God it was like one of those Japanese horror movies, where a ghost appears on a videotape, and everyone who sees it dies.

Lucky Phil Ruddock, hovering round the backbenches these past years — possibly because he knows that he’ll be a pariah when he leaves — popped up to tell us of TEN THOUSAND asylum seeking illegal queue jumpers coming our way.

“They’re waiting in Iran, in Pakistan, in Syria …”

In Manangatang and Naracoorte and Dimboola and Jerilderie … they come from everywhere man.

To say Ruddock was enjoying himself would be a category error, but he appeared to be getting some relief from being the Coalition’s scapegoat for the shame of its refugee policies.

I don’t mean he’s been blamed or set-up. The scapegoat is not sacrificed — instead he is sent into the desert, loaded with the tribe’s sins.

The scapegoat is not worthy of sacrifice. The tribe purifies itself, by forgetting he ever existed.

There was the old demeanour — the skin like wet paper mache, waiting to be molded, the hair like a wreath of cigarette smoke. Ruddock, a man of liberal instincts some years, decades, ago, took on the refugee thing for complicated reasons. It chewed him up, and spat him out, and the result, pulsating with resentment and vindictive and premature triumph, is what we now see on our screens.

But is he right? Can this thing be kicked into touch?

The answer is unknowable, because what happens in the next six months will tell us as much about the past as about the future. If Labor does not panic, and holds the line at some level, and the issue does not once again move to the centre of political life, then we know with greater certainty what this country is.

We will know that the bias in creating Tampa politics lay with the Howard government – that they enrolled the evil angels of our nature in a campaign consciously framed to inflame, in the medical sense, certain sensitivities in the body politic, that had abated but not yet disappeared – a fear of boats from the north, whether it be the Russians, the Chinese, the Communists, the red menace, the yellow peril, the burnt orange fashion of the 1970s…

However, if it all starts up again, then we will know we are in a different kind of trouble — if we simply get a re-run of the Tampa hysteria, then we will know that these currents run much deeper in Australian society, and that it has less to do with the political manipulation of some old fears, than with a modern indifference to the suffering of others based on selfish and foolish notions that occupying an island-continent somehow means we can pick and choose our engagement with the world.

Of course if Labor doesn’t hold some sort of line, if it goes the full fear root, and tries to leapfrog the Libs on border security, then we won’t know anything.

But there seems little likelihood that Labor will do that – not necessarily because they are more moral than the Coalition (though they are), but because there is no upside to it.

You can’t beat conservatives in a fear fight. Fear is the chemical precursor to social conservatism, an attitude memorably summarise by Kingsley Amis once as “I want to get a gun so someone doesn’t come over the hill and steal my shit” (he was saying it approvingly).

On refugees, Labor has no road but the high road. Put in pure political terms, Kevin Rudd could never sell himself as a sadist, the way John Howard did — and the sadism of Howard’s policy (“I don’t want people like that in this country”, i.e., let them stay bobbing in the water) was its essence. You think you’re hard, he was saying to the gen public, I’m harder.

Rudd just wouldn’t play that way — he’s spent years cultivating the image of Labor as forward-looking, open, optimistic. Howard, though he talked of being comfortable and relaxed was like a political Arcimboldo picture, a man entirely made of resentments.

Furthermore in a deeper sense, Labor’s whole rationale — as a social liberal party — is inherently humanistic and universalistic. It cannot take the deep conservative position that, to quote Herder, “I have met Prussians, Scots, Swedes and Levantines, but never have I met a human being” – it cannot retreat into a total indifference to the extra-national other, which was a feature of Howard’s policy.

Quite aside from fomenting a revolt from the left, within the party, it simply does not sit with the rest of its philosophy. Labor may talk about “nation-building”, but that is a different thing to talking about “Australia-building” or being “a citadel of the West” or anything. “Nation” in this sense, stands for “society”, a word that cannot be used because it attracts derisive memories of Whitlamism etc.

The ideological core of Rudd’s idea of ‘nation building’ is the idea of full development of Australian citizens, qua human beings. That because we are endowed with certain capacities, the only just policy is one that allows their full flourishing amongst whoever has them.

So, since he has raised this idea, put it at the centre of his political claims, he has no choice but to live up it. Whatever malarkey is done with Christmas Island, bunkbeds, etc, favours from Indonesia, this is a fight he can’t duck — to talk simultaneously about a right to control one’s borders, and about the necessary respect for human dignity that demands a just treatment of refugees.

That boat-borne arrivals are just a small but visible part of the flow of people travelling unauthorised (many of whom will then be judged as refugees once processed), that fetishising landfall on the Australian continent is ridiculous, that we can cope with whatever numbers even the most outlandish estimates would suggest.

Doubtless the ALP has polling showing this to be a hard sell — as much to non-Anglo groups, as to the clichéd xenophobic skip. But if it does not take the high road, then it is immediately prone to an Opposition whose license for viciousness on this matter is an open one. Furthermore, the only way in which the Coalition could reverse the view that it is weak and the government strong is on this issue, where it can come together to a man and woman, save for its small (and departing) left-liberal remainder.

Indeed if Rudd is smart he will add panic over refugees to the catalogue of weaknesses to be pinned on Malcolm Turnbull. He will paint him as a fearful leader who has no faith in the country’s ability to rise to challenges, calmly and authoritatively. He will push Turnbull to a point that he, as a man of liberal instincts, will have trouble going — at least with the full lip-licking gusto that Howard could spit up at the slightest prompting.

You can’t choose the challenges you face, only how you’ll respond to them. Rudd’s hero Bonhoeffer was a people smuggler, arrested for helping Jews escape World War II Germany into Switzerland — and the German public were told that he and others like him were helping the Jews who had started the war escape with their gold. Rudd has hedged and cavilled on this issue, but the fight for the country’s soul is here.

And if he wants to see what it’s like when you lose your soul, he should look at Philip Ruddock, a pile of ash in shirtsleeves, standing before the cameras intoning about thousands of arrivals, while the crew wonder whether his image will even be captured by the video…

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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