What a flurry of articles on asylum seekers we’ve had over the last couple of weeks. Journalists have not taken a consistent position on this subject; there seems to be a wide variety of opinions about how the situation has occurred and what should be done about it. This piece tries to dissect out what prompts a particular journalist to take a particular line.
You will recall that the recent debate on the economics of the GFC was bedevilled by a cacophony of voices. We discovered that there was a wide variety of opinion, and that opinion often seemed to be based more on the economist’s favoured theory of economics than on a balanced appraisal of the facts. We heard from the pump-priming Keynesians, those enamoured of Friedrich Hayek’s free market capitalism, and those advocating Milton Friedman’s monetarist, anti-regulation policies. Their writings reflected those paradigms. Few gave a balanced appraisal. There were articles about this on The Political Sword in February: The problem with economists and September: What value are economists to our society. In the same way, many writings on asylum seekers seem to be constructed around the writer’s belief system about asylum seekers, rather than an account of the facts and a balanced appraisal of them.
As in just about everything, people’s views are distributed along the bell-shaped curve, with at one extreme the view that Australia does not need immigrants, or at least not a lot of them, that if they do come they should arrive in an orderly way and not try to jump the queue as ‘cashed-up illegal boat arrivals’, and that they should be exhaustively assessed in detentions camps, preferably overseas, no matter how long it takes. There are suspicions that terrorists may sneak in. These are the strong border protectionists.
At the other end of the curve there are those who believe that Australia can afford to be much more generous in accepting asylum seekers, that their identity, security and health assessments should be done quickly and humanely in congenial surroundings, and that those who are eligible should be quickly assimilated into the community. They are outraged by attitudes that cast asylum seekers in a less-than-human light. These are the open-door advocates. Some of these approach the issue from a moralistic stand point.
I expect most people sit around the middle.
If we look at the most recent articles, there are only a few that take the extreme ‘protectionist’ line. Media opinion seems to have shifted towards the other end of the spectrum. Whether it accurately reflects public opinion is unclear – there are few data on this. However, Asylum boat had holes drilled in hull in The Age of 22 October by Nick Butterly, Andrew Probyn and Lindsay Murdock reminds us of the tactics that some boat people have used and apparently still do, to gain access to Australia. And when Wilson Tuckey said that there could be terrorists hidden among genuine refugees on the arriving boats, some columnists, far from castigating him, agreed that he might be right. Malcolm Turnbull eventually repudiated such slighting of refugees; Julie Bishop was not prepared to go that far, nor were some other Liberals. Their comments were widely reported – the Tuckey view was expressed by the media without having to endorse it. So the ‘protectionist’ journalists did get some air play.
Many articles lean towards, but don’t actually fully endorse the open-door approach. The editorial in the current Weekend Australian, More straight talk, we're Australians says “...eight years after September 11, Tampa, and an election won by John Howard amid hysteria on asylum-seekers, Australia is in a calmer and more compassionate frame of mind. There is more awareness of the plight of people caught in desperate conflicts overseas and an understanding that while boat arrivals are emotive, most asylum-seekers come by air. Time has defused much of the passion of the past and politicians should nurture and build on these sentiments.” These are heartening sentiments; whether they reflect community opinion is another matter. Because the editorial writer holds this view, an intelligent discussion with the Australian people, who ‘can walk and chew gum’ at the same time, is seen as now overdue. One can only hope this view is accurate. George Megalogenis supports the editorial with an analysis of recent polling that shows “the polls were unmoved this week, notwithstanding the headlines and heated exchanges over the Sri Lankan asylum-seekers” in a piece Political capital has left debate. In similar vein, The Piping Shrike questions the need for Rudd’s strong rhetoric in A losing game for Labor – an update, a sequel to A losing game for Labor.
Some articles take a descriptive approach. Stephen Fitzpatrick and Matthew Franklin in The Australian of 23 October in PM Kevin Rudd's $50m Indonesian solution emphasises the possible cost, without comment. No comparison with existing costs or the cost of the ‘Pacific Solution’ is given. Labor all at sea on asylum promises in the SMH by Lindsay Murdoch, Mark Davis and Phillip Coorey while reporting the latest, highlights the continuation of the voyage of the Oceanic Viking in which the asylum seekers are “condemned to another three days at sea”. The use of ‘condemned’ suggest the authors disapprove of these arrangements. There are now articles pointing to the adverse conditions that are said to exist in Indonesian detention centres. In The Age articles by Michelle Grattan A leaky boat to Indonesia seems Rudd's preferred solution and Chaos as Jakarta diverts asylum boat indicate she is unimpressed with what is going on. No alternative approach is suggested.
The moralistic approach though is the hardest to brook. Tony Abbott, well known for his moralizing and pontificating, in Rudd’s desperate on boatpeople issue says “The biblical injunction to care for the stranger in our midst is clear. The parable of the Good Samaritan is but one of many which deal with the matter of how we should respond to a vulnerable stranger in our midst. Now, he calls the people who help asylum seekers to get to Australia ‘vermin’ and the ‘vilest form of life’. Even by the standards of politics, the Prime Minister is a shameless hypocrite who wants people to believe that he has a border protection policy that is both hard-line and humane.” What more is there to say about that moralistic judgement; it’s what we’ve come to expect from Abbott.
