There are two competing realities when it comes to the Australian government’s approach towards asylum seekers — or more correctly, a real world and a fantasy world.

In the real world, Australia has a trivial problem with maritime asylum seeker arrivals, especially compared to European countries that see asylum seekers and illegal immigrants arriving in boats in numbers many multiples of what Australia receives.

In the real world, the numbers of asylum seekers arriving by boat in Australia fell significantly through 2010 and has continued to fall this year, not because of all the tough talk from Julia Gillard, but because the factors causing people to flee persecution have shifted the flow of refugees away from our region and towards Europe. This will almost certainly be reversed in the future, as it has in the past, not because of domestic policy reasons but because war and regime change elsewhere are factors beyond our control, except when we start the wars ourselves, as we did in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And in the real world, nearly all voters rank the treatment of asylum seekers very low on the list of issues that are important in how they vote.

In the fantasy world of Australian politics, politicians are obsessed with demonstrating their ability to stop the boats and their ferocity in deterring asylum seekers, because they think whole elections are won or lost on the issue. And in doing so, Labor is permanently dooming itself to losing the issue, because it can never compete with the Coalition in being tough on refugees. In effect, it has allowed John Howard c.2001 to frame the asylum seeker debate and the rules of engagement on the issue ever since, making no effort to try to fight the battle on different ground.

There are elements of the Malaysian agreement — if and when it is finalised — that are positive. The increase in our overall humanitarian intake is a positive step and should be receiving more support than it has. And there is sense in avoiding anything that creates perverse incentives, as Temporary Protection Visas did, that risk human life. But Labor’s rush to announce the deal, its apparent double standard on countries it believes appropriate to send asylum seekers to, and its continuing signalling to the community that asylum seekers merit some form of punishment suggests a desperate government that will do anything simply to be free of an issue that it appears to have lost the capacity to deal with rationally.

Peter Fray

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