large compared to ours in terms of numbers and resources.
Turning now to the specifics that guided my instinctive reaction:
  1. There is no such thing as perfection.
  2. For a number of reasons including politics and humanity, we have to stop the boats. We have two choices: we can go the Abbott/Howard route or an alternative. None of those attacking the Gillard proposal have really put forward an alternative. If the current opinion polls continue, Mr Abbott may well win the next election.
  3. The Government is, I think, reaching towards a regional framework that will provide a more sensible approach. That can only be underpinned in the end if we take more refugees.
I am well aware of issues associated with Malaysia's treatment of refugees. I am old enough, among other things, to remember the treatment of Vietnamese boat people. That (the issues), it seems to me, is a matter to be dealt with in negotiation."
Mr  Abbott's highly qualified  admission that the Opposition should perhaps have supported the proposal is interesting, including the admission that a more bipartisan approach might have reduced some of the poison now infecting Australian politics. Mr Morrison's response that he did as he was told on the matter by Mr Abbott ("I acted in accordance with my leader's instructions," ) is also interesting.

It is, of course, very difficult to know what might have happened if another course had been followed. I doubt that it would have been worse. The poisoned chalice that is "Stop the Boats" keeps dripping, with the Greens doing their best to hold it to the Government's lips saying just another sip.

In some previous posts I have tried to explore ways of humanising current policy within the frame set by the Government's policy parameters. I don't think I was very successful.

What I can be sure of is that the current approach will lead to continuing problems. Sort Manus and Nauru remains. In the end, I am left with the depressing feeling that Nauru might become the Australian equivalent of Guantanamo Bay. Not a nice prospect. We will probably sort it out. The only question is the final cost.


These numbers seem reasonably accurate - a Manus cost of $2 billion. Later we will get all the numbers - Nauru, Manus, navy etc - and be able to make an objective judgement as to value.


2 tanners said...


Good post, exploring some of the issues and some of the politics. Two comments only:
1) Like you, I see no way out, but the point you miss mentioning is the wide support in Australia for these policies. The chalice is not as poisoned as the Greens make out, except in their own echo chamber. Like single sex marriage, most Australians support stop the boats. I don't have to like it, but I do have to recognise that I'm in the minority.
2) I don't know if you know the saying which is my daily mantra "The perfect is the enemy of the good.". In problems like this, where there is no perfect, it is truly relevant. The greens could have had Gillards Emissions Trading System, but instead they've got nothing. I hope they learn.

Anonymous said...

and be able to make an objective judgement as to value

Nope. You might then be able to make an objective judgement as to 'cost', but the 'value' will remain subjective - personal to each of us - just as tanners points to.

What is it with numbers? Endless dissection of the latest atrocity as to dead and injured; census befouled because only 90% will respond, not 96.73%. How is the difference relevant? five38 states that any poll with 850 respondents will be accurate to within +-3% - then we spend endless millions on counting another 23-odd million to reduce that variance by what?

Statisticians gotta stat; econs gotta trend; meanwhile the cost of petrol, bread, milk, booze and rent is what most of us think about. Cover those costs, then we'll maybe think about 'values'.


Jim Belshaw said...

I disagree with you, kvd. Value always has a subjective element - value for what? in forty years time, the financial cost of the policy is unlikely to be an issue. What will be an issue is the effects. It may be dismissed as an aberration and injustice as other equivalents have been. It may just be discussed as something that made sense at the time. It may be seen as a starting point for something that became a national crisis. We can't know. The only things that we can be sure of is that what seems self-evident now is unlikely to be so then.

History, more precisely later perceptions of history,has a habit of making harsh judgements where personal injustices are involved.

Jim Belshaw said...

Now on the census. The census is just that, a census, 100% coverage. It is not a survey. It does not have a margin of error, although it can contain errors. It is the only thing that provides information down to locality level. It is central to much of our economic and policy analysis, central to things such as population estimates. Past censuses are central to our understanding of the detail of Australian history.

The stuff-up on this year's census is a policy failure of monumental proportions. If, as seems possible, we don't get full coverage, then we are not going to be able to rely on the data. We are not going to know the real texture of change and trend in key areas. I think that's important

Jim Belshaw said...

I don't miss the political realities such as support for the policies, 2t. They dictate the now. However, the challenge of analysis is, I guess, to stand back from the now.

2 tanners said...

Didn't say you missed it, Jim, but that you missed mentioning it. It is important in my view to hold the rest of the argument together.

I agree with kvd on values and don't understand how you can make an objective decision on an issue with a subjective element.

Had a friend who worked in the ABS. Came into her boss with some figures which just didn't seem right. He literally multiplied the bottom line by 100 and said "use that". Error is everywhere. Just sayin', not taking sides.

And just to repeat my first comment, good post, Jim.

Anonymous said...

Now on the census. The census is just that, a census, 100% coverage. It is not a survey. It does not have a margin of error, although it can contain errors.

Except from hearings on results of 2001 Census, as to 'data quality':

5.63 The first set of columns lists the estimated net undercount figures derived from the PES survey. (see Note 41) It shows that the NT had the highest estimated net undercount of all the jurisdictions, at 4.0% or 7,800 people.


5.66 The significance of the margins of error in the net undercount is this: when the net undercount is applied to the Census figures, the margins of error in the net undercount carry through to the adjusted Census figures, and hence to the quarterly population estimates that are used to determine State and Territory entitlements to seats in the House of Representatives. (see Note 42)

Note 41: These figures also include demographic consistency adjustments, and a separately estimated adjustment for the over estimation of the number of persons in occupied dwellings from which a completed Census form was not obtained.

Note 42: The ABS concedes that after all the adjustments to the Census figures have been made there is still a margin of error surrounding the population estimates.

So, yes the census does incorporate a (perfectly understandable) margin of error, but I'm actually still in the dark as to what is meant by a "demographic consistency adjustment" and a "separately estimated adjustment for the over estimation"?

Final point of interest: for the ACT, its estimated population of 322,871 people is actually an estimated population range of between 320,471 and 325,271 people (that is, 322,871 plus or minus 2,400 people, at a 95% confidence level).

IOW they can't even get the ACT right to within +/- 2400 people.

This is just an observation - not a criticism. Personally I think they do a great job, and all the recent press and polly speak is a complete, unhelpful, beatup.


Jim Belshaw said...

Interesting that one side effect of the kerfuffle is that more people have put in their census form than at the same time last census.

I'm conscious of those adjustments and also cautious about them because of the impact they can have. In areas like homelessness where undercounting was a real problem, they have worked hard to get them better. I suppose that I'm most conscious of the statistical problems in the Aboriginal area. The treatment here makes me uncomfortable.