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”.

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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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Crikey is an independent Australian-owned and run outfit. It doesn’t enjoy the vast resources of the country’s main media organisations. We take seriously our responsibility to bear witness.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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