But we expect more from the ABC’s Chris Uhlmann. Rising from talk-back producer for 774 Melbourne’s Jon Faine to political analyst for the 7.30 Report in place of Michael Brissenden, he now has his own ABC blog, and this weekend, I think for the first time, has become a MSM columnist. As I understand it, Uhlmann was at one time studying in a seminary, which may explain his overtly moralist blog piece, Rudd squanders chance to practise what he preaches which was reproduced almost word for word in The Weekend Australian in St Kevin's halo may choke him. It doesn’t take much to imagine what the tone of his pieces were. He too evokes the image of the Good Samaritan. He says: “...Rudd has made a parade of his beliefs and is given to cloaking political arguments in moral garments. So the Prime Minister was faced with a choice. The narrow gate was to make a complex argument, to explain what he was doing, and to try to change the tone of Australia's debate about asylum-seekers. The wide path was to play the hard man and tub thump. His life was not at risk. The state he had to speak boldly to was run by him. All he was risking was an approval rating of 71 per cent. And Rudd chose the wide path.” Moral judgement delivered!
His blog attracted 34 comments, most applauding the quality of his article. I found it overbearing. I left the following comment, which I reproduce here as it reflects my feeling about this pontifical piece: “You judge Kevin Rudd to be morally inconsistent, you accuse him of parading his beliefs and cloaking many political arguments in moral garments, and you condemn him for making moral judgements. Yet you yourself make moral judgments about him. Chris, it’s a risky business running a moral argument against someone whom you accuse of running a moral argument.
“You laud the Opposition for having a moral compass ‘that at least has the virtue of pointing, roughly, in one direction’ even I suppose if that happens to be in the wrong direction. Are you saying that it’s more important to be morally consistent, than it is to make the ‘right’ moral judgement?
“You seem to be carrying many respondents along with you. But none of them, or you yourself, has explained what is inconsistent, morally or otherwise, in being tough on people smugglers yet humane to those seeking asylum. It’s not all that difficult a concept. In my view Rudd is on the right track. As a political commentator, it might be wise to stick to politics and leave the moralizing to others.” I need say no more.
There has been much talk about Rudd’s ‘contradictory’ dual messages of ‘tough on border protection and people smugglers’ yet ‘treating asylum seekers humanely’, and he’s accused of ‘speaking out of both sides of his mouth’. That’s exactly what he’s doing, and the message that seems contradictory is not contradictory at all. How many times have you encountered in family life, in business, and in social relations the necessity for being simultaneously tough and humane? Given that the better journalists are possessed of reasonable intellect, why is this duality so difficult to comprehend and explain to readers?
In his piece in The Weekend Australian, Rudd plays it tough to win high ground Paul Kelly tries: “Despite its political discomfort, exaggerated moralism and diplomatic scramble, the Rudd government emerges with more credit over the boatpeople surge than do its opponents on the Right and Left.” Later he had this to say: “As former Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade chief Michael Costello said in my book The March of Patriots: ‘My view is that we should take as many migrants and refugees as possible. But we have a duty to ensure we don't just reward those who get here by boat and we have an obligation to ensure that any refugees we accept meet the standards we require as a country. There can be no open door to Australia.’ This is an established Labor position.” Rudd seems to be following it.
Then Kelly addresses what he sees as another ‘contradiction’: “Rudd's tactics this week were founded on a contradiction: he seeks to calm yet escalate the issue. As a responsible PM, Rudd kept appealing for calm, sought to defuse the arrivals, aware that he had to reassure Jakarta, told the public that under Howard 15,000 boatpeople arrived compared with only 1700 under his own period and declared that ‘this has been a problem in the past, it's a problem today’. Yet against the opposition he was an attack dog playing the man.” Rudd’s capacity to take seemingly paradoxical positions simultaneously still mystifies many journalists.
Guy Rundle on The Stump at Crikey gives Kelly a going over in two pieces Shipping spiel ship ship shipping spiel and Kelly goyle on the Outside on Insiders in which, while not disputing that Rudd is speaking to two audiences, disputes who they are.
Back to asylum seekers, Rudd seeks to placate those concerned about border protection and the ‘threat’ posed by those seeking asylum on the one hand, yet at the same time attempts to reassure the open-door advocates that asylum seekers will be treated humanely. It is reminiscent of his dual message during the GFC – warning of the possible devastating effects that threatened the nation, yet at the same time trying to build public confidence that the Government’s measures would avert a financial tragedy. Much of the media commented quizzically on this apparent contradiction, when it should have been using its intellect and communication skills to explain it.
There have been many other articles, and there are many other aspects of this complex matter that cannot be addressed here – the so-called ‘Indonesia solution’ is one. They will have to wait for another time.
So where are we now? Has Rudd got the balance right so far? Is it, or is it not congruent to talk tough at the same time as talking humanely? Is he catering well enough to the wider electorate with its diversity of views? Is he showing so-called ‘leadership’, that incidentally some would define as doing what they think is right? Is he on track for a rational, humane and generally acceptable resolution of the seemingly intractable problem of asylum seekers reaching our shores?
How well has the media understood and explained this complex problem? How well has it handled the so-called ‘contradictory’ messages intrinsic to this issue? Have journalists been slave to their ideological position in analysing and reporting it? Is journalistic moralizing sound practice? All loaded questions.
Who has done a soundly professional journalistic job? Anyone?
What do you think?