PM plays high-stakes game by accepting Aussie boat people

Decision to allow 150 boat people a year into New Zealand may go down as one of John Key's biggest political gambles.

Prime Minister John Key’s decision to allow 150 unwanted Australian boat people a year into New Zealand could go down as one of his biggest political gambles.

By effectively signing up to Australia’s repugnant treatment of asylum seekers he runs the risk of overnight destroying this country’s well-deserved humanitarian record in dealing with refugees.

Australia has earned international opprobrium for treating the boat people as criminals and locking them up in camps in Nauru and Papua New Guinea.

Now, by cosying up to Julia Gillard and agreeing to relocate some here – as well as indicating that others intent on setting sail for New Zealand will be sent to Australian camps should they make landfall here – Mr Key is ensuring we are going to be tarred by the same brush.

But he is probably gambling on the fact that grassroots public opinion in New Zealand is the same as Australia, where the boat people are largely viewed as opportunists and queue jumpers intent on exploiting international conventions on refugees.

So why is our prime minister taking such a risk?

Clearly, there has got to be a quid pro quo for New Zealand, but if there is one, it’s not immediately apparent.

For his part, Mr Key says it is just a case of “helping our mates” in Australia. But there must be more to this than meets the eye, given the huge controversy over Australia’s handling of boat people.

Why didn’t he insist on Australia relaxing the rules for the estimated 100,000 New Zealanders in Australia who are not covered by social welfare as part of the deal?

As a former foreign currency trader, Mr Key is well used to cutting deals, which makes what he’s done in this instance even more baffling – unless, of course, there is a bigger end game, which will become apparent in the fullness of time.

In the meantime, he has left himself open to pointed criticism from the likes of former immigration minister Aussie Malcolm, who accuses him of being unprincipled.

“Why John Key has a need to cosy up with Julia Gillard on this issue I really don’t know,” Mr Malcolm told NBR ONLINE.

“There is no upside for New Zealand and in terms of international conventions and the rule of law what we have done is terrible.”

Mr Malcolm describes Mr Key as “a transaction man, and this is pure Merrill Lynch”.

“You know, there’s a million bucks in this for me, there’s a million bucks in it for you and there’s a million bucks in it for the banks, so let’s do it even though it’s sub-prime mortgage and someone is going to get burnt down the line.

“But hey, it’s not going to be you or me or the bank so why should we worry. That’s how John Key works.”

rvaughan@nbr.co.nz 

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