Many on the Left aren’t happy with Kevin Rudd over asylum seekers. Too much like John Howard, they say.

And, it is true, this government has a broadly similar policy to the previous government, focused on border security, with a disproportionate — grossly disproportionate — emphasis on boat arrivals. Yes, there have been some, mainly symbolic, amendments to ameliorate the process for detainees, and there are further changes before Parliament, but it is not especially different in effect to the regime in place in the last term of the Howard government, however much politicians on both sides would like to pretend otherwise.

For the Opposition and right-wing critics, any opportunity to attack the government must be seized, and thus it has been on this issue, with the government’s minor changes to the process for handling asylum seekers transformed into a siren song luring boats from across the world. The effect of such changes, apparently, was so strong that Sri Lanka even finished its decades-long civil war just so thousands of Tamils could try to move to Australia.

The public so far remains steadfastly unmoved. There’s nothing like the level of hysteria seen in 2001, when there were demands that boats be sunk and Labor candidates were abused when doorknocking, or the angry protests against detention in subsequent years.

But both Left and Right want to punch on about asylum seekers.

For the Left it’s another opportunity to refight a battle lost during the Howard years. That’s the real demand being made of Rudd: that he erase the bitter memory of Howard’s successful demonisation of asylum seekers by showing “leadership” on the issue.

Thus for some, little short of open borders and a standing invitation to every refugee in the region will make up for what we did in 2001-04. They won’t get a major relaxation of border security from any government, not least because asylum seekers from Sri Lanka stand a chance of including members of one of the world’s most vicious terrorist groups.

And Rudd’s words are carefully parsed to check for anti-refugee usage. There has been much condemnation of the Prime Minister’s language, from critics who say Rudd has been all too clear about his attitude toward asylum seekers, and those who argue that he hasn’t been clear enough about Australian policy. Yesterday he was scolded by Tim Costello — in Canberra for some hand-wringing about gambling — for using the word “illegal” rather than “irregular”. In a rare show of defiance, Labor MP Michael Danby also complained about Rudd’s use of “illegal”.

One wonders how enthusiastic Danby would be about refugees from Gaza, but anyway.

And Rudd’s demonisation of people smugglers, some suggest, is actually code for demonisation of asylum seekers. That’s rather a leap in logic, up there with the argument that people smugglers are latter-day saints rather than international networks of murderous criminals.

The ABC has been fixated on the issue, devoting lengthy news reports and slabs of the 7.30 Report to it. The “bounty” payments to Indonesia will doubtless transfix it for days to come. Last night Kerry O’Brien, with the breathless determination of war correspondent, was demanding Chris Evans explain the “critical issue” of where the Oceanic Viking should have gone.

It is nothing like a critical issue. Sorry, but there is nothing critical about the increase in boat arrivals. It is only critical to a small number of people for ideological and political reasons. How we treat a couple of thousand boat arrivals is only a small part of the bigger issue of how many refugees we accept in total. That number, as I argued last week, is far too small.

Admittedly, there is a balancing factor in the fact that we have a very large immigration program, which gives tens of thousands of non-asylum seekers from developing countries the opportunity to start a new life in Australia. Australia is hardly a mean-spirited country when it comes to welcoming new citizens. But the real “test” for Rudd, if you’re insisting on one, shouldn’t be about boat arrivals, but about why a wealthy country such as  Australia only takes about 13,000 refugees a year — and has done so, year in and year out, for this entire decade. This is Australia’s humanitarian intake since the first year of the Howard government.

Basically flat, especially since the Tampa era (and funny how 2001 was the high point for our refugee intake in recent times).

This, so far as I can see in this “debate”, remains entirely ignored.

Instead, we have left-wing critics of the government eager to elevate boat arrivals as a moral test that will erase John Howard from the civic memory, and right-wing critics who must be dismayed at the utter collapse of the conservative side of politics and who will stoop to anything to tear at the hated Rudd. They also know that the issue reduces their left-wing opponents to helpless rage and that alone is probably sufficient temptation.

If the Left really wants to refight and win the asylum seeker issue, they’ll leave the ranting and rhetoric to reactionaries and stop being so easily goaded into elevating the issue into a test of the national character. And they’ll press the government to lift the number of refugees we accept, regardless of what it does with boat arrivals. That is where the real human impact will be felt.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey