Asylum Seekers A Wicked Problem

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Another lost boat. More lost lives. Another round of calls for "compromise" and "bipartisanship" on asylum seeker policy. More recriminations, more name-calling, more blame game.

It would be wonderful if someone — perhaps Andrew Metcalfe — could come up with a solution to the problem of seaborne asylum seekers. But that is unlikely, because there is no single solution to the problem. There may be no solution at all.

Asylum seeker policy an example of what the strategists and bureaucrats call a "wicked problem". This 2007 Australian Public Service Commission paper discusses wicked problems and the trouble they cause for policy makers.

Wicked problems, it says, are complex and difficult to define. They often have multiple causes but no single solution or quick fix. They are unstable, shifting and morphing in ways that frustrate a coherent response, and are social by nature, involving many different individuals and agencies, across organisational boundaries, national borders and social divides.

As the last few days have made abundantly clear, asylum seeker policy is just like this. It is complex, of course: obviously so, given the difficulties of formulating a coherent policy response to the trans-national migration of dispossessed peoples. It is difficult to define, both in terms of the technical aspects of policy (Offshore or onshore processing? Temporary protection visas or normal processing? Stay in the Refugee Convention or leave it altogether?), and in terms of the politics, which have constantly driven Labor strategists to distraction ever since Labor took office.

Asylum seeker policy is also unstable. Unpredictable events like the High Court decision striking down the Malaysian Solution have a nasty tendency to derail carefully formulated political fixes. And, most importantly, asylum seeker policy is socially complex: involving the interplay of many different factors, from governments in our region to voters in marginal seats.

As a result, asylum seeker policy is the best current example of a policy problem that has no clear solution. No political fix, no face-saving deal, and no easy exit looms for Julia Gillard — or for that matter, Tony Abbott, if he were in government.

The current impasse took many years to develop. As a settler nation, Australia has long had an ambivalent relationship to immigration. The Immigration Restriction Act, also known as the "white Australia policy", was one of the first laws passed by the new federal Parliament in 1901; it endured for nearly 70 years.

It was the Labor government of Paul Keating which began the mandatory detention of refugees in 1992. As in our own time, this was a knee-jerk policy prescription designed to appease xenophobic Labor voters in marginal seats, dressed up in the language of deterring people smugglers.

Of course, it was John Howard and his government that came to own the asylum seeker issue politically, particularly in the wake of the Tampa affair. By the time Kevin Rudd took office in late 2007, seaborne asylum seekers had assumed a political significance in the Australian media far in excess of their actual numbers, or their proportion of overall migrants, let alone international flows of displaced peoples.

As we’ve chronicled repeatedly here in New Matilda, the twists and turns of the asylum seeker debate have been many and various. All of them, however, share a common disconnect between the turbulent politics of immigration and the technical complexity of the issue.

Put simply, there is no simple way to stop people getting on boats. We ought to know this already, because all the simple and easy ways have already been tried: mandatory detention, temporary protection visas, offshore processing in Nauru, turning boats around, burning boats, paying the Indonesians — even the SAS.

None of these tactics have worked, because asylum seekers are not easily deterred. Indeed, a moment’s thought into the matter would reveal why. The largest deterrent to those seeking refugee status in Australia by sea is not any policy the Australian government might adopt. It is the ocean itself. If asylum seekers are willing to risk their lives in the dangerous waters of the Indian Ocean to seek a better life on our shores, it’s unlikely that the threat of detention or repatriation will have much deterrent effect.

As Nick Reimer argued here in September last year, "everything suggests that the vast majority of asylum seekers consider the risk of a dangerous ocean crossing well worth taking. Indeed, the detention system is currently incarcerating a number of refugees who have come here, by boat, for the second time, having voluntarily returned to Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban — before being forced to come here again after conditions at home deteriorated."

It’s that complex interaction between the politics of fear and loathing and the desperation of persecuted people that has made the issue of asylum seekers so insoluble in the long term for the Rudd and Gillard government. It’s a politics of fear that the Opposition was only too willing to embrace after losing office, reasoning that it could only rebound to the Coalition’s advantage.

But it is also an impasse caused by a Labor government genuinely wedged between the political reality that asylum seekers are unpopular, and the policy reality that little can be done to stop them trying to come here.

The manifest failure of deterrence is the sad truth of the asylum seeker debate that few want to acknowledge. For the hardliners in the Coalition, admitting that asylum seekers can’t be deterred is tantamount to conceding the entire argument. After all, the consistent line of Scott Morrison and his colleagues has been that John Howard solved this problem, and that Labor re-created it by going "soft" on border protection.

For the Labor Party, such an admission would also create difficulties, because it would mean conceding that the opposition is correct in its accusation that Labor can’t "protect the borders". For many on the progressive left, admitting that deterrence won’t work means abandoning any hope in a technical solution that can somehow prevent people from risking and losing their lives in the cruel seas to Australia’s north.

You can see this confusion in the arid debate over "push" and "pull" factors. The push-and-pull metaphor was first coined by Labor in an attempt to deflect criticism that it was soft on border security. The government argued, correctly, that asylum seeker numbers largely reflected broader international trends in refugee flows. The Coalition, of course, have always denied this.

As recently as last night, Scott Morrison was telling ABC viewers that "this government is the pull factor." It’s an absurd claim, of course. The true pull factor is Australia itself: a safe and prosperous democracy with a world-beating economy and a very high standard of living.

Despite this, many on the left have bought into the push and pull debate, believing that Australia has a moral responsibility to try and deter risky sea voyages to Christmas Island in the name of saving lives. But, even if this were true — and many in the community obviously don’t agree with that proposition — it is unclear how it would be achieved.

The Greens’ proposed policy of a vastly expanded refugee program and more cooperation with regional partners would certainly make some difference. But it can hardly be counted on to prevent seaborne asylum attempts altogether. And it is not a policy the Labor Party is politically willing to adopt.

If the asylum seeker debate seems insoluble, that’s because it is. Neither major party has a viable policy that can do what they say it will. Neither major party can offer up any new perspectives or ideas. While other policies are available to be tried, they are politically unacceptable to many voters. So the endless rounds of accusation, recrimination and failure will go on. The boats will keep coming. People will keep dying. There is no end in sight.

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Ben Eltham

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.

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