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Could Paying People Smugglers Be the Australian Government’s Robin Hood Moment?

The Coalition has been accused of paying people smugglers to return asylum seekers to Indonesia.
Image via Flickr user DIBP images

Asylum seekers picked up at Christmas Island. Image via

The idea to pay criminals not to commit crimes was a radical one. But these were desperate times. The residents of Richmond, California were under constant attack: people were being gunned down in the streets, outside their homes, even at funerals for other murder victims. "Stronger" measures that involved heavy-handed police sweeps were not doing the trick. So the City Council tried something new.


It was DeVone Boggan who caught their eye. He'd been working at a one-on-one level with young offenders, helping to keep them out of prison, and he had a good idea of what would work. But it's not one he thought any government body would go for.

When he found out that 70 percent of the town's shootings involved just 17 guys, he formulated a plan. The 17 were invited to come to a meeting. Nearly all of them showed up to discover they'd been brought to a fancy conference room with great views of the city. Name plaques displayed the participants' full names, with "Mr" at the beginning. These were all deliberate psychological tactics, and they worked.

But what made this approach different what Boggan did next: he handed each man a check for a thousand dollars.

The check was payment, he said. You're going to turn your lives around, and turning your life around is a job. You should get paid for your job.

He told them they deserved this money, and that there were critics out there who thought the whole thing was a waste. That it was just throwing money away that could be better spent on prison cells. Boggan was challenging them to prove them wrong.

Just as he'd intended, news spread. More people attended the meetings in the future, and Boggan was able to move further down the list, from teens who were involved in crime to kids who were in danger of being sucked into that world. They were given advice on how to pay off debt, how to finish school, how to get their lives in order.


The more Boggan and his team treated these kids like upstanding members of the community, the more they lived up to a higher standard. It was a risky plan, but one that had been carefully thought out.

Criminologists said that any success rate over 50 percent would be considered remarkable. Boggan's approach had a success rate of 80 percent.

A similar folk tale has been playing out in Australia over the past week, after revelations from Fairfax that the Government has been paying people smugglers to return asylum seekers to Indonesia.

This story is considerably less romantic.

The Prime Minister refused to confirm that the report was true, but also failed to deny it outright, saying that the government would do "whatever is reasonably necessary" to stop people smuggling. That's not so much a "non-denial denial" as much as a "confirmation confirmation".

Credit where it's due: some reports suggest that payments actually begun under Labor's reign, although former-PM Julia Gillard has denied this, and never-PM Bill Shorten said that he couldn't comment because it's a matter of national security and then also denied it. Either way, given Labor's increasingly ineffectiveness as an Opposition, Alternative Government or even just a Room Full of People, it's safe to dismiss their complicity/objection/adjacency as entirely and typically irrelevant.

No matter who started it, there's mounting evidence that it prospered under the Abbott Government. And it's not so much the act itself that's proving so outrageous, but the curious hypocrisy at the center of it. Abbott's own primary school-level rhetoric painted people smugglers as "evil," a reductive and unhelpful term that is only one step above calling some people "goodies" and others "baddies." Which, come to think of it, he also did.


The approach of paying money to people you believe to be evil in the hopes that they'll not be evil for a little bit highlights the profound contradiction at the heart of the Government's asylum seeker belief system. Look, I'll demonstrate with a logical syllogism:

1. People smugglers are evil

2. Paying people smugglers stops them smuggling people

3. People smugglers are therefore capitalists

4. Capitalism is evil

There's your headline, people. "Tony Abbott believes capitalism is evil."

But, look, of course Abbott doesn't genuinely believe that people smugglers are evil. He just wants to present a simple narrative to the electorate, which has long been his approach. The problem is that politics is never actually simple, and faced with a complex, difficult contradiction, Abbott has enlisted one of the more troubling phrases of our time—the Sir Humphrey Appleby-esque "That's an operational matter"—to suggest that anything and everything it applies to is off limits and protected as national security. Which is just as harmful to the public's need to know as it is to operations that genuinely do need to be kept classified.

So what exactly is the difference between paying people smugglers to stop smuggling (a policy put in place by a conservative government) and paying at-risk youths to not commit crimes (a policy resolutely criticised by conservatives)?

Baltimore City Health Commissioner Leana Wen said that violence is a health problem and should be treated accordingly. It's a good analogy that serves to reminds us that all problems are solved by treating the cause, not the symptom. DeVone Boggan's system in Richmond, CA quite clearly treated the cause.

By paying money to the people smugglers, the Government is treating the symptom. (And not even the primary symptom at that: it's always worth remembering that more asylum seekers come by plane than by boat.) It's proof that the Government is in no way interested in addressing the problem, just avoiding it. It's not like we couldn't have seen this coming given Abbott's "Stop the boats" catchphrase seemed to be the first, second, and last line of our foreign policy.

The difference between greatly reducing a systemic problem and plastering over its more visible elements may seem infinitesimal. But it's not just the Government's morally and legally questionable actions that prove what a disaster this move has been. It's seeing someone else on the other side doing it with higher intentions and with greater success and in a superficially-identical way that underscores just what a chronic disaster this has been.

If, of course, it turns out to be true.

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