Gillard Gambles It All On Asylum Seekers

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So, it’s come to this. Labor has suddenly reversed almost all its long-held positions on asylum seekers.

Bewildered by years of unsuccessful attempts to unscramble the Rubik’s Cube of asylum seeker policy, bloodied by countless negative front pages and dismal opinion polls, and bewitched by the opportunity to turn the tables on an Opposition it clearly despises, the Australian Labor Party appears eager to embrace a hawkish report by experts when it comes to Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers.

What’s happened? The government’s Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers has delivered its report. Labor has swung quickly into Parliamentary action, hoping to pass bipartisan legislation with a view to locking the Coalition in to some kind of consensus solution to the asylum seeker policy deadlock.

The Expert Panel, headed by former Australian Defence Force chief Angus Houston, delivered a complex and nuanced examination of the policy conundrum, supposedly based on the best available evidence. The panel explained its approach by arguing that the asylum seeker problem demands "a strategic and comprehensive response," which "needs to be driven by a clear-eyed practicality, and by a sense of humanity as well as fairness."

Deterrence is a consistent theme of the report, which states plainly that "Australian policy settings do influence the flows of irregular migration to Australia". Therefore, a "no advantage" policy should apply to seaborne asylum seekers, so that they don’t enjoy quicker processing or a greater chance of asylum than those seeking to enter Australia by "regular" means.

The Expert Report therefore takes Australia back to something remarkably close to the Pacific Solution under John Howard. You can just about tick all the boxes. Offshore processing? Yes, the report recommends processing pretty much everywhere, including Nauru and Manus Island in Papua New Guinea. The Malaysian solution? Yes, the report praises the Malaysian deal. Legislation to override the High Court decision about Malaysia — and therefore Australia’s obligations under the Refugee Convention? A "matter of urgency", apparently.

The Report also recommends removing family reunion concessions for those who have arrived on boats, and that those who arrive in australia through irregular maritime means should not be eligible to sponsor family. About the only Howard-era policies it disavows are turning back boats and temporary protection visas. However, there is some good news: notably the proposal to increase Australia’s humanitarian intake from 13,000 to 20,000 places a year, rising to 27,000 within five years, and the recommendation to establish government funding for high-quality academic research into the issue.

As Renee Chan discusses elsewhere at New Matilda today, the overwhelming reaction from refugee advocates and many progressive groups has been disappointment. Speaking on the ABC this morning, high profile immigration lawyer David Manne said that "it starts on the wrong footing by suggesting we need to go down the path to a regional plan by essentially a policy of deterrence." The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, in a joint statement released with former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, were similarly critical. "Deterrence has not worked in the past and will not work in the future. In six pages and 22 recommendations, the expert panel has shredded the principles of the Refugee Convention," Fraser states.

That’s not the way the government is spinning it, of course. "This report charts the way forward and I will compromise in order to enact the recommendations of this report," Prime Minister Julia Gillard said at yesterday’s press conference. "I am prepared to further compromise from the Government’s position in order to get things done."

"What the report recommends is that there be no advantage for coming to Australia by boat," Immigration Minister Chris Bowen told the ABC’s 7.30 last night. "Now that is, as I say, a key difference to models that have been tried in the past."

Using the credentials of one of the expert of the report, Paris Aristotle, Bowen then clothed himself in a veil of humanitarianism. "When you’ve got this panel, which includes somebody like Paris Aristotle, for example — who I would suggest has done more in the real world to help refugees than many other Australian — recommending this as being necessary to save lives, then we adopt that recommendation," Bowen said.

The Government’s political tactics on this are pretty clear. With the Houston report in its back pocket, it can now use it to attempt to wedge the Coalition by moving to adopt all the policies the Coalition have have so long advocated. Should the Coalition support Labor’s moves to "resolve" the "impasse", as looks likely, the Government can say that its policies are bipartisan. Should the Coalition baulk at voting with the Government, for instance on the issue of the Malaysian agreement, Labor can accuse Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison of hypocrisy.

To do that, the government will need some favourable reporting from the media. It might get that down the track, but so far the media has been pretty blunt about how it sees Labor’s backflip. "It is almost total political surrender," Fairfax’s Lenore Taylor argued this morning. "Expert makeover" was how News Limited’s cartoonist Jon Kudelka described it, drawing Julia Gillard slowly morphing into John Howard.

Tactical surrender, this may be. But strategically, it may be the next step back from the wilderness for Julia Gillard’s government. Labor craves some kind of "circuit breaker" on asylum seeker policy, which has never played to the government’s political advantage. If it can get this legislation through the Parliament this week, it will be a huge symbolic victory for the Government, which will now hope that missing boats and scenes of chaos and terror in the Timor Sea retreat from the nation’s political awareness. That will help backbenchers feel more optimistic. It might even provide another lift in the polls. All of which, by the way, underlines the essentially political nature of the asylum seeker problem, as I have argued previously.

But can a bipartisan commitment to offshore processing (and to rolling back Australia’s commitment to human rights and the Refugee Convention) really provide such a circuit breaker? The chances seem slim. Asylum seeker policy is so thoroughly politicised that any impartial assessment of the merits of various policy positions is vanishingly difficult. Further, the incentives for blaming deaths and drownings on the perceived failures of political opponents are overwhelming. It may be that the Coalition will in the end decide not to vote with the government on the bill being introduced today. It would certainly be in Tony Abbott’s narrow political interests to see such a "solution" defeated.

Zooming back a bit, the Expert Panel’s report also reveals a couple of broader trends about Australian politics and society.

The first is the ever-troubling role of so-called "experts" within our democratic process. The problem with "expertise", be it academic or bureaucratic, is that it is scarcely value-neutral, as we’ve seen in other hot debates, from climate change to the role of economic stimulus. Experts and expertise can’t be separated from the political background of any policy problem — after all, one of the key issues of asylum seeker policy in Australia is the political controversy these policies whip up.

Another problem is that expertise depends on which position you are arguing from. For pragmatists like Houston, the solutions to drownings in terms of greater deterrence and better regional agreement seem clear enough. But for those committed to a framework of human rights, a completely different interpretation suggests itself: one which would abandon the rhetoric of incentives and disincentives and instead embrace the idea of honouring our legal obligations for those fleeing persecution in foreign lands. It’s not clear these two perspectives can be reconciled.

A second lesson of the Report is the thoroughness with which utilitarian arguments about rational decision making have infiltrated government policy making — indeed, society at large. As sociologist Michael Gilding points out in a thoughtful piece in The Conversation today, the utilitarian calculus of cost and benefit now permeates our society in nearly every way, so much so that even our Olympic swimmers are now being "incentivised" by payments for medals — or not paid, if they don’t perform.

The Houston report is not quite as nakedly economic in its understanding of human motivation, but it still posits an essentially rational decision making process, in which desperate people in fear of their lives will carefully and accurately weigh up the pros and cons of their decision to seek asylum in a foreign land. As Gilding notes, the very phrase "people smuggler’s business model" assumes that the transnational movement of refugees is somehow amenable to the careful calibration of economic incentives and deterrents.

Real life is much messier than that, as we have seen from the last decade of Australia’s failures with border protection policies. Can deterrence work this time round? Almost certainly not. But that won’t stop the government trying.

Ben Eltham

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.

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