Tony Abbott’s initial post-prime ministerial public foray on the policy front has been narrowcast and hardline. Delivering the Margaret Thatcher lecture in London, the former prime minister’s two central points were that Europe has been too soft in face of the refugee tide, and that the fight against Islamic State (IS) will need to be escalated if it is to be successful.
Abbott bluntly declared the Europeans should adopt Australia’s policy of turning back the boats, arguing that “misguided altruism” was “leading much of Europe into catastrophic error”.
He said that “on a somewhat smaller scale” Australia had faced and overcome the same predicament as confronted Europe. Australia was “the only country that has successfully defeated” people smuggling. Also, asylum seekers in Europe were “economic migrants”.
“In Europe, as with Australia, people claiming asylum – invariably – have crossed not one border but many, and are no longer fleeing in fear but are contracting in hope with people smugglers. However desperate, almost by definition, they are economic migrants because they had already escaped persecution when they decided to move again.
"Our moral obligation is to receive people fleeing for their lives. It’s not to provide permanent residency to anyone and everyone who would rather live in a prosperous western country than their own. That’s why the countries of Europe, while absolutely obliged to support the countries neighbouring the Syrian conflict, are more than entitled to control their borders against those who are no longer fleeing a conflict but seeking a better life,” Abbott said.
“That means turning boats around, for people coming by sea. It means denying entry at the border, for people with no legal right to come, and it means establishing camps for people who currently have nowhere to go.
"It will require some force; it will require massive logistics and expense; it will gnaw at our consciences – yet it is the only way to prevent a tide of humanity surging through Europe and quite possibly changing it forever,” he said.
The Australian experience proved “the only way to dissuade people seeking to come from afar is not to let them in”. This was part of “the moral duty to protect one’s own people”.
“It’s good that Europe has now deployed naval vessels to intercept people smuggling boats in the Mediterranean – but as long as they’re taking passengers abroad rather than turning boats around and sending them back, it’s a facilitator rather than a deterrent.”
Abbott’s analysis will strike a chord with some in Europe, where there is a backlash against the flood of refugees, but will be seen by others as not-so-welcome lecturing.
Whatever is thought about the Europeans’ handling of the problem, in telling them Australia has the answer, Abbott overlooks the vast differences in the two situations, which he virtually dismisses with the phrase “on a somewhat smaller scale”. In Australia’s case the numbers were limited – thousands of people, as against hundreds of thousands. A vast ocean was an ally, hardly comparable to the situation in the Mediterranean.
Abbott’s argument about confining fleeing people to the first country they reach ignores the almost unbearable pressure that would put on those countries.
By using the term “economic migrants” he denigrates those who have fled the persecution and traumas of the Middle East conflict that he also emphasises in his speech. Faced with living in camps for years, it is not surprising that people push on to somewhere else. Abbott relegates the desperation and makes it sound a lifestyle choice.
When he was prime minister it was always clear that Abbott wanted to see more robust allied action against IS, though he had to mind his words. Now he has made more or less explicit his view that escalating the conflict is desirable.
He said that, given the sheer scale of the horror and its allure across the globe, “it’s striking how little has been done to address this problem at its source”. The US and its allies had not defeated this “would-be terrorist empire” because “it can’t be defeated without more effective local forces on the ground”, he said.
“Everyone should recoil from an escalating air campaign, perhaps with Western special forces on the ground as well as trainers, in a part of the world that’s such a witches’ brew of danger and complexity and where nothing ever has a happy ending – yet as Margaret Thatcher so clearly understood over the Falklands: those that won’t use decisive force, where needed, end up being dictated to by those who will.”
He lamented that the recent United Nations leaders’ week summit – which he would have attended if he had still been prime minister – “was solely about countering violent extremism … and not about dealing much more effectively with the caliphate that’s now the most potent inspiration for it.”
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said on Wednesday that “we have no plans to change the nature of the deployment at the present time.”
This doesn’t rule out deeper involvement, but it is considered that this is a good deal less likely under Turnbull than it was under Abbott, who was always raring to do more. Australia is already doing considerably more than the rest of the US’s allies, including Britain.
In his Thatcher speech we see reflected some of the limitations Abbott had as prime minister – notably, too much ideology and too little nuance.
Abbott is still deciding his future. He is getting advice even from some sympathisers that he should quit parliament. On the other hand, his options are limited.
One thing is known, however. Abbott wants to find a way to stay in the public arena, with a voice on security and economic matters. Expect to hear a good deal more of Abbott unfiltered.