How The Big Parties Lost Their Way On Refugees


Democracy rises from grass roots. To be effective it cannot be driven by "faceless men". Yet, in Australia most state divisions of our two major parties have been controlled by virtually anonymous manipulators ensconced in committees and executive positions.

In the Labor Party there have been factional leaders of the right, centre and left. In the Liberal Party for over 20 years power brokers have been increasingly conservative and frequently self-serving.

Neither party has embarked upon recruitment programs to broaden the ideas of its branches. Neither has sought to formulate vision statements after widespread consultation with voters of all ages and regions. And when in government, they have ceased producing green papers for discussion before releasing white papers as policy.

Electoral research has revealed that voters have been angry with this leadership failure for many years.

Voters wish to discuss issues such as the rising cost of living, employment, skill training, taxation, child care, the quality of education, clean energy and a range of infrastructure projects. Backbenchers who do engage in genuine dialogue with their electorates win support from voters through demonstrating that they have listened. But if their senior colleagues in Canberra do not heed them, community disenchantment increases.

Adam Bandt, Deputy Leader of the Greens, won the Labor seat of Melbourne at the last election on a platform of "a fair go" for asylum seekers, climate change action and same sex marriage. Voters respected his stand on these issues and rejected both major parties, yet those parties continue to dismiss him as representing a left wing fringe. Such views are, however, important in all marginal electorates.

A rural Victorian Liberal, Russell Broadbent, had a similar experience. His seat of McMillan is usually won on preferential votes and goes with the party winning government. Broadbent initially won on preferences but then took a strong stance on asylum seekers, crossing the floor several times against the Howard government’s policies. Broadbent knew that, like many rural electorates, his voters despised mandatory detention behind barbed wire in deserts and were willing to welcome refugees into their communities. Others who crossed the floor with Broadbent also won great support from their electorates.

In 2007, when John Howard lost his own seat as well as government, Broadbent won with an absolute majority. Voter opinion would have been similar in other marginal electorates had Liberal candidates opposed Howard. The treatment of asylum seekers concerns many voters and their votes count in marginal seats.

Yet, neither the Labor nor Liberal parties has learnt from the evidence of voter opinion. The major parties refuse to debate the issue meaningfully. They talk of "stopping the boats" without cooperating with neighbouring nations to do it humanely.

If boat arrivals are portrayed as security risks, voters will not support refugee processing within Australia. However, if the truth is told — that they have left their homelands in fear of persecution and risked their lives in leaky boats to find safety — most Australians would support on-shore processing and the settlement of some refugees here, while others might join relatives elsewhere. The small percentage of illegal economic migrants arriving by boat can be identified and deported. This issue will continue and must be as bipartisan as possible.

Australia’s refugee policy was successful from 1980-90 because it was bipartisan.
When I was Minister for Immigration and Mick Young was Shadow Minister we agreed on a process for dealing with asylum seekers humanely. Immigration and Foreign Affairs officials who worked closely with our neighbours and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees advised me and cabinet accepted my recommendations. Mick invited me to speak to the caucus committee on immigration and to the Opposition Leader, Bill Hayden.

When consensus was reached with Labor, I was able to assure the Fraser-Anthony cabinet that there would be a policy for the long term. To ensure that the policy was understood by the electorate, Mick Young and I conferred with communities in all capital cities and some regions. This ensured that the policy was understood and endured.

Australia earned international respect for the humane settlement of asylum seekers and the Hawke and Keating governments maintained this policy. But the Howard opposition abandoned it and when Howard became prime minister, offshore processing was reduced and boat smuggling rose.

Anyone who aided the humane resettlement of refugees knows that it was successful for the people and beneficial to Australians with whom they settled. Yet, Opposition spokesman for Immigration, Scott Morrison, continues the mantra of the Howard Government and his devout Christian leader supports him. There will be no humane, practical policy while Tony Abbott’s Opposition maintains that stance.

There were other areas where bipartisan policy prevailed between Labor and the Coalition. But that is no longer the case. This angers voters. Liberal Party research must surely be showing this. That might explain why Tony Abbott recently supported the disability insurance proposal of the Government.

The Democrats and the Greens have shown that minor parties can have a positive influence. All parties should focus on policy — not on ridiculing opponents. And to formulate policy they must seek the views of the grass roots. They need to select candidates who listen to their constituents, and party rooms should debate policies that encompass views across Australia. Leaders and party donors must not impose contrary views if they want voter support.

Voters are now disillusioned because of the lack of a bipartisan approach to long-term economic and social policy development. Infrastructure of roads, ports, airports and clean energy are desperately needed to improve the quality of life and efficiency of industry. Voters would support far sighted research and development projects. This was also bipartisan under the Fraser, Hawke and Keating governments.

There has mostly been bipartisan foreign policy but current foreign policy must be modified. Our emerging links with the Indian and Pacific Oceans have lessened. Instead of enlarging Washington’s understanding of the evolving Asia we have become Deputy Sheriff to the U.S. in our region. That must be corrected urgently. Malcolm Turnbull is the only Liberal who has had the courage and conviction to say that.

When parties differ on long-term policies, voters will decide. But when there are no policies — only insults and slogans — people will lodge protest votes. Government will be even less far-sighted if we continue to have minority governments.

Despite Labor’s federal leadership debacles, it has many fine ministers and several potential leaders. But the Liberals only have one. Malcolm Turnbull has been revealed to be a genuine social and economic liberal with an understanding of foreign policy and the importance of Asia to Australia. One trusts that his loss of leadership has taught him to heed the grassroots and colleagues, as he is surely the Liberals’ great hope. The quality of political debate and government, our standing in the region and our self-esteem as Australians will all be immeasurably enhanced if — one hopes when — he is able to resume the leadership of the Liberal Party.

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