Naturally, opinion is divided over the consequences of yesterday’s defeat of the government on the medical evacuation bill. For the right, the defeat of the government was really a victory for Scott Morrison, opening the way to an election triumph over Labor on the back of a 2001-style border security election campaign. For the left, what is a relatively minor tweak to the process for approving medical evacuations is a triumph of compassion and decency in our otherwise blighted and racist asylum seeker policy.

What is agreed by all, and the media too, is that yesterday was of immense significance. But what if it’s not? What if most voters don’t have anything like the level of interest in asylum seekers that either the left or the right, or the media, thinks they should have?

For the issue is totemic for all three. For the media, the prospect of a repeat of 2001 is an enthralling one, replacing the dysfunctional drift toward a Labor win with a rat-cunning Liberal campaign exploiting border security fears. For the left, asylum seekers have enormous significance, reflecting a naive “let them all come” sentimentality, and a conviction that most Australians are irredeemably racist. The right also sees the issue in near-apocalyptic terms, with a vast brown tide of humanity needing to be kept out of Australia, and unflinching brutality the only mechanism guaranteed to do so. 

But while partisans of both sides obsess over asylum seekers, most voters have little interest in the issue. “Treatment of asylum seekers” has never made the top ten list of issues voters identify as most important — that list is always dominated by health, the economy and jobs, and education. The only time it becomes an issue for voters is when it is perceived that our borders are being threatened. In 2013, when tens of thousands of asylum seekers and illegal immigrants were coming to Australia by boat, concern about the issue reached 14% in Essential Report’s regular “important issues” question. But after the Abbott government succeeded in stopping boat arrivals, concern about the issue fell back into single figures and by 2016 was just 7%. (and that 7% is mostly Greens voters who presumably want to let more in). The incessant invocation of 2001 also misses the point that that election was held in an atypical environment — a high-profile single case (the Tampa, plus the Coalition’s lies about kids overboard) and the febrile atmosphere after 9/11. Commentators also forget that the Howard government had already mounted a huge comeback in the polls before Tampa, courtesy of bribing key sections of its base, such as retirees — largesse taxpayers are still paying for.

The government is thus a victim of its own success. It stopped the boats, and thus saved the lives of hundreds of potential maritime asylum seekers. Those of us who thought they couldn’t do it, or who talked about “push factors” being more important than “pull factors”, were proved wrong. But the government isn’t given credit for it — certainly not by the left, which prefers to focus on offshore detention and won’t even accept that any lives have been saved by stopping maritime arrivals, but, even worse, by the electorate. With the boats stopped, the issue has vanished from voters’ radar and they are instead focused on the things that normally shape their voting: health and the economy, in particular.

So, the government and News Corp might fantasise about a border security election, but for the 2001 redux fantasy to occur, they’ll need a flotilla of boats coming over the horizon. Scott Morrison is preparing for this scenario, claiming any boat that now comes is the fault of Bill Shorten and he’s preparing for another influx of maritime arrivals by reopening Christmas Island. But to elevate the issue in voters’ minds, there’ll have to be a lot of boats in the next 100 days, or a major security incident that will heighten voter fears. So far, the only voters who seem prepared to change their votes on asylum seekers are affluent Liberal voters who have switched to independents like Kerryn Phelps, not Labor voters angry about the imminent flood of brown people. And the only impression most voters will have about yesterday’s events is more chaos in parliament, a point only Phil Coorey picked up today.

But the left is just as out of touch. The government, and its rotten bureaucrats in the Department of Immigration, have handled offshore detention with brutality, malicious negligence and incompetence; in a just world some bureaucrats would be facing manslaughter prosecution for their role in the deaths of detainees. But it is literally a tenth-order (or lower) issue for ordinary Australians, who are more concerned about an economy that delivers for them, poor services and poor infrastructure. Look at the US if you want to see what happens when progressive parties obsess about fringe social issues rather than focusing on delivering for working people.

Will this issue be an election decider? Write to [email protected] with your full name and let us know.