Dec 7, 2012

Left disconnected from reality on asylum seekers

The growing disconnection between progressive and most voters on asylum seekers is driven by the Left's refusal to accept there are consequences to government policy.

Bernard Keane — Politics editor

Bernard Keane

Politics editor

On Monday Crikey provided the results from an Essential Report question about how people viewed Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott on the issue of asylum seekers. There were some contradictory aspects to the results: voters didn't think either leader was "fair" on the issue but also declined to describe them as "cruel". What did come through, however, was the view of many, primarily on the Left, that the government's revival of the Pacific Solution is a blot on Australia's human rights reputation isn't shared at all by voters. Not merely did only 5% of voters describe Julia Gillard as "cruel" on the issue, only 6% described her as "too hard" and 32% described her as "too soft". When I tweeted some of those results, the response of some was to dismiss it as evidence of the irredeemable racism of Australians. Plainly there is a disconnection between refugee advocates, the Greens, and many progressives, and the great majority of voters, over the issue. Some 94% of Essential's balanced pool of voters cannot be dismissed as "western Sydney", certainly not by anyone who is actually interested in influencing policy rather than enjoying a warm inner glow while occupying the high moral ground. The disconnect will grow, driven by the current surge in illegal immigrants from Sri Lanka. The vast majority of these arrivals are manifestly not asylum seekers. They will, however, undermine whatever remaining community sentiment exists in support of genuine asylum seekers. That's what waves of illegal economic migrants do: they antagonise the community and drive politicians to dramatically tighten immigration processes. We got mandatory detention and a significant tightening of the refugee assessment from the Keating government in response to a wave of illegal immigrants from southern China, many of whom tried to game the humanitarian visa application system. Now this government is working on a high-rotation policy to send back Sri Lankans as quickly as possible. More than 600 have been dispatched so far. The response of many on the Left, and from refugee advocates, has been to try to convert arriving Sri Lankans into automatic asylum seekers. In a truly bizarre piece for Crikey yesterday, former diplomat Bruce Haigh claimed Australia was complicit in the genocide of Tamils by the Sri Lankan government. By Haigh's logic, anyone arriving from Sri Lanka is automatically entitled to asylum, even if they don't claim it -- if they're Tamil, because they're an oppressed minority; if they're Sinhalese, because it's an abusive government. No one doubts the Sri Lankan government is responsible for ongoing human rights abuses -- well, except that government -- but that doesn't automatically make citizens of that country entitled to asylum here, any more than every Chinese citizen is entitled to asylum because the Chinese Communist party is one of the world's most murderous and brutal dictatorships. That's certainly not what the UN Refugee Convention, which refers to a "well-founded fear of being persecuted", says. Remarkably, Haigh appeared to complain that "former members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have been returned". Was Haigh suggesting Australia should give sanctuary to individuals responsible for some of the most appalling terrorist atrocities of recent decades? Or merely that, having started and then lost a long-running civil war, all Tamils are therefore automatically entitled to asylum?
"It is this unwillingness to consider consequences that prevents the Left from effectively participating in the debate and, thus, wringing its collective hands when the extent of voter antipathy toward asylum seekers is demonstrated."
Haigh's piece displayed one of the ongoing characteristics of the Left's response on asylum seekers: an inability to distinguish between what is moral and right for an individual to do and what is the best outcome, in moral terms, for governments to pursue. Individual actions have limited consequences, but government policies can have far-reaching consequences including, in this case, encouraging both genuine asylum seekers and those who would game the system for economic advantage, like those coming from Sri Lanka, to risk their lives trying to reach Australia. It is this unwillingness to consider consequences that prevents the Left from effectively participating in the debate and, thus, wringing its collective hands when the extent of voter antipathy toward asylum seekers is demonstrated. And some consideration of consequences by the Greens would not have gone astray when they voted down the government's "Malaysian Solution" legislation, opening the way to a return to a more barbaric, and less effective, Pacific Solution. I've been accused on several occasions of substituting utilitarianism for morality on this issue, which begs the question: what should governments do instead? Should a government make a decision that benefits one individual or group, knowing it may have lethal consequences for others? Where's the morality in acting in a way that you know increases the risk that people may die? At this point, some fall back on insisting we should fulfil our obligations under the Refugee Convention. Putting aside the fact the claim Australia has breached its international obligations is bandied around far more often than it is ever actually demonstrated, this substitutes adherence to a treaty for hard decision-making. Mere adherence to a treaty doesn't make a policy any more or less moral; there's certainly no morality in a policy that leads to drownings while observing the nuances of the UN Refugee Convention. One refugee advocate who has attempted to move the issue forward is Julian Burnside, who put forward a four-point plan to overhaul the processing of asylum seekers. His proposal has some implementation issues, particularly around the idea of keeping asylum seekers in regional Australia, given the likely lack of community and support services and economic opportunities, but nonetheless it demonstrates Burnside is wise to the need to put forward workable alternatives rather than adopting what might be called the Ian Rintoul approach of reflexively criticising anything and everything short of an open-borders policy. If more progressives dismayed by what we're doing on asylum seekers copied Burnside and actually tried to grapple with policy solutions rather than demonising efforts to impose some basic rules on our processes, the disconnect with the majority of voters might start to diminish. Chris Bowen, meanwhile, is stuck with having to navigate a path between the outright racism of the Coalition, which advocates policies demonstrated to place lives at risk, and the wilful refusal of progressives to accept that policy is more complicated than simply throwing open our borders because it's the moral thing to do at a personal level. He's also stuck with the task of trying to do the right thing by genuine asylum seekers, more of whom will be welcomed to Australia on his watch than ever before, and illegal immigrants trying to game the system.

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56 thoughts on “Left disconnected from reality on asylum seekers

  1. Jenny Haines

    Bernard – I usually like your articles but on this one you have fallen into the usual journalistic trap of labelling opposition to the government as coming from the Left.Inside the Labor Party, Labor for Refugees is supported by the Right and the Left of the party.That is how Labor for Refugees got progressive reforms through the National Conference of the party, cross factional support. Dont hold your breath waiting for leading Left figures in the ALP to criticise Gillard and Bowen on refugees and asylum seekers. They have been remarkably mute.

    Of course there is not majority support in the community for the recognition of the human rights of refugees and asylum seekers, however they arrive. This is Australia, remember! Fraser faced down this opposition when he flew the Vietnamese to Australia against the popular sentiment at the time but we don’t have that sort of leadership in our parliament any more. They follow the polls and the focus groups now, they don’t lead.

    I don’t think anyone is asking for automatic recognition of any group of asylum seekers. What Labor for Refugees wants is fair processing so that all asylum seekers get a fair go with DIAC. What has been happening in most recent times is pure refoulement, contrary to the Refugee Convention, and contrary to any sense of fairness. On the basis of a 15 minute interview where a Sri Lankan asylum seeker is asked a set of questions guaranteed to get the answers DIAC wants,they are bundled back on a plane to Sri Lanka to face imprisonment and torture. If you think that is fair Bernard then you and I are having different conversations!

  2. Tom Makin

    well argued article. i did read Mr. Haigh’s peice and posted a few comments on it but got annoyed with the overly biased comments from the left so i did not go back to it. you might even have people who have drowned and disappear at seas trying to get to Oz, and the human rights group would blame the Sri Lankan gov for their disappearance, i’m not saying gov abuse does not exist there.

    just want to add a few things. we do need the left for check and balance to alp & libs don’t stray out too far on this issue, but it is disappointing the way they’ve been acting.

    one consequences of policy, one needs to realise that if you don’t have ‘disinecentive’ and give incentive for economic migrants to come, what will happen is that they will exhaust the resources for processing claims and clog up the system. this causes despondent for those genuine refugees waiting too long overseas that they too feel the need to get on the boat as the way out and compound the problem of more boat arrivals and drowning further.

    Ozis have difficulty in finding work at the moment, and somehow people think that economic migrants mostly with low skills and english should be automatically accepted as refugees and will be able to find work easily to support themselves without draining the welfare resource and public housing cost. the real experience is many of these new arrivals depend on welfare supports and take a few years to restart their lives. any policy decision need to look at a broad range of consequences, and look at the amount drownings in Europe and learn from it.

