Confronting The Awful Truth About Our Politics On Asylum Seekers

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On Tuesday, I looked at how Australia had reached such a dismaying situation. Today, I want to examine why.

War, repression, chaos and poverty have ever been the cause of people on the move. The current international architecture of refugee law, framed by the Refugee Convention, arose in the aftermath of the vast mass migrations that followed the Second World War.

The refugee flows we see today are no different in quality, and certainly less in quantity than those experienced globally 60 years ago.

The Syrian civil war, for example, has seen millions flee to neighbouring Jordan.

In central America, the collapse of internal security in Honduras and Guatemala is spurring similar refugee flows north.

And in our own region, war and insurgency in Sri Lanka and Afghanistan have similarly spurred large numbers to leave their homelands seeking safety.

Writing in Overland, Elizabeth O’Shea notes the uncomfortable parallels between the boats that Australia now refuse, to the refugees fleeing Nazi Germany in the 1930s and 1940s.

“The Refugee Convention originated from the plight of the MS St Louis, a German transatlantic liner that set sail from Hamburg, Germany, for Havana, Cuba in 1939,” O’Shea reminds us.

The St Louis carried mainly Jewish passengers fleeing the Nazi regime; the Cuban and US governments both refused to accept most of them as refugees.

Eventually, the St Louis was forced to sail back to Europe, where a significant proportion later perished in the Holocaust.

That’s worth remembering as we struggle to understand the current crisis. One way to do so is to look at the way certain sections of Australia’s public, media and political classes have reacted to the asylum seeker issue, and what that means for the future.

Reaction to the latest cruelty by the Australian government against asylum seekers on the high seas falls into roughly three categories.

The first is outrage. For those motivated by empathy and generosity towards innocent people fleeing persecution, the actions of the Australian government are nothing short of state-sponsored torture.

This is the position of much of the liberal left, including many lawyers and human rights activists.

A large group of lawyers signed a letter this week stating that Operation Sovereign Borders “clearly violates international law”.

For those who lament the hard-heartedness of the current system, recent developments have been in equal parts depressing and affronting.

The second kind of reaction is befuddlement. This is essentially Labor’s position, as it twists and squirms in response to the obvious truth that the Rudd and Gillard governments laid the groundwork for the oppression we’re now seeing.

Watching Labor frontbenchers like Richard Marles and Tanya Plibersek in recent days has been a dispiriting affair.

Trapped in the contradictions of its own brutal policies, Labor is trying to maintain the fiction of holding the government to account, even while it pursues policies only slightly worse than those of the Coalition.

Labor in opposition is only just managing to keep up appearances, as it simultaneously argues that the government has been secretive and brutal, even while reiterating its commitment to mandatory detention, offshore processing, Manus Island and all the rest.

The third reaction is satisfaction. This, roughly, describes the Coalition’s position, and indeed much of the voting public.

For those hostile to immigration itself, or at any rate the kind of immigration which brings people we don’t like to our shores in ways we don’t approve of, current developments are simply a matter of just desserts.

Send them back, the faster the better. You can find this view in any focus group or social media forum – even in the comments section of New Matilda.

As with other emotive issues like climate change, no cries of anguish or patient explanations of the facts will budge ingrained prejudice or shift self-satisfied confirmation bias. 

For the xenophobes and the political hard-heads, the issue is the simple: deterrence will work. It’s the familiar transmogrification of guilt into blame.

This is why both major parties have clung so tightly to the justification of saving lives at sea. Confronted with the dreadful death toll of those drowning on the way to Australia, the psychological response has been to blame the people smugglers, and by extension, anyone who advocates for a humane response.

Such nostrums fit well with the conservative tendency to divide the world into in-groups and out-groups, and to circle the wagons against perceived threats.

They also play well with the process argument, which makes the entirely flawed argument that seaborne asylum seekers are jumping the queue.

And, of course, there’s the racism. When politicians talk about “controlling borders” and the need for an “orderly” immigration process, they are in fact dog-whistling to those who fear the unregulated invasion of teeming Asian masses.

It’s a fear as old as White Australia itself.

Parsed in this way, we can see why asylum seekers are such a divisive, and simultaneously insoluble political issue.

While it is probably true that harsh policies towards asylum seekers are far from the electoral trump card they are often portrayed, you can hardly point to a deep reservoir of sympathy and popular support for those travelling to Australia by boat.

As long as the satisfied and the befuddled outnumber the outraged by a fair margin, it seems clear that there will be little popular will to restore a more liberal and generous system for those seeking refuge on our shores.

As a result, Australia is currently at risk of sacrificing many of the hard-won liberal freedoms that so many of us take for granted.

It’s not just repression of those travelling here by boat. The ongoing brutality of the current system is slowly corrupting the executive as well, as the government seeks ever more inventive ways to circumvent the rule of law.

The very fact that we are only finding out key facts about the current situation via a High Court injunction tells you just how seriously key values of democratic scrutiny and accountability have already been compromised.

There are lessons here for all of us, if we care.

Australian progressives must confront the uncomfortable reality that it was the Australian Labor Party – the only party of the centre-left capable of forming government – that put in place much of the architecture of the current brutality.

Some Labor supporters will inevitably leak to the Greens over the issue. But the hard truth remains that many ALP voters applaud tough measures on asylum seekers.

The progressives who support asylum seekers remain a small minority. No diatribes about the “political classes” can conceal this fact.

For Australian liberals of the “small l” variety – if there are any left worthy of the name – the current impasse must also confront.

The values of liberalism – individual freedom, the rule of law, and the enterprise of individuals – are precisely what we are denying asylum seekers, openly and blatantly.

We’ve long known there aren’t many liberals in the Liberal Party. Nothing explains better the emptiness of the freedom loving rhetoric of groups such as the Institute of Public Affairs than their shameful silence over the illegal incarceration of innocents seeking a better life.

Tim Wilson, Commissioner for Freedom: where are you now?

For conservatives, the satisfaction of “solving” the asylum seeker problem may prove fleeting.

This issue will go on to cause the Coalition endless trouble. It won’t be a vote winner in 2016.

Asylum seekers are a stain on this government, just as on the last government, and soon there will be a horrible tragedy that will make even hardliners appalled.

Moreover, the brutality that the government seems to revel in risks highlighting its other policies of brutality closer to home.

If voters start to connect the dots between a government monstering vulnerable asylum seekers, and a government monstering vulnerable middle Australia, it may find the issue blowing back in a most uncomfortable manner.

Nor have the boats actually stopped. The current legal showdown in the High Court is all about that fact: a direct consequence of the government’s desperation to prevent a boat arriving at Christmas Island, thereby disproving Scott Morrison’s empty boast that he is the boat stopper.

If Morrison thinks he is winning the politics of this issue, he is sadly mistaken.

Rather than a pathway to higher glory in the conservative cause, the most likely outcome for Scott Morrison is further scandal, followed by an ignominious reshuffle.

Immigration is the graveyard of ministers; only Morrison’s hubris prevents him from realising this.

Asylum seekers are a complex, multifaceted and hugely difficult issue. As I argued two years ago, there is no easy solution or quick political fix that can “solve” the asylum seeker problem.

In fact, it can’t be solved.

Ben Eltham

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.

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