The decision of the Rudd Government to suspend temporarily the processing of applications for refugee status of Afghans and Sri Lankans has had a mixed reception. Some applaud it as a sensible measure to enable better identification of those entitled to be categorized as refugees, especially in recognition of the changing conditions in Afghanistan and Sri Lanka. Some see it as a cynical, opportunistic pre-election move to placate the substantial proportion of the electorate that is opposed to the arrival of refugees by small boats. Some have described it as a ‘cowardly’ move. Others insist that it ‘proves’ that it has been ‘pull factors’ all along that have been responsible for the increased arrivals, not the ‘push factors’ that the Government insists are the most significant ones. Others label it as evidence of the ‘failure’ of the existing Government policy on refugees, of its border protection capability, and of its guarantee that arrivals would be processed promptly.
As contributors to The Political Sword have demonstrated, some voters, even Labor supporters, are disappointed, angry and feeling let down by a Government that they believed was more principled, more humane in its attitude to asylum seekers than the previous one. Some have expressed the view that a principled response to this distressed group of people is more important than any political consideration. Some have seen the Rudd Government’s actions as simply reflecting a preoccupation with power over humanitarian considerations. Others, not able to bring themselves to vote Liberal in protest, are so disgusted they are considering voting for the Greens instead of Labor at the election.
From a distance different observers see the Government’s options in simple terms. Why can’t they accept all refugees coming our way; after all we have plenty of room? Others though ask why the Government can’t turn these boats away, or return these ‘queue jumpers’ to their own countries? Or why can’t the Government make the prospect of arriving unannounced so unattractive, so destined for punishment, as the previous Government did, that no one will come? Never mind the inhumanity – just keep them out. The conflict inherent between these positions is patent. How should it be resolved?
This piece attempts to tease out the complexities facing any party in power that encounters this dilemma.
First, we need to accept that most politicians become so to make a difference by implementing policies which they believe will improve our nation. Cynics may disagree, but why else would they accept such modest pay to do what is a demanding, time-consuming job, to be subject to abuse and ridicule from journalists, commentators, cartoonists and the people, to be almost at the bottom of the totem pole of public regard, down among journalists and car salesmen? Why else?
It follows that if improving our nation is their principal motivation, having the power to do so is a prerequisite. The pursuit of power should be seen in that light, not as it is so often seen as simply satisfying an inherent hunger for power for its own sake. Exercising power is what politicians do, if they can. Those who can’t become frustrated, suffer from ‘relevance deprivation’, and become angry and argumentative. We see this every day among Coalition members in the House of Representatives. In contrast, Coalition members in the Senate do exercise power every day, because they can. They obstruct, oppose and defeat Government legislation. Whether we like it or not, whether the party not in power complains bitterly about the abuse of power and their lack of it, power is essential for stable and productive government.
In exercising power, governments, and oppositions where they have it, attempt to impose their will, which in turn ought to reflect the will of the people who elected them. While sometimes the actions of those in power may not reflect public opinion, generally political parties go to the people with a set of policies, which they believe they have a mandate to implement if the people elect them to office. Moreover, if circumstances change and public opinion changes (as evidenced by polling and focus groups), those in power feel entitled to change their policies and modify their actions so as to reflect these changing attitudes among the people.
Returning to the asylum seeker issue, the only party that can effect change is the party in power, currently the Rudd Government. Its efforts can be blocked by the Opposition in the Senate, as we have often seen, but only the party in power can effect real change. So no one ought to be surprised if the party in power changes its policies or procedures if there is evidence that the existing ones do not meet with public approval. Of course parties can attempt to persuade the people to their view if they feel the people have got it wrong, but if that is not successful they have just two options – press on regardless with unpopular policies and take the electoral consequences, or change them to reflect public opinion. This was what the Rudd Government faced over the asylum seeker issue.
In such situations it is never clear what is absolutely ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’. Public opinion is influenced by many forces, and in the end it is the perceptions that people have, more than absolute truth, that governs their attitudes and behaviour.
