You can be pretty sure that Labor has some good secret polling telling them that the phrase “locking up children” is now a negative, rather than a selling point, in Australian politics.

In the House, and on Lateline over the past two days, foreign minister Stephen Smith hammered the Opposition with the accusation that they had “put children behind barbed wire”.

Whether he would want to say that or not anyway is beside the point. He wouldn’t be saying it unless he was reasonably sure that there had been a shift in Australian public views.

This seems to me an undoubtable sign that Labor has decided that an ultra-tough position on refugees is not an option.

Hitherto, they’ve been playing a one-two strategy, with a bias on the one — the PM talking tough on people smugglers, while Immigration Minister Chris Evans gives the humanitarian line. The fact that the foreign minister is now taking over the good cop role is a sign that they are giving it something approaching an equal weighting.

True, it’s a measure of how debased Australian politics became in the Tampa years that we can now be surprised that a government would confront its opponents with the fact that they imprisoned children, and score points from it.

But as your correspondent noted here in 2008, and 2007, and 2006 and … people underestimate the politics of shame, because the emotion does not register in opinion polls.

Cultures based on universalistic notions of care — whether religious or secular — cannot indefinitely sustain an attitude towards strangers and their children that manages to combine an indifference to their humanity, with a sadistic delight in their suffering.

That was the Howard government’s unique achievement. That is what places it outside of the run of all previous Australian governments. That is what it will be remembered for in a half-century’s time. That is all it will be remembered for.

Oh, and Iraq. The quinella.

Does that mean that large sections of the public are willing to abandon their absurd notions of “queue jumpers” and “the fair go”, the ridiculous dance of not letting boats make mainland landfall? Of course not. But it does appear that the sado-conservative approach of the past is being put “beyond use” by Labor, and that the Liberals are in a bind when they spruik it.

There was no inevitability about that. But Kevin Rudd decided to revive Labor politically by appeal to universal ethical notions, and that set him on a course which makes other, more particular notions out of consideration.

Your correspondent, last week, and in 2008, 2007, 2006 and … noted that Rudd’s citing of the theologian/martyr/people-smuggler/assassin Dietrich Bonhoeffer set up certain ethical demands that would be difficult for a prime minister to live up to.

The contrast between Bonhoeffer’s imperatives and the hard-line Kevin Rudd essayed last week has now come into full force. Chris Uhlmann raised it on Insiders last Sunday. Mick Epis notes it in Fairfax today. Tony Abbott raises it, though not for particularly honest purposes.

Rudd’s use of the ethical, his construction of a “brutopia” was, among other things, a way of offering a section of the voting public a path out of the shame that lingered from the Tampa years — a shame that may coexist with fairly strict notions of border control.

In that respect, I’m not sure m’esteemed colleague Jeff Sparrow is thinking with his front head on this issue. Yesterday he suggested that Rudd might provoke pro-refugee sentiment to create a revolt from the left, in order to quell it with yet more harsh measures from the centre.

I think Stephen Smith’s recent shtick has decisively disproven this — an ethical discourse is coming directly from the inner cabinet. Any turnabout now would feed notions that the government is conflicted. There’s no way they would be doing what they’re doing now, if that was the strategy.

I think the false division here is one between “idealism” and politics. That border is a hell of a lot more porous than ours. Western voters — having passed through decades of debate about the planet, the environment, the world, a collective fate etc — than ever before. They’re not necessarily more self-sacrificing. But every decade — and it is a decade since the Tampa — they are more collectively and globally oriented. A universalism is the default setting.

It’s one of the reasons why arid old hacks like Paul Kelly are playing a pathetic game of catch-up, trying to guess which way the debate jumps — telling the Left they have “learnt nothing”, two days before the foreign minister gets up and says the sort of things that anti-mandatory detention demonstrations were saying in 2001.

Could there be a backlash? Of course. Another coupla ships, a crisis like the Tampa’s entry into port, could inflame the wound afresh. But Labor has made the decision that it could never reap the whirlwind, even if it wanted to.

Nevertheless m’esteemed colleague Sparrow raises many interesting points (which is more than can be said for Tim Soutphommasane, “a good man fallen among Fabians”, whose piece in the Australian is a perfect expression of the vacuousness of the new “progressive patriotism” — precisely nothing said in 800 words, no decisive argument between the competing claims of nationalism and universalism, which is a pretty goddam important thing for a progressive patriot to do, you would think. Herder is quoted. Spring comes. People marry and die. Pinkerton does not return.).

The problem for Labor beyond this one-two strategy is the asymmetrical claims of rights, that Sparrow J lays bare. Counterposing the rights of individuals (which we have guaranteed with the treaties we’ve signed) to the “rights” of the state, cannot disguise the fact that the latter has imperatives not rights, and suggesting that it does is a way of neutralising the right to seek asylum.

But that is where the debate lies at the moment — a position far in advance of the one we were in in 2001, which is where many of the pundits are still at.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey