A decided ennui has overtaken Canberra, or at least the Press Gallery. There’s a general sense that politics at the moment is truly wretched, a Sisyphean ordeal. Just as Labor is apparently condemned to roll (or perhaps rickroll), a policy rock up a hill, only for it to roll down again, and the task commence anew, so the media must exhaustively cover, and comment upon, every nuance of the repetition, over and over.

Clash of the titans it ain’t. And pace Albert Camus, there are, alas, no absurd heroes in this building. There’s plenty of absurdity, yes, but heroes? Sorry, we’re all out of them.

So the carbon pricing package debate, over ostensibly the most important piece of legislation to be debated this term, has been reduced to scenic backdrop. Instead, Labor and the Coalition are going hammer and tongs over several thousand asylum seekers — a diversion of the national attention span so manifestly disproportionate that it would be comical if there wasn’t, in the possibility of people drowning trying to get here, a deadly serious policy issue that is being furiously ignored by everyone except those with the responsibility of actually developing and implementing policy.

Everyone else — refugee advocates, the Greens, the media, Labor backbenchers, and most of all the Opposition — can play dress-ups in the clothes of compassion while the government is stuck with the task of trying to work out how to stop people drowning themselves trying to get resettled here.

For Labor, perhaps the better mythic metaphor at the moment is that of Prometheus, eternally chained to a rock and condemned to have his liver eaten over and over again. It was an eagle that feasted on his liver in the original; a turkey would be more apt round here. That’s Labor’s lot for now and the immediate future. There’s to be no escape, no salvation, so there must simply be acceptance. Even a leadership change now would be useless.

In that regard, at least, if in few others, Julia Gillard is the ideal leader. She may not be much chop as a political tactician but her resilience is impressive. No matter what body blows strike her Prime Ministership, she dusts herself off and keeps going. Keeps going the wrong way, many critics inside and outside the party insist, but on she goes, pushing that rock up the hill, certain in the knowledge that it will roll straight back down again, if only because it has every other time she’s done it in the last twelve months.

One doubts if, like Camus’ absurd hero, Gillard has found contentment in the futility of her task. But she works away at a policy agenda anyway, and a solid one — more solid than Kevin Rudd’s, although he had the excuse that the GFC substituted keeping the economy functional for any ambitious reform program.

The government’s proposed asylum seeker policy is by no means ideal. We shouldn’t be keeping people in detention unnecessarily, we should be resettling far more people than we do, and we should be providing a lot more funding for the UNHCR. But I can’t see another policy around at the moment that better marries the twin goals of fulfilling our moral obligations to assist people fleeing persecution and discouraging them from risking their lives.

It’s not the best policy option by any stretch, but it’s the least worst one currently on offer. There’s nothing particularly heroic about prosecuting the case for such a policy, but as in a lot of other policy areas, the government’s fate is to doggedly pursue second-tier policies that only have the single redeeming feature of not being nearly as bad as what their opponents are offering.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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