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Jul 29, 2013

'Let them all come' is 'stop the boats' for unthinking progressives

A focus on outcomes rather than conspicuous compassion is required if the Left is to deal itself back into the asylum seeker debate.

welcome refugees

Today it was former Liberal PM Malcolm Fraser’s turn to offer a progressive solution to boat arrivals, citing his own handling of Indo-Chinese refugees in the 1970s. He called for a regional processing centre in Indonesia and a resettlement agreement with other major resettlement countries (which is basically the US and Canada), because as Fraser admits, the numbers of asylum seekers are greater than Australia can manage.

As a former conservative prime minister who has been through a refugee “crisis” and handled it with aplomb, both at the time and for the long-term benefit of Australia through a successful Australian-Vietnamese community, Fraser brings far more to this debate than most progressives, particularly given his international experience and credibility as a Cold War warrior who was and is also respected for his role in African issues.

Whether he meant it to be or not, his observation that Australia needs the assistance of the other big resettlement countries to deal with its current influx is an implicit rebuke to those who advocate “let them all come”, a slogan repeatedly invoked by asylum seeker advocates in response to PM Kevin Rudd’s PNG agreement.

“Let them all come” is a progressive version of “stop the boats”, a slogan that substitutes emotion for thinking and personal morality for good policy, a phrase that elevates intentions above outcomes. To “let them all come” would be to encourage more asylum seekers to undertake boat trips to reach Australia, knowing they will be resettled here if their request for asylum is granted. The good intention of “let them all come” will lead to the outcome of more drownings.

For policymakers, more than for most of us, the road to hell is indeed paved with good intentions.

The progressive response to this criticism is two-fold: either they accuse those claiming concern for drownings of feigning compassion and using it as a figleaf for racism, or they suggest we fly or sail asylum seekers from Indonesia to avoid drownings.

Most assuredly, many bigots prefer to express concern about drowning rather than openly express their dislike of asylum seekers. But that doesn’t render the argument about trying to stop drownings automatically invalid, even if articulated by someone in bad faith. And assuming voters would accept a taxpayer-funded transit service from Indonesia to prevent asylum seekers trying to reach Australia by boat, what would be the numerical limit given all of them would need to be resettled? About 17,000 asylum seekers reached Australia by boat in 2012, more than Australia’s humanitarian visa resettlement program until then-immigration minister Chris Bowen — in an action for which he was given zero credit by asylum seeker advocates and which the Coalition still proposes to reverse — increased it to 20,000.

“Ignoring this ongoing failure will condemn refugee advocates and progressives to a continuation of the status quo …”

There’s also the problem of cost. Resettlement, done properly with the goal of ensuring refugees can have decent and productive lives in their new home, costs a lot of money. Significantly increasing resettlement numbers will cost billions. What taxes will have to be raised, or other spending cut, to fund this? And do we set up upper limit at all? 25,000? 30,000? 35,000?

Then there’s an equity problem: assuming no significant fall in the push factors driving refugees to seek sanctuary elsewhere, “let them all come” advocates must either accept that most or all of our humanitarian intake would be made up of asylum seekers who can reach Indonesia or need to address the implicit unfairness of such a system: what happens to asylum seekers who lack the resources to reach Indonesia? “Let them all come” is an implicit statement to the latter that they will never be resettled in Australia, because we have prioritised those who can get to Indonesia.

It’s not as clear and stark a statement as Kevin Rudd declaring no one arriving by boat will be resettled here, but the policy outcome will be the same: no one who can’t reach Australia by boat will ever be resettled here.

Now, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with such an approach: Australia, as Fraser notes, can only do so much by itself; if every asylum seeker we resettle is a bona fide refugee, and nearly every maritime arrival certainly is, then privileging one group of asylum seekers — those who reach Indonesia — over others doesn’t undermine the fact that Australia is generously welcoming a large number of refugees for permanent resettlement. And it is simply human nature, even among policymakers, to prioritise people closer to us than those further away: asylum seekers trapped in refugee camps in Africa or the Middle East or Pakistan are for most of us an abstract with no great immediacy as a humanitarian issue, whereas most of us get very worked up, one way or the other, if the same people try to reach Australia.

But those who say “let them all come” should be open about their assumptions and that their approach would have the outcome of ending the resettlement hopes of those who can’t reach Indonesia.

But those who say “let them all come”, and many refugee advocates (Julian Burnside very much excepted), do not seem interested in policy outcomes, preferring instead a display of conspicuous compassion. Indeed, this is the story of the broader Left on asylum seekers over the last decade-plus: a comprehensive failure to address policy outcomes, in preference for public displays of compassion and an alternative narrative in which most Australians are fundamentally racist (Richard Cooke expertly addresses the “Australians are racist” line) or that former PM John Howard invented the threat of asylum seekers (which fails to explain why it was the Keating government, in 1992, that established mandatory detention).

Ignoring this ongoing failure will condemn refugee advocates and progressives to a continuation of the status quo, in which policymakers get on with trying to find ways to stop people coming in boats, while refugee advocates futilely jeer from the sidelines.

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77 comments

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77 thoughts on “‘Let them all come’ is ‘stop the boats’ for unthinking progressives

  1. morphy richards toaster

    Brilliant article, Bernard. Thanks for articulating what the rest of the media simply has not.

  2. chinda63

    Thank you for putting it so clearly.

    I used to be a “let them all come”, until it became increasingly apparent what the practical upshot of that policy was – more boats and more people drowning. No thanks.

    Let’s concentrate our efforts on resettling those too poor to afford plane tickets and boat rides who are already languishing in camps, patiently waiting their turn.

  3. Bo Gainsbourg

    There are some who say ‘let them all come’. There are also many who back some mix of solutions similar to Fraser’s….including, I would have thought, the Greens, or something close to it. Also incumbent on those who support the PNG solution and the oppositions current position is what happens when there are simply redirected drownings? That is, boats than would have sought to come to Australia now head for other countries. Out of the view of our media, with similar tragic circumstances. As the Greens are currently the only significant organised political/parliamentary voice not sharing the major parties view, can we have a closer look at their policy in relation to this? Would it not explain why Fraser was supportive of their general policy approach?

  4. Professor Tournesol

    Bernard I think that you are missing the main point. It’s a strawman argument to claim that any more than a small number of those who oppose asylum seeker assessment and resettlement are advocating an effective open border policy.
    The real issue is around how people who dare to arrive here without a visa and by boat are treated. Should these people be effectively incarcerated for life and further intentionally traumatised by our Government in order to provide a disincentive to possible new arrivals? Should over 2000 children be kept in indefinite lifetime detention without any examination of their asylum claim because they arrived here by boat with their parents who asked for asylum? I think that your understanding of what you call ‘the left’ is simplistic if this article is any example.

  5. ruawake

    Fraser always misses the point that we lost a war in Vietnam, that the Indo-Chinese refugees Australia resettled were about 10% of the total and that over 800,000 were resettled in the USA.

    Of course many were robbed and killed by Thai pirates, or picked up by merchant ships and dumped in Hong Kong.

    But heck we can do it all over again, rubbish Malcolm.

  6. Professor Tournesol

    ruawake, perhaps it’s escaping your notice but we are losing the war in Afghanistan too, and that we contributed to the war that also started the displacement of Iraqi citizens

  7. Trevor Kerr

    Spot on, Bernard.
    There’s another unresolved dilemma for this nation – how to include an honest statement about the First Australians in our foundation documents. Until we get that one near right, especially a frank treatment of frontier conflicts, we cannot treat “resettlement” of other peoples with the pragmatism called for by Malcolm Fraser.
    As it happens, Mr Fraser’s history with Western Victoria puts him in a good position to re-examine what Henry Reynolds is writing about in the book Forgotten War.

  8. Elvis

    those who say “let them all come” should be open about their assumptions and that their approach would have the outcome of ending the resettlement hopes of those who can’t reach Indonesia.

    This is only true so long as the Australian Government links unexpected asylum arrivals to the formal quota. By de-linking them (as per Greens policy) this argument would be completely removed.

  9. Andybob

    So actually protecting asylum seekers is to be denigrated as ‘let them all come’. The real humanitarians are those who support camps because we must be cruel to be kind. Perhaps we should prevent deaths at sea by not burning arrival vessels and assisting our neighbors in imposing very substantial penalties on those who put people to sea in unseaworthy craft. Asylum seekers are going to come unless we inflict worse conditions on them than they are fleeing. Explain to me again why that is a noble cause.

  10. Russell

    The notion that “Australians are racist” on refugees – or more particularly Western Sydney electorates are – is now so accepted (in some media circles) that it has become conventional wisdom.

    That the accusation so often comes from the progressive left, and more importantly, from people in electorates like mine where the Greens are the dominant force, is also telling. In the inner west of Sydney, it is rare now to see a non-anglo face. In Annandale, Balmain and Newtown, the only person anyone will see not exactly like them will be the waiter at a North African-French fusion restaurant. Or the driver of the taxi on the ride home. He’ll be making around $9 an hour, if he’s having a good night.

    In Western Sydney, there are huge migrant and refugee communities. People speaking a language other than English at home are now the majority in many places like Rhodes, Harris Park and Fairfield. Yet these people are “racist”?

    Bernard has hit the nail on the head. He can expect to be shouted at and denigrated – loudly. The whole refugee “debate” amongst progressives is actually about else entirely. Something that dare not speak its name.

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