Why Labor Has Lost The Immigration Debate


Occurring three times per year, Senate Estimates is about providing accountability for parliament. Typically, opposition members of parliament seek to better understand government policy by cajoling public servants into laying bare the assumptions and evidence of said policy. In the immigration estimates hearing this week, we saw scant evidence of this.

To help me explain, I’m going to lean on some Twitter thought bubbles.

I’m not sure if Noel Towell saw much of the immigration portfolio but he is spot on. ALP senators Kim Carr and Lisa Singh failed to admonish the government over glaring policy and process abnormalities (Joe Ludwig also sat in, however silently for an entire three hours). Poor questioning and judgment rendered the day largely useless.

This was demonstrated from the very start of the day, where more than 30 minutes was spent on the use of the term "illegal". I’m certain the Coalition use this word for no other reason than to deliberately rile up their opponents, something they are apparently wildly successful at.

At one point, the chief legal officer of the Immigration Department said there was very little to separate the term "illegal" under migration law to the ALP preferred term "irregular". This should have been the end of the matter but quibbling continued and precious time was wasted.

While the progressive activist might rail at language, the ALP itself has a past littered with using the word "illegal", as the Assistant Minister for Immigration, Senator Michaelia Cash, gleefully highlighted. This made for an awkward spectacle.

Policy issues, such as the coming education visa reform which will expose many international students to possible exploitation, were provided scant attention in comparison. We know changes to international education will result in exploitation, because it happened in the last term of the Howard government. In fact, the ALP had an entire review into the system. Somehow this major review into one of the largest export industries in Australia escaped the attention of the senators.

This oversight was minor in comparison to the strategy around questions to General Angus Campbell, head of Operation Sovereign Borders. While Carr and Singh did ask some questions about process, the central premise of the Operation was not questioned. There was no demonstration against the use of the military for what is a non-military matter.

Despite what the government may believe, it is disingenuous to equate people smugglers to the Taliban. This point cannot be emphasised enough. By accepting the premise of Operation Sovereign Borders, the ALP have made advocating for an alternative policy harder for themselves.

General Campbell says he is not involved in the political process, while also claiming Senate Estimates is not the appropriate forum to discuss operational matters. Both of these defining statements of how asylum policy is now run in Australia are completely incorrect — yet they were left to hang silently over the proceedings.

The ALP should have completely denounced the process of Operational Sovereign Borders. Secrecy, via the deliberate prevention of information to the parliament should have been called out for what it is: the deterioration of parliamentary accountability and the transformation of asylum policy into an "operational matter".

This is a highly political process, with General Campbell in the middle. Sarah Hanson-Young, someone I typically disagree with mightily, was at least able to draw the General out on the absurdity of the "boat buyback" scheme. Her questions were focused. She was by far the best advocate for asylum seekers on the day and had less than half as much time as the ALP.

Our next tweet shows why the ALP should have denounced the entire process.

It is broadly acknowledged that the ALP is between a political rock and a hard place when it comes to asylum seeker policy. Members largely support onshore processing and a shift to community detention. The broader public are more sceptical, given the hysteria whipped by Hanson, Howard and Abbott over the past 15 years.

I am in the minority of progressives, as a supporter of current ALP policy. Regional cooperation is complex and deserves what has been missing since 2009: a proper, nuanced, substantial answer to the progressive movements concerns as to why it is necessary.

This is not easy. In fact, it’s probably the worst job in the ALP. But it is what is required. Shadow immigration spokesman Richard Marles needs to go on a long, painful journey from sub-branch to sub-branch, delivering set speech after set speech, to make the point. It is crucial to defining why current policies exist, and for providing a valid, supported alternative set of policies on asylum.

By denouncing the current process, the ALP can distinguish itself clearly from the government. While some in the party may wish for this issue to go away or to just follow government policy as closely as possible, the "solution" is not that simple.

This is what happens when policy is played by rules established by the Coalition. Bob Carr might be a feted political genius given four state election victories, but this is cold hard evidence showing the folly of his approach to copy and support government policy.

Are the ALP too going to blame traffic in Western Sydney on asylum seekers? How about criticising compassion, making a song and dance about grieving relatives attending funerals? I’d prefer to hand back my membership.

We have witnessed the failure of scare tactics by the ALP repeatedly over the past decade, only to see what is acceptable policy shift further away. Luckily, we have a window into the future.

This is the easy political road, filled with regulations which hurt the economy and rupture the social fabric of a country. The British government, egged on by its right flank, is currently choosing the easy road. If the ALP shrinks from a comprehensive public discussion and simply copies government policy, the end outcome is brutal.

For too long, the ALP also chose that easy road. For more than half of its existence, it was the strongest supporter of possibly the most racist of all western immigration policies: the White Australia Policy.

However, a hard decision was made and the results speak loudly. A proud recent record of multiculturalism, successful immigration reform and a balanced approach to population are legacies of the ALP taking responsibility for immigration reform. Their history on this issue obscured because they refuse to take credit for it.

Henry Sherrell blogged the Immigration sessions of Senate Estimates here.

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