You can’t triangulate on race. It’s a lesson the Rudd government is learning all over again. There is no limit to how far a declared party of the Right will go, in search of a wedge: so the supposed "centre ground" simply moves further and further away from the comfort zone of a government still aspiring to hold together a "progressive" base of support.
Hence, the synthetic outrage of the coalition, over the arrival by boat of people seeking asylum from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, appears on the "national security" section of the Liberal Party website. It’s not enough, apparently, to portray them as the "bludgers" and "queue jumpers" of yore: they must now be construed as a threat.
Ministers have "lost control" of our borders, say their shadows. The facts bear the same relation to this specious claim as Kryptonite does to Superman. By far the biggest violation of Australia’s immigration procedures is the tens of thousands of over-stayers on work and tourist visas. The biggest groups of them are from the US and UK: so how come Tony Abbott and his mendacious men never mention them?
The inundation metaphors in which this "debate" is conducted -- flow, flood, influx, wave -- are a dead giveaway. Even well-intentioned radio interviewers struggle for polite ways to put it: what would happen, I have been asked this week, to Australia’s "cultural stability" if we let these people in? Decoded: they’re darkies, mate! Bloody darkies!
Australia’s share of asylum claims is, in global terms, minuscule. In 2008, the Edmund Rice Centre points out, we received fewer than 5000 out of a total worldwide of over 800,000. Nearly a quarter of them were in South Africa, as neighbouring Zimbabwe went into meltdown. Now there’s a country with a problem. Australia -- huge, sparsely populated, outlandishly wealthy Australia -- doesn’t have a problem.
The issue has been mired in a miasma of misconceptions and misrepresentations only to the extent that ministers themselves -- starting with the Prime Minister -- have offered no leadership, instead favouring the "cockroach response" -- when the light comes on, find a place to hide, hoping to re-emerge when it goes dark.
And what an odd idea of leadership Kevin Rudd seems to have! If it’s true, as the usually well-informed Peter Hartcher told us the other day, that he planned to husband his personal popularity, saving it for health reform and ETS, it shows a fundamental misconception. Substantial sections of the PM’s support came from people who put their faith in him to challenge the certitudes of the Howard years, not go along with them.
The government’s ill-fated bid to defuse "controversy", by suspending asylum claims for people arriving from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, looks sicker still this week after a report from the International Crisis Group reminded us of the violations visited on the Tamils in the final months of the civil war, this time last year. Tens of thousands of civilians were killed, it says, citing witness testimony, satellite images, documents and other evidence: most from systematic army bombardments of areas that had been officially declared "safe".
No wonder the Sri Lankan government is cracking down on journalists and NGOs: it has plenty to hide. More than 100,000 people are still interned, with reports trickling out of maltreatment, r-pes and the mysterious "disappearances" that have been the signature MO of the security forces there for decades.
If people arrive here from Sri Lanka, there is a good chance they have, indeed, fled out of a well-founded fear of persecution. They are not "illegal", as politicians on all sides of the house well know. They deserve a helping hand: not a deaf ear.
*Jake Lynch is director of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney, and co-convener of its Sri Lanka Human Rights Project