Quarterly Essay 53 That Sinking Feeling: Asylum Seekers and the
Search for the Indonesian Solution by Paul Toohey
journalism from the thick of it, rounded off with far-reaching and uncomfortable analysis
Toohey's reputation as a journalist has been enhanced by the Quarterly Essay format, most recently with another Walkley Award for Last Drinks in 2008. That Sinking Feeling is an apt title for a possibly even greater achievement in term of journalism and analysis. Toohey traces recent Australian governmental initiatives and responses to the asylum seeker crisis from the Indonesian ports and villas used by desperate refugees. Toohey's up-close account characterises the different asylum groups and their tensions, the local fishermen, the police and businessmen, even the smugglers, and in doing so offers the reader a glimpse of the behind-the-headlines reality of what has been happening to so many people so near to Australia. Even as a strange logic of cause and effect becomes apparent, then Toohey relates the chaos and suffering after a packed smuggling boat sinks. Toohey and his colleagues are moved to the point of
becoming involved and the results serve to underline the hopelessness and
injustice of responses to this humanitarian crisis.
Toohey is a master of being brutally honest while not taking sides. Working from
Indonesia as a savvy yet impartial commentator empowers this essay. Toohey
pulls no punches about the Australian public's indifference to Indonesia and
its national challenges, or about our breathtaking hypocrisy in expecting
Indonesia to perform backflips to solve problems that are more of Australia's
making, in particular through our involvement in wars that Indonesia did not support.
In the final part of this essay Toohey stands back, supplying a double context to the latest events in the asylum seeker saga: firstly the
riots on Nauru and Manus Island and secondly the more Indonesian focused issues of phone-tapping discoveries and territorial waters incursions. Toohey sees evidence that the asylum seeker crisis is abating but accompanied by the worst possible result for Australia. Toohey's evidence is convincing and, if the trend that he has detected continues, Australia has made an appalling and long-term strategic blunder in its region. But I won't spill the beans, read That Sinking Feeling for a complete and highly readable account, surprisingly delivered in the brevity required of the essay format.