Reaching Out To The Compassionate Undecided


An EMC poll has found that 38 per cent of voters think the Liberal Party has the best policy for handling the issue of asylum seekers arriving by boat. This is compared with only 13 per cent who support of Labor’s policy and 7 per cent for Greens.

However, a startling 42 per cent of voters think either that none of the parties have the best policy, or don’t know which party’s policy is best.

If nearly half of Australia’s voters are looking for a better policy on asylum seekers, the ALP is missing an opportunity to win voters on this basis.

Two event last week suggest the ALP is ready to test voter reactions to more compassionate approaches: the overdue move to remove children from Manus Island, and the release of two families with children from indefinite detention.

Writing off the 38 per cent of voters who support the Liberal party policies and chasing the 42 per cent who are still disillusioned may yet work for the Labor party.

The Liberal party’s policy, in Scott Morrison’s words, turns on deterrence. “The Coalition’s focus is on a regional deterrence framework. Our focus is on deterrence, not just on our border but on the borders of those countries in the region.”

Liberal candidates are not shy about using slogans such as “stop the boats” and “tow back the boats.” If “the Australian government is going to be taking boats and people who have been rescued at sea back to Indonesia rather than bringing them to Australia well that would also be something I would welcome,” Morrison told SBS radio last week.

Thirty-eight per cent of Australian voters agree with him and believe that turning back asylum seekers is the optimal way of dealing with refugees.

Would these voters be concerned if Australia were to withdraw its commitment to the Refugee Convention? That’s the instrument which imposes obligations to protect the human rights of all asylum seekers and refugees who arrive in Australia, regardless of how or where they arrive. Last week, Morrison left open the option of withdrawing or suspending commitment to the Convention.

Morrison describes the Labor policy as one of “accommodation”. A Parliamentary Committee, chaired by former speaker Harry Jenkins, described it as concerning and potentially in breach of Australia’s human rights obligations. The ALP website does not spruik refugee or asylum seeker policy – if it is articulated on the site, it is hidden in a dark corner.

According to EMC’s poll, only 36 per cent of Labor voters think the Labor Party has the best policy. The effort to mimic Liberal policy all the while trying to maintain base-Labor support for its asylum seeker policies has clearly failed.

The membership requirements for Labor for Refugees (Victoria) highlights the tensions in the ALP over the Government’s asylum seeker policy, that ineffective hybrid of accommodation and deterrence. A form must be signed that states: “I support a change in ALP policy.”

The Prime Minister has not indicated a willingness to try something radically new. The Government has indicated that new proposals to stop the asylum seeker flow will be discussed with Indonesia when the Prime Minister visits in July. A revival of an arrangement with Malaysia may also be considered.

Close to 20,000 asylum seekers will have arrived by boat to Australia since August 2012. Under the no-advantage policy, thousands of them are living in the community on Bridging Visas with no right to work. Charities are buckling under the pressure to meet their needs. Hundreds of asylum seekers are being held on Nauru and Manus Island. The costly detention system is overflowing.

Meanwhile, Australia plans to grant visas to only 600 refugees from Indonesian camps this year.

If the EMC research is to be believed, Labor has nothing to lose by radically rethinking its approach to asylum seekers. Its policies have next to no support now and 42 per cent of voters are looking for something new.

No one wants lives to be lost at sea. Nor do we want them to be lost at war. At least 42 per cent of voters don’t want them to be lost to politics.

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