The Terrifying Debate


Responses to the Federal Government’s recent reform
of Australia’s immigration detention policy have once again shown that
debate over immigration issues in Australia is drenched in symbolism,
political posturing and ideology, obscuring the human reality beneath.

On the one hand, it is hard to imagine how it could be contentious for a government to state that we should not
lock up people for long periods when they have not been charged with
any offence, unless there are compelling reasons to do so. But as soon
as you mention asylum seekers or refugees – let alone bring up loaded
and misleading terms like "illegal immigrants" – at that point simple,
humane common sense seems to go straight out the window.

Ezequiel Trumper quite rightly expressed amazement and dismay
that a decision by the Government to reassert such a basic aspect of
the rule of law was done with so little fanfare. He was also angry that
there was so little condemnation of the policies that were being
discarded, and no "moral censure of the perpetrators of these
horrendous human rights violations".

Yet in announcing what should turn out to be a historic realignment
in national immigration policy and law, the Labor Government has been
as keen as anyone else to keep it low-key. Despite (or because of) the
political significance of the issue, the announcement was made by
Minister Chris Evans, not by the Prime Minister – even though the issue
is ideally suited to Kevin Rudd’s pre-election characterisation of John
Howard’s "Brutopia", and is also perfectly in tune with Mr Rudd’s own praise of Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his notion of the Christian duty to support "the marginalised, the vulnerable and the oppressed".

Despite some standard criticism by Chris Evans of the previous
government’s policy, he also made it very clear – in line with Labor’s
official policy – that "mandatory detention" was being retained.
Indeed, Evans emphasised that number one of the Government’s "seven key
immigration values" is that "Mandatory detention is an essential
component of strong border control".

Labor has junked the old form of mandatory detention, but at the
same time has been keen to retain the label, and also to keep linking
it to other phrases such as "border control". In fact, the arrival of
asylum seekers by boat has nothing to do with effective control of our
borders, nor do any of the other tough terms deployed in this debate
have any real value except to play on security fears in the community.
The people who might threaten our security are those who try to sneak
in undetected or use false pretences to avoid scrutiny of their
intentions. By contrast, asylum seekers deliberately seek to be
detected, and then undergo more rigorous assessment, including police
and security checks, than any of the literally millions of other people
who enter Australia every year.

To some extent, one could say the Government’s relatively quiet
reform is just another example of politicians trying to use language
that will appeal to both sides of an issue. But the underlying politics
and community attitudes regarding immigration and refugee issues should
not be underplayed.

Labor’s cautious approach on this, and the generally low-key
political responses so far, are not just due to the psychological and
political scars from 2001’s Tampa election. We cannot ignore the fact
that significant antagonism towards asylum seekers, refugees and
migrants still exists in the wider community. While Ezequiel Trumper
lamented how little coverage such a potentially momentous policy shift
received in the newspapers, it was certainly sufficient to generate
some heated comment on anti-migrant blogs around the world. There was
also plenty of vitriol among the many reader comments left on
mainstream media sites such as this one at The Courier-Mail.

This can’t just be dismissed as a venomous online fringe. Not long
after Chris Evans’s announcement regarding immigration detention, a survey
found over 60 per cent of respondents believed Australia’s past policy
towards asylum seekers was either "about right" or "not tough enough".
Only 24 per cent thought it was "too tough".

Andrew Norton pointed to
a number of other polls, including the 2007 Australian Election Survey,
which also suggest that the level of public sympathy for refugees is
not as strong as human rights campaigners might like to think.

It is fair enough to say that governments shouldn’t pander to such
attitudes, and certainly the tactic from the Howard era of deliberately
inflaming community antagonism towards refugees and migrants for
political gain must continue to be condemned.

But in shifting away from such past policies, it is asking a lot of any
government to expect them to tackle such antagonistic attitudes head on
– particularly if there is not a strong movement at community level
also seeking to shift such attitudes.

Major party politicians will only go so far in adopting measures which
fly directly in the face of general public opinion. The more solid the
public support for basic human rights to be equally available for
migrants, the further governments will go in acting on this.

Politicians do sometimes do the right thing just because it is the
right thing to do. But contrary to popular opinion, politicians are
human beings, and like anyone else, they are more likely to do the
right thing if there is a reward rather than a punishment in doing so.
The task of a human rights and migrants’ rights movement is to try to
make it politically rewarding to do the right thing.

Articles that did appear in the mainstream media attacking Chris
Evans’ announcement recycled the same old baseless smears about
security and terrorism risks from "softer" detention policies. The
smear term "illegal immigrant" continues to be used regularly in the
mainstream media, despite many efforts over a long period to educate
editors and journalists about its inaccuracy.

Ross Fitzgerald, a regular writer for The Australian, is one example
of the continuing effort to use baseless innuendo about terrorism
threats and the Howard-era propaganda line that a "softer" policy might
"send a message to people smugglers that Australia is open for business
again". Fitzgerald even came up with a term which would do The Hollowmen
proud, talking of "potential illegals" and the possible dangers of
allowing them to live in the community (ie they might be terrorists who
will disappear if we don’t keep them locked up). "Potential illegal" is
the sort of term beloved of the spin doctor – basically meaningless and
misleading, but perfect for playing on public fears and implying
wrong-doing even when there clearly is none.

It is hard to think of another policy which has been such a clear
vote winner as Howard’s detention "deterrent", despite it failing on
virtually every measure normally used to assess the adequacy of a
policy. It’s not often mentioned, but it’s definitely worth remembering
that in simple policy terms, mandatory detention was a very expensive
failure which did not achieve its stated goal of reducing the number of
boat arrivals.

Boat arrivals didn’t drop until a decade after mandatory detention was
brought in, partly as a consequence of the Government adopting the
Hanson policy of using the military to push the boats back, along with
changing trends in global refugee movements and evolving cooperation
with UNHCR, Indonesia and other nations in our region.

Mandatory detention cost billions of taxpayer dollars, caused major
harm to many innocent children and adults, seriously undermined
fundamental components of the rule of law underpinning our democracy,
and caused serious degradation in standards of public administration

But the main goal of the mandatory detention policy was always a
political one, not a policy one. It was not so much about reducing the
number of asylum seekers, but rather about appearing "tough" on them
once they’d arrived (although I have never figured out how it can
possibly be tough to pick on some of world’s most powerless people).

The excesses of the Howard era, culminating in the shredding of the
rule of law following the Tampa rescue, the pre-meditated brutality of
detention policy and Temporary Protection Visas (also laudably scrapped
by Minister Evans), galvanised the refugee rights movement in
Australia, which played a huge role in stemming and slowly turning the
tide of public opinion on this issue. But we should not kid ourselves
that the task is anywhere near done, or that it only relates to

The statements of people in government and other positions of
leadership and influence are crucial in shaping public understanding
and attitudes. Those of us who believe that refugees and migrants
should have the same rights and respect as the rest of the community
have a crucial role over the next few years, a role which will include
encouraging government to adopt a more realistic rhetoric, to help
build a clear majority in favour of a more just attitude. Only then can
we be confident of a permanent shift in that direction in government
policy and migration law.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.