For a decade we have witnessed in this country the growth of fear about, and antagonism towards refugees arriving in small boats on our north-west shores, notwithstanding the fact that most refugees arrive by air or commercial vessel. Somehow boat people are anathema to a large proportion of the Australian people. This became obvious when Pauline Hanson and One Nation were influential, and when John Howard, seeing the electoral advantages of attracting the Hansonites, followed suit. We have seen a decade of dog-whistling, demonization of boat people with pejorative slogans, and tough immigration policies designed to frighten away these ‘undesirables’ coming uninvited to our shores. Over time, this has become embedded in the psyche of countless Australians. Some would say they have been brainwashed into a distrust and fear of such arrivals. So we ought not to be surprised that the reaction of much of the community and the media to boat arrivals has been adverse, and that the Government has been castigated for allowing such arrivals to escalate.
Kevin Rudd and his Government were faced with two realities. First, a surge of boat arrivals was foreshadowed, with the vast majority of these on board initially from two countries, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan, where it has been reported that the conditions that have resulted in people fleeing those countries have ameliorated to such an extent that the legitimacy of claiming refugee status has become questionable. It is now believed many may no longer be genuine refugees, but rather ‘economic’ refugees.
Second, Rudd was faced with public opinion polling that showed that two thirds favoured returning boat people to their own countries, with the same proportion feeling the Government was 'too soft' on asylum seekers, and more believing that the Coalition could be trusted to handle asylum seekers better than Labor (34%/23%): Essential Research Report April 9, as reported by Possum on Crikey Pollytics Morgan Polls – Migration and Partisan Stereotypes.
So what should Kevin Rudd have done?
One option would have been to fly in the face of public opinion, to insist that the existing approach was appropriate, that all who arrived by boats, no matter how many, be accepted, treated humanely, processed as rapidly as possible, and if Christmas Island became overcrowded, taken to the mainland for processing. This would have maintained the principled approach initiated on his election and would have satisfied those who supported such an approach. Rudd would know though that this would invite even more savage attacks from the Coalition and much of the media, louder dog-whistling, more fear mongering, and likely increasing anger and apprehension in the electorate to the extent that many could change their vote from Labor to another party, so much so that the Government could be defeated at the coming election. He would have seen coming another election campaign like the 2001 one: ‘We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come’, one so powerfully persuasive for John Howard, and likely to be just as persuasive for the Coalition, already echoing this slogan to an electorate conditioned to that view over the decade of the Howard Government. He would know that if such a campaign was as successful as it was in 2001 his government could lose power, power to do anything about boat people, or for that matter power to do anything about any other policy initiative.
Alternatively, he could take the view that UNHCR appraisals are correct in that conditions are now not as adverse in Sri Lanka and Afghanistan, and therefore there may be fewer legitimately fleeing danger and persecution, fewer genuine refugees among those reaching our shores in small boats. He could take the view that reports of a surge of boats soon to head for Australia are correct. Further he could take the view that as he was elected to serve the voters and since they now are expressing concern at the number of boat people arriving to the extent they now see the Coalition as better able to handle these arrivals, that he ought to adapt his position to more closely reflect the feelings of the electorate by suspending processing until UNHCR had determined the situation in Sri Lanka and Afghanistan more accurately. He would know that such an action would in time be likely to slow the arrival of boats as the guarantee of entry into Australia became more problematic, the ‘product’ offered by people smugglers less attractive, and the cost and risks involved less acceptable. He would know that such an action would likely find favour with the electorate and likely blunt Coalition and media attacks on his border protection policy. He would know that such an action would give substance to his claim of being ‘tough’ on people smugglers, tough on border protection. He would know that if that were so, the danger of defection of Labor voters to another party would be reduced, and the possibility of electoral defeat over this issue lessened.
So he chose the second option.
There might have been other options; if there were, what might they have been?
Some see Rudd’s resolution of the boat people dilemma as a triumph for pragmatism and applaud it; others see it as unprincipled and cynical.
What do you think?
Given the circumstances, what would you have done if you were PM?