The Pittsworth Solution

Afghan Mosque Alice Springs
Afghan Mosque, Alice Springs

Here’s a radical plan to help rejuvenate small-town Australia and send a message to the world that yes, we do have compassion for those less fortunate than ourselves. The Pittsworth Solution (I just picked a small town at random), calls for all 2,017 detainees on Manus Island and Nauru to be re-patriated to Australia to live in rented houses in small, affordable towns like Pittsworth. This is not an ideological plan; it is about economics, humanity and giving people a fair go.
In March, Australian management firm Transfield Services won an A$1.2 billion contract to run the country’s two troubled Pacific island immigration detention centres. The centres on Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island together house about 2,107 asylum seekers (January 2013 figures). Transfield’s contract runs for 20 months, which works out to a weekly bill of $13.86 million, or about $6,600 per person per week. About eight times the cost of keeping someone in jail in Australia. The offshore detention model demonstrably does not work: it is broken and should never have been created in the first place. Nothing happens in these centres except boredom, despair, riots, suicides, mental illnesses, assaults and abuse. If this was a town of 2,107 people in mainstream Australia, the government would have declared a Federal Intervention by now.
My back of an envelope scheme envisages about 200 detainees repatriated to 10 small towns throughout Australia to live in rented houses, paid for by the Federal Government. The former detainees would receive the Asylum Seeker Allowance, (a fortnightly payment not unlike the dole, which lasts until the asylum seeker’s claim is heard and assessed). The Government would pick up all the basic costs, rent, bonds and utilities. After the maximum two-year period has elapsed, those whose claims have not been heard are automatically given a two-year visa extension with the same conditions. Once the asylum seeker’s claim has been assessed, he/she is either sent back to the country of origin, or given permanent resident status. Free market rules apply from that day on.
This subject was expertly canvassed in The Age last month by prominent barrister and human rights advocate Julian Burnside. I concur with his summary that the alternatives are more effective, humane, and less expensive than our present approach. The regional solution, as Burnside calls it, should restore our reputation as decent people – “something which has been tarnished and degraded by our behaviour over the past 13 years”.
The best part of any such regional solution is that the Federal Government money invested in a more humane scheme would be spent in local communities. While Burnside does not name specific rural towns, the National Farmers Federation says there are more than 90,000 unfilled jobs in rural areas. Asylum seekers would no doubt pick up work and everyone would benefit, if such a scheme was ever approved.
Even with a proportion of these small communities resenting the new Australians, it is surely a better option than locking up people who have not been charged with an offence or proven guilty of one. The 200 or so temporary residents moved to each of the towns would spend their allowance in local shops and, good grief, some of them might go to English language lessons and work on their plan for permanently settling in Australia.
Last time I looked, a lot of rural towns were doing it tough. A scheme like this could contribute about $6.5 million a year to struggling local economies – the kids could go to local schools, and if jobs were not readily available, the Asylum Seekers could be offered a scheme not unlike Work for the Dole, which would get them out into the community.
Now that Iraq has once again flared as a world trouble spot, there will be people saying that we don’t want religious zealots in our country, stirring up trouble. From what I read, the people stirring up the trouble don’t want to go anywhere else – they just want to run their own country according to their religious and political beliefs. The asylum seekers are the people who don’t want to know about sectarian violence; they want a better future.
This is not so different to the people from Belfast, Killarney and Carrickfergus who fled Ireland during the Troubles to settle in Australia. The Pittsworth Solution (or the Maleny Solution if we want to be even-handed about it), has a bit more going for it than the current model, which is to “Stop the Boats”, incarcerate the ones who got this far outside our sovereign borders, then sit on their hands and wait for the next government to come up with something better.
It is hard to believe that a year has passed already (July 19) since the Abbott government introduced Sovereign Borders. Shame on the Labor Opposition for failing to vote in the affirmative to close Nauru and Manus Island.
This issue has been clumsily handballed by governments of all creeds for far too long. It’s time to show some compassion and at the same time breathe some new life into rural communities.
It all comes down to one thing: what are we afraid of and how can we overcome our apparently entrenched xenophobia? Take a wander through any suburb that has been tagged “ethnic” and you will find a colourful slice of life that deserves to be shared by all. Here in Alice Springs, where I’m finishing two of these essays to email before we set off into the NT/WA outback, there is an Afghan Mosque. It is not so surprising (though not widely known), that Alice Springs has an Islamic Society. It dates back to the pioneer days of the 1880s when thousands of cameleers from Afghanistan and Pakistan served as the railway of the outback. The Afghan Mosque is a modest building, nestled in a corner of the suburb of Larapinta with the McDonnell Ranges as a backdrop. It looks like it belongs there.

3 thoughts on “The Pittsworth Solution”

  1. Sadly Maleny could not be included. We haven’t been losing population and rentals are hard to find and expensive. We’re doomed to stay sheltered from the winds of any immigration policy.

  2. Eminently sensible…perhaps too much so given the current sorry state of politics…and wise. Here in the U.S. we suffer the results of the same brand of xenophobia: the insult of hatred added to the injury of persecution and flight.

    I will post this link to friends around the U.S. to prove that rationality and compassion are alive and well, if slightly outnumbered these days.

    A new subscriber in the U.S.

  3. Thanks Jim – I have only just now got on to the responding to comments online. I am getting lots of emails in my inbox from the list. Hard to do on the road. Some of it might be a bit Australian for you but I’ll d my best.
    Bob

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