Jonathan Holmes’ Defence Of Offshore Detention Is Cultivated Racism In Action


OPINION: Those miffed by Fairfax’s sacking of Paul Sheehan can console themselves. As Holmes’ most recent effort reveals, it’s not Western Sydney you should blame for Australia’s brutality towards refugees, writes Nick Riemer.

On Wednesday, following the horrifying self-immolations and spate of suicide attempts on Nauru, Jonathan Holmes used his Age column to break his previous silence on the Pacific Solution. The result? A gift to Peter Dutton, one of the most hypocritical and effective apologias for Australian brutality ever presented.

Through his column, Holmes reveals himself as a cultivated, polite front-man for exactly the same kind of poison Sheehan used to spread with such vulgarity and brutalism. For those readers who don’t like what they’re hearing about Nauru, Holmes supplies just the rationalisations they need to justify continuing to support the major parties’ asylum policies. To keep everyone’s spirits up, the article brims with self-congratulation on the superiority of Australia’s public service, the achievements of Australian multiculturalism, and the fact that it’s not racist to oppose refugees.

Holmes argues that the “brutal reality of Nauru and Manus Island” stops the “flood” and “free-for-all scramble” of refugees. In Holmes’ universe, that justifies everything. For him, stopping the boats is the alpha and omega of asylum policy, and the Pacific Solution does the job (don’t worry about this boat arrival or this one, both since the end of April).

In the sensitive person’s rationalisation for the torture and murder spiralling out of control in Australia’s gulags, Holmes explicitly aligns himself with Howard’s famous diktat that “we will decide” who comes to Australia. He tells readers that it’s illegitimate to “pontificate” about asylum seekers unless you have some better way to stop the boats. And you won’t: offshore processing is the only solution.

Of course, Holmes agrees with “almost” everything critics like Waleed Aly have said. He’s not naive, either: he doesn’t “believe for a second” politicians’ hollow lies about “saving lies at sea”. And he “deplores” what’s being done to refugees – it’s “morally bankrupt”, “brutal”, and “evil”, and it inflicts “philosophically” unjustifiable “agony” on its victims, whom it sends to a “living hell”.

But hey, it does the job, so it’s still necessary! Holmes reaches this conclusion in sorrow: he certainly doesn’t feel good about what we’re doing. But he’s still going to support it ideologically, even though he hopes the Pacific Solution will soon be ended. Phillip Ruddock, scourge of refugees, had his Amnesty stick-pin. Holmes has his feelings.

Tellingly, Holmes doesn’t waste any time on the minimal demand that Nauru and Manus be made even slightly more bearable – and he certainly never even breathes a whisper of protest against mandatory detention. His failure to do so is perfectly logical: on his reasoning, stopping the boats is all that matters, whatever it takes. Of course he doesn’t mention the corollary outright. Any amount of horror on Nauru can be excused. No ‘misty eyes’ allowed just because someone has set themselves on fire in the Pacific.

Holmes spends some time criticising refugee advocates for their ignorance of what he sees as a key argument in favour of the current set-up, the alleged fact that shutting down offshore processing will be a pull-factor and swamp us in refugees. If that happened, he worries, public support for immigration would go down.

What’s become of the journalistic rigour Holmes so ferociously defended on Media Watch? This claim uncritically parrots a standard major-party talking point. As analysis here and here has demonstrated, the effect of pull factors has been considerably overstated. Possum Comitatus’ 2009 analysis for Crikey, for instance, concluded that “Those folks promoting “Pull Factors” as being the dominant influence of total asylum seeker numbers are, quite simply, wrong.” Even with our current policies, after all, it is a matter of public record that some boats are still arriving, as the government’s stubborn secrecy over ‘on water matters’ itself also suggests.

Nor is immigration somehow threatened in Australia, as Holmes apparently thinks. In fact, it enjoys exceptionally high levels of public support. 69 per cent of people surveyed in March 2015 support current or increased levels of immigration – along with Canada, the highest in the Western world, according to this study.

Holmes also ignores the conclusion that people draw “a sharp distinction between refugees assessed overseas and admitted for resettlement under the Humanitarian Program – and those arriving by boat.” If the public regularly discriminates between boat arrivals and refugees settled direct from camps, why think that increasing boat arrivals would have any important effect on support for a third, completely unrelated immigration category? Why think so, especially, when careful analysis establishes that the electorate cares so little about the asylum issue that, contrary to all the myths, it doesn’t even influence voting, as Tad Tietze has shown here, and Peter Browne here.

Holmes basically claims There is No Alternative to the current regime. Was he born in 1992? That was the year mandatory detention in Australia started. Before then, as many have pointed out, locking refugees up in Australia was unheard of, let alone offshore. That in itself gives strong grounds for confidence that we could revert to those former policy settings if we really wanted to. Apparently unbeknownst to Holmes, refugee advocates, and others, have also dealt with the likely consequences of Australia abandoning our punitive policies (see here, for example).

For Holmes, however, it’s obvious that accepting people arriving by boat would risk “social disruption”. There’s an ugly hidden premise here: social disruption in Australia must be avoided at all costs, but social disruption overseas is perfectly tolerable – maybe of the kind that refugees are fleeing in Afghanistan, for example (war), in Iran (political repression) or in Sri Lanka (genocide and its aftermath).

But Holmes’ case is weaker still. Even on his own reasoning, he offers no argument why the risk of social disruption – a highly unlikely hypothetical, and, after all, far from impossible to counteract, should it arise – should trump the monstrous and on his own admission “morally bankrupt” actual sequence of death and despair the government is currently inflicting on refugees.

To support his anti-refugee line, Holmes helps himself from the familiar catalogue of debunked arguments – including, particularly incredibly, the time-honoured red-herring of the ‘queue’. But these arguments are made in a sneaky, evasive, clever-clever way, with plenty of plausible deniability to help any reader who might otherwise hesitate to go all the way with him.

On the question of economic migrants, for instance, Holmes says it just doesn’t matter whether refugees are genuine or not, since it makes no difference to the policy choices for the government. In declaring this, he skilfully plants a little doubt in the reader’s mind about refugees’ bona fides: maybe refugees coming here actually are economic migrants after all. As has been repeatedly shown over many years, however, boat arrivals to Australia are overwhelmingly found to be refugees: around 90 per cent between 2010 and 2013. So why not say so, instead of insinuating the opposite? Holmes gives the answer himself: he wants to keep them out.

Complacent received wisdom locates the origin of governments’ refugee jihad in the electoral appeasement supposedly necessary of bigoted outer-metropolitan voters. Somehow, Holmes manages to find room in his piece for this chestnut, too – but with a new twist. Those voters, Holmes says, are largely from immigrant origins themselves. Damn those foreigners: they’re the ones forcing us to open those horrid camps!

Holme’s article is a good indication of where anti-refugee bigotry really comes from, and it’s not from Western Sydney. Australia’s crusade against asylum shouldn’t be seen as a natural expression of racism supposedly latent in the community. It is, instead, the pathological emanation of our sclerotic political establishment and its courtiers in the media.

Despite his protestations to the contrary, everything about this is racist. Racism isn’t an abstract theory: it’s a concrete practice. It’s racist to oppose brown people arriving here by boat, but not white people overstaying their visas. In expressing and then dismissing characteristic liberal qualms about the racist basis or human toll of our asylum policies, Holmes performs an inestimable service to governments by showing readers how to set aside their most basic moral judgements. It would be hard to imagine a more morally corrupt countermeasure against the natural instinct for justice.

Nick Riemer

Dr Nick Riemer is a Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Arts and Social Science at the University of Sydney, and an occasional New Matilda contributor.