  3. CML

    A thousand times, thank you, Bernard. What a delight to have a rational view of this very difficult issue.
    But, be prepared! You have eloquently written what I tried to say in a comment on Bruce Haigh’s article yesterday, only to be attacked (personally) for my troubles.
    This really is turning into a disaster for the whole Australian community, with such rabid division appearing. Something must be done to introduce some order here for the sake of the whole community, and the genuine refugees who need our support. Totally open borders just will not cut it!!

  4. Tom Makin

    so many mistakes in spelling and grammar. better off if i wrote it in arabic

  5. Tom Makin

    Sorry to hear that CML, i did not bother to come back to that article again

  6. Coaltopia

    Spot on: “reflexively criticising anything and everything short of an open-borders policy.”

  7. Tom Makin

    i wonder if i was attacked as well. i thought this site has good discussion but after reading the comment after mine on mr Haigh’s article i felt that i better leave it.

    good sense, turns out poor CML copped the abuse.

  8. Mark Errey

    Bernard – I agree with the thrust of your article, the disconnect you see between how the majority of voters perceive this issue and how the left/greens perceive it is real. I don’t think this is helped when someone as learned, informed and insightful as yourself continues to term asylum seekers as “illegals”. This is a misused and pejorative term, it is not illegal to seek asylum, particularly if you are a minority that is being slaughtered by your own government as is the case with the Sri Lankans. We expect you to do better Bernard. Otherwise keep it up.

  9. Clytie

    “Where’s the morality in acting in a way that you know increases the risk that people may die?”

    The problem is, asylum seekers are routinely killed in their own and other countries. Since asylum seekers have no status in countries like Pakistan or Malaysia, they can be exploited and killed with impunity. They are explicitly or effectively non-persons.

    Bernard, before holding forth on these issues, you ought to talk to some Hazaras and Tamils. You don’t seem to have any idea what they have had to survive; and you would be talking to the ones who were lucky, or skilled enough, to do so.

    Asylum seeker solution #1: stop their governments persecuting them. Any protests the international community may be making to those governments appear to be ignored.

    Asylum seeker solution #2: set up orderly, effective processing in host countries. Are we doing that yet?

    Asylum seeker solution #3: treat people decently when they claim asylum. Instead, we punish them. This is counter-productive when nearly all turn out to be genuine refugees.

    Your arguments could have been used just as strongly against taking in Jewish people fleeing Europe in the 1930s. Sometimes they were, and that’s a shame we have to carry.

    However, few of us were alive back then. We’re alive now, and we are responsible for how our society treats the vulnerable and dispossessed. I will not, while there is breath in my body, allow desperate people to be exploited for political gain, and that is what is happening here.

    Our society can easily accommodate the number of asylum seekers we get each year. Heck, I live in a town of 7000 people, the poorest area in the poor state of S.A., and we have run community refugee resettlement projects. Our region is at least half NESB. Never have we regretted bringing refugees into this community: they are hard-working, devoted to their families and determined to contribute to our community.

    Involve the regions: councils, employers and community groups. Provide adequate support services, create and update plans with each group willing to be involved. Do some real data management (collect what is actually needed, and compare it directly to the relevant criterion). Work with the resources we already have, and the new resources we’ll gain through resettlement.

    Asylum seekers are a net asset to our society, and currently we’re not only wasting that asset, we’re paying billions to write it down.

  10. Mark out West


    How may time does it have to be said that there is no line. The small amount of economic migrants are part and parcel of having the refugee process.
    No one called for the abolition of the Banking system when it took us to the brink. No one closed down P*illip M+rris when their executives were shown to have lied about the deadly impact of smoking.
    The relevance is that while we on the left fight for a fairer deal for all, the right wing lemmings (please read NO SPINE) give away their rights to those psychopaths who only think about money.

    The affect of economic migrants in the process is minimal in economic terms and only significant because you have to deal the the entrenched racism in Australia. Australians love the money coming in from the rest of the world they just don’t want to be part off the problems.

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