Last week’s decision to resume offshore processing on Nauru and Manus Island represents much more than either a clear political vindication of the Coalition or the latest cynical assault on refugees by the Australian state.
Quite aside from its immediate human and political consequences, last week’s legislation marks the latest symbolic victory of a violent and destructive re-evaluation of our society’s obligations in cases of pressing humanitarian need.
As with the Northern Territory Intervention, this ideological shift sets a further precedent for the way that Australian society construes its stance towards those who make claims on its protection, whether they are asylum seekers or not.
Humane values have long been absent from Australian refugee policy in fact. What is new in the current situation is how thoroughly they have been wiped from the conceptual framework in which refugee issues are approached.
The Houston panel’s recommendations, cowritten by a former defence chief and the current National Security College head (we’ll discuss Paris Aristotle’s role later), constitute the latest chapter in the militarisation of social policy begun with the Intervention.
The depth of the new ideological reset does not lie in the banishment of humanitarian language from public debate about refugees. It lies in the extent to which humanitarian discourse has been coopted in the service of exactly the contrary values.
As the bland, chilling brutality of the Parliamentary debate showed, no ideological barrier stands in the way of measures to harm innocent people, with even the least callous and ignorant of the major parties’ MPs falling into line.
Now validated by the "expert" authority of the Houston report, supporters of cruelty to refugees have at their disposal a ready-made arsenal of justification, couched in the glib lingua franca of "preventing deaths at sea", ensuring "no advantage" for those who "choose" not to seek protection through "established mechanisms", and warning of the danger of "allowing the perfect to become the enemy of the good."
These rhetorical travesties are a powerful model for other areas of public policy, where their effects will no doubt soon be abundantly evident.
How have we got to this point? A natural tendency exists to interpret harsh refugee policies as the political expression of latent xenophobia and entitlement anxiety in the electorate.
Politicians’ frequently voiced opinion that Australians have now had a "gutful" of the refugee issue — usually hastily followed, as if as an afterthought, by a reference to the "tragedy" of deaths at sea — seems intended as a particular gesture to the outer-metropolitan voters often credited with a central role in the dynamics of the issue.
It is, of course, in politicians’ interests to give the impression that their policy initiatives answer authentic movements of public opinion. It is also undeniable that xenophobia and concerns about migrants usurping public funds do exist among certain sectors of the public.
However, it would be mistaken to see public sentiment as the principal mechanism driving policy in Canberra. Most people have no independent contact with refugees: the fact that humanitarian intake is just 13,799 people among 170,300 overseas migrants (2009-10 and 2010-11 figures respectively) is a statistical guarantee of that point.
People’s attitude to refugees therefore largely depends on what they are told by politicians and their mouthpieces in the media. Once they have been instrumentalised in the service of electoral strategy, the facts no longer matter, but are open to indefinite manipulation by politicians and their willing or unconscious messengers.
Previously on NM I have analysed Chris Bowen’s sustained public deception, at a crucial juncture in the 2011 debate on the Malaysia arrangement, over the welfare provisions of the scheme. This manipulation of the public went almost wholly unchallenged by a servile and complacent media.
A similar uncritical acquiescence to the major parties’ narrative has largely characterised reporting of the current debate.
Even supposedly centrist media has capitulated wholesale to parliamentary anti-refugee propaganda. Rare are journalists who directly challenge politicians’ falsifications, as Jon Faine did last week (see Barrie Cassidy’s account here).
The morning after the release of the Houston report, the Sydney Morning Herald editorial did not hesitate to frame the new Pacific Solution in exactly the major parties’ own terms, as a matter of "border protection". It even twice referred to boat arrival, in contravention of both the facts and a recent Australian Press Council recommendation, as "illegal". This editorial line has been widely echoed by Fairfax journalists, with such major figures as Peter Hartcher, Mike Carlton and Michelle Grattan all advocating offshore processing as a matter of necessary political compromise — an end in itself, apparently.
The media’s default acceptance of the new political vulgate on asylum seekers was nowhere more evident than in a remarkable episode on ABC News24 on August 16. Jason Clare, the Home Affairs Minister, had just announced that asylum seekers rescued by the cargo ship Parsifal had used aggression to force the crew to change course from Singapore to Christmas Island.
Thanks to a press release from Wallenius, the shipping company — also owners of the Tampa — it later emerged that nothing of the sort had happened: far from showing aggressive behaviour towards the crew, asylum seekers had threatened self-harm against themselves. According to later reports, the strongest indictment able to be made against the asylum seekers was that they "could pose" — not did pose — "a security threat to the Parsifal’s crew and vessel".
In an interview with AM, Clare had noted that the asylum seekers’ "very aggressive" behaviour showed "just how dangerous it can be out on the high seas when you’ve got desperate people doing dangerous things." The Coalition criticized the government for not having deployed the SAS or pressed piracy charges against the asylum seekers.
In the light of children overboard, one might have expected that the media would exercise some caution over unauthenticated government claims about asylum seekers’ ruthlessness on the high seas.
No such luck on News 24. Here is how its political correspondent, Melissa Clarke, presented the events:
"Anchor: Melissa, what happened during this incident?
"Melissa Clarke: Well, this is very concerning and clearly the Home Affairs minister Jason Clare is very concerned about it. He’s described it as aggressive behaviour by asylum seekers toward the crew of a merchant ship that came to rescue them when their boat got into trouble not long after leaving Indonesian shores earlier this week."
Not a suggestion that the story needed to be authenticated before the government’s version could be accepted. No hint of an effort to adopt a critical distance from what Clare had fed her: Clarke immediately validated the truth of Clare’s announcement, endorsing it as "very concerning," an assessment she repeated at the end of the interview with the comment "so that’s certainly a concerning development from one of the … most recent boats to leave Indonesia heading for Australia."
With politicians and journalists sharing a songbook, it is little wonder that the bipartisan reframing of refugee questions has been so easily accomplished.
But it is not just journalists who have proven unwilling to distance themselves from government priorities. One of the most damaging recent developments in the refugee debate has been the acceptance by many refugee supporters of the harmful policy options advocated by government.
This surrender has been led from above. John Menadue, a political insider and an influential voice on the question, found it possible to argue last week that:
"The agreement struck with Malaysia, while not perfect, was the first recent sign that it was possible to develop a protection system in the region; one that would give some assurances to people that while they are waiting they can live in dignity, security and safety."
The idea that conditions in Malaysia — which, after all, were intended by the government to function as a threat to would-be asylum seekers — could be mentioned in the same breath as references to dignity, security or safety is an inexplicable distortion of the plainest facts. With supporters like this, refugees have no need for opponents.
As the catalysts of last week’s legislation, the members of the "expert" panel played a particular role in the new direction Australian policy has taken. On the weekend, reports emerged at the "dismay" experienced by the panellists, Paris Aristotle in particular, at the way their recommendations had been warped by the subsequent political process.
If these protestations are sincere, they are an extraordinary admission of political naivety. It was clear from the outset that Houston’s report had been commissioned to provide the government with the political cover it needed to resolve the impasse — this is, after all, the main purpose such reports serve.
With so little time to reach a conclusion, and with terms of reference predicated on a stop-the-boats and border-protection agenda, the government was obviously after an "independent" endorsement of some version of its immediate policy options — either Nauru, reportedly privately favoured by Bowen, and already offered as a counterpart to Malaysia in the context of a possible bipartisan compromise; or Malaysia on its own.
For all its claims of independence, then, the panel’s recommendations were always bound to be subsumed by the parliamentary logic of the refugee debate. Pious hopes that its recommendations would prompt a serious rethink of long-term policy were just that.
In the case of Houston and L’Estrange at least — no experts on asylum issues, but Canberra habitués and familiar with the political playbook — it is hard to believe the dismay is genuine.
If the panel’s wounded claims of disappointment are just a scripted attempt to bolster its appearance of independence, this speaks volumes about the cynicism with which self-styled independent players are willing to allow themselves to be used in a process that has consistently subordinated refugees’ welfare to the escalating viciousness of the party-political calculus.
In either case, it was a sorry tale of manipulation — by politicians, or by the panellists themselves — of the politics of acute human need. Meanwhile, desperate asylum seekers have no other choice but to continue to board boats.
The offshore processing legislation passed last week was passed by politicians, not by voters. The root cause of Australia’s shameful new asylum regime has only a little to do with reserves of xenophobia in the community. It is not with working-class voters in Penrith, but with the middle-class political establishment — subservient, uncritical journalists; coopted or corrupted "experts"; and venal politicians for whom human lives are pawns on a political chessboard — that the greatest responsibility lies.
For those committed to the struggle for a humane refugee policy, the consequences are clear. Positive change will not come from the politicians who have so contemptuously betrayed the humanitarian rhetoric they continue to invoke. The only possible driver of policy change is public opinion itself. The challenge for refugee supporters is to find ways to mobilise it.