I disagree with the emerging consensus that public opinion on refugee and asylum policy is shifting. I see it as hardening existing positions.

For example, on the government’s decision to accept 12,000 Syrian refugees, The Guardian‘s Lenore Taylor writes:

“There’s a lesson here. When voters speak loudly enough, politicians listen. The Abbott government has come a long way since Sunday, when the prime minister suggested any additional intake of Syrian refugees would have to come from within the existing humanitarian intake.”

The lesson isn’t when voters speak loudly enough, politicians listen. “Voters” spoke as loud when Reza Berati died. The public speaks loudly on marriage equality, yet a private member’s bill on the issue languishes.

Refugee and asylum policy remains entrenched in the status quo: “orderly” offshore resettlement is accepted while irregular migration — boat people — rejected. Over 15 years of public debate, the public has a clear ability to see the difference. Best-practice research on migration and public opinion shows these trends are the norm (as Ben Wilkie reminded me on Twitter). Nothing that has happened this week changes this. Ignore shitty polling as a reaction to immediate events as it is a poor indicator for policy sustainability.

It is false to say nothing has happened. The Syrian exodus has created space for policy choice and magnitude. German leadership kickstarted a rapid reaction from other rich countries who could not hide from what had been occurring for months. But why can Syrians sit in detention centres in PNG and Nauru while planning begins to accept 12,000 additional people? Why can both the government and ALP confidently state they will continue to turn boats back even with Syrians onboard? Reporting on these matters is almost an afterthought. In the populist tabloids, they do not exist.

This is not to cast judgement on these policy options but to explain that this type of post-hoc justification is wrong. Given modern migration advocacy has a long record of failure, I would recommend those seeking permanent change in asylum policy to disregard the “change has come” narrative and start to think differently.

To me, the lesson is something Lenore Taylor identifies later on in her piece. Transparency is central. Awareness and information change attitudes. Secrecy is a blight on the ability to change policy outcomes. This is the reason detention centres are offshore or in the outback. This is the reason media are kept out of camps. Images and stories that allow the communication of human nature are deliberately locked away.

Some people might say now is not the time to debate or nit pick these points as we can collectively be proud of the decision to accept 12,000 more migrants. I disagree wholeheartedly. Now is exactly the time to debate these points if there is to be continued progress. Yes, 12,000 more migrants is a step in the right direction. Yet it should be viewed as the first step of a journey, not a policy victory.

*This article was originally published at Henry Sherrell’s blog. Henry Sherrell works for the Migration Council, but this is his personal opinion.

Peter Fray

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