It was not the surprise reappearance of a smiling Philip Ruddock on TV that was unnerving; it was not his assertion that 10,000 more asylum seekers were ‘in the pipeline’, it was not even his inability to explain how he derived that figure; it was the stark imagery of a past era flooding into memory.
There are many images: the truculent jaw-thrusting insistence by John Howard that ‘We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come’; the standing ovation given Philip Ruddock at a Liberal Party annual conference for his outstanding efforts to limit and repel boat people; the boat encounters and the sad consequences that sometimes followed, the SIEV X tragedy; the dog-whistling that Howard and Ruddock used to demean asylum-seekers, using pejorative terms such as 'illegals', queue jumpers, cashed-up boat arrivals; the Tampa saga; the Pacific Solution; the shameful ‘kids overboard’ episode and Howard’s “we don’t want people of that type coming into this country”; the razor wire of detention camps, detention camps in the desert at Woomera and Baxter; long periods of detention leading to self harm; children held in the camps or separated from parents, and episodes of wrongful detention – all awful images of fear mongering and heartless, opportunistic politicking. [more]
Are we now in for another dose of this with the increase in asylum seekers arriving by boat? Are we to see the resurrection of dead policies by politically dead politicians?
Anxious to get traction on an issue, any issue, Malcolm Turnbull has leapt on the latest boat episode, insisting the surge in arrivals is due to Kevin Rudd’s ‘softening’ of immigration policy. It doesn’t matter if the claim lacks validity – so long as it has the potential to damage Rudd and the Government, and improve Turnbull’s lamentable position.
So what are the facts?
The changes enacted by the Rudd Government in pursuit of its election promises were to abandon the Pacific Solution, to discontinue Temporary Protection Visas, to close some detention centres, to guarantee no children would be held in detention, to process arrivