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Oct 22, 2009

The issue is refugees, not boats

If the Left really wants to re-fight 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

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.

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61 thoughts on “The issue is refugees, not boats

  1. SBH

    I’m from the Left just to be clear. It seems that the ALP is struggling with this issue (no surprise there’s a lot of interlinked complexity). Remember unusually for Rudd he couldn’t quite get his sound bite right on this twice saying illegal immigrants that seemingly remembering it was supposed to be ‘illegal imigration activity’ .

    I don’t think it should be a morals test but there’s a golden opportunity for Rudd to wedgie the opposition so hard on this that it makes their eyes water. Georgiou, Moylan et al’s defiance of Howard indicates that the coalition are not solidly behind the anti-boat people line and it would play well to most labor voters (maybe not Queensland). It’s hard to see that Turnbull’s heart would be in the current LP/NP line. But I agree there’s little point thumping the Government over this, their heading in the right direction.

    The most interesting thing in this has been Danby, a man who has spent a life time putting other peoples’ interests in front of his own. What were the internal dynamics that led him to spill like he did. Will we look back and see that as the first sign that caucus began to evolve into the phylum Chordata? Maybe it was retaliation for the allowances stuff. Either way grubily fascinating.

  2. Aphra

    First, it is indeed a test of national character, in my opinion.

    Second, the assumption that it’s the ‘Left’ alone which opposes our shocking treatment of refugees is wrong, wrong, wrong. I personally know of three families, all Liberal voters usually, who voted against the last government specifically because of its treatment of refugees. Two of these families are immensely wealthy and directed money towards assisting refugees and one even billeted some, eventually, and another engaged lawyers to help out.

    As the scion of a working-class, left-leaning Labor family, I’ve been appalled at the seemingly in-grained hostility to refugees amongst my cohort. From each, as I’ve claimed that their attitudes are racially prejudiced, of which this country has a long, disgraceful history, I’ve received the same response: ‘no, no, we’re not racist, but….’ I can only assume that the majority of the ordinary so-called Left is diametrically opposed to ‘all of these Asians’ forcing their way in here and undermining our standards!’ NB. The ‘Left’ doesn’t only include those who have been lucky enough to have a university education and thus the opportunity to develop sophisticated philosophical positions and attitudes.

    I would also add that four years ago, I sent a letter to every member of the House of Representatives and the Senate protesting at the treatment of refugees and railing against the barbarous detentions.

    I received only two replies, and considered ones at that, from Russell Broadbent and Petro Georgiou, both Liberal MHRs. Not one, single Labor or Greens representative, parties for whom I vote, bothered to reply, much less acknowledge receipt of my letter.

    Australia should be honest and accept that its actions and reactions are fundamentally racist and understand that our politicians are merely playing to the LCD. I do not, for one minute, believe that the PM or the Leader of the Opposition believe in the politically-inspired nonsense which they’re spouting, which diminishes both of them, in my view. Nor can I understand why, with so much good fortune on its side, this country has so much difficulty in sharing and helping others, unless it’s to do with skin colour.

    I recently met a most pleasant and affable Zimbabwean family which arrived here, virtually unannounced, and were instantly permitted to stay, but they were, discernibly, of white European descent.

  3. Michael Christopher


    in terms of media commentary i find yours the most balanced over recent weeks and well researched. there are so many ill-informed contributors to the “debate” but you do not seem to be one of them!

    i am a retired former diac (and relatively) senior officer who spent many years in pakistan and iran managing and processing applications under both labor and coalition government humanitarian programs. i have heard that processing activity referred to by some refugee advocates and media sources as “that mythical refugee queue”. i can speak from experience about the challenges involved in dealing with thousands and thousands of visa applicants, members of state and federal parliaments, refugee advocacy groups and families and friends of visa applicants. the humanitarian processing activity at a diac overseas post is highly stressful and emotionally draining – not just for visa applicants but also everyone else involved in the process both at the office and in the myriad of interest groups in australia. i was very conscious of the fact that decisions i made about people in miserable circumstances were probably “life” and “death” ones; they were decisions never taken lightly and frequently upsetting to me where i had to say “no”.

    imagine if you will (a real experience for me) an elderly afghan lady in your interview room, on her knees in tears begging you to grant her orphaned war injured grand children visas and make arrangements for their care in australia but not to process her application because she was too ill, frail and frightened to travel to australia.

    one aspect that critics of government humanitarian policy seem to overlook (and i think you hint at it in today’s crikey), is australia’s capacity to provide adequate humanitarian resettlement assistance to families and individuals on and after arrival. i think you will find that is a prime reason why program numbers have been relatively “flat”. i refer to emergency housing (short and long term), english language assistance, access to health services, care for unaccompanied children, torture and trauma counselling and the like. yes it would be wonderful if we could take more humanitarian entrants (however they arrive on our shores) but i think it would be just wrong to do so with the knowledge that adequate post arrival assistance could be very limited.

    it is not so much about “the getting into australia” that is important, but what can be done “post arrival” to help our humanitarian entrants settle in australia with dignity.

  4. David Sanderson

    Vigorously argued and spot-on. The issue is about numbers and not about how some arrive. And there should be more.

    PM on the ABC has been difficult to listen to recently because of its obsessive coverage of each new boat, or even just the rumour of a boat, and the full vent that they have given to those who like to moralise about the issue. The left is wrong and quite dislikeable when it uses the issue as a way of showcasing their supposedly superior morality and the moral depravity of everybody else.

    It is time that they concede that discouraging boat arrivals (in as humane a way as possible) is sensible and necessary and turned their attention to building up the refugee program.

  5. Venise Alstergren

    I wonder if people from the extreme Left/Right will actually read your fine article, Bernard, or whether they’ll just view it through the prism of their own agendas?

    One of the finest pieces of writing you’ve done recently.

    As for, “that Sri Lanka even finished its decades-long civil war just so thousands of Tamils could try to move to Australia.” What a delicious piece of irony!

    Keep it coming, BernardK



    PS: Tim Costello should take his itsey bitsey Politically Correct little self, and go hump himself. No wonder this country has almost lost its identity.

  6. thirdborn314

    Nice one Bernard, and Michael, to me your positions are reasoned and balanced, why can’t I see this from other media outlets or the politicians themselves? Sometimes I wonder where all the normal people have gone – or are there really so few of us?

  7. Aphra

    As for the despicable ‘people smugglers’, it’s a pity that Oscar Schindler is no longer alive to ask his views.

  8. Dom Padden

    “and funny how 2001 was the high point for our refugee intake in recent times”.

    Do you mean funny because of the Tampa, or the Pacific Solution? Such a number is consistent with the rest of the world.

    There was a world-wide 20 year high of refugees in 2001, and a world-wide drop of about 50% by 2006, and a world-wide rise ever since. A coincidence that, if ignored, leads to a conclusion that Australian policies actually have much of an effect.

  9. Most Peculiar Mama


    “…I recently met a most pleasant and affable Zimbabwean family which arrived here, virtually unannounced, and were instantly permitted to stay, but they were, discernibly, of white European descent…”

    (Edit) did you bother to ask this Zimbabwean family if they had been patiently waiting 10 years on a legitimate migration list or like the recent cadre of rich Sri Lankans queue jumpers were smuggled into Australia illegally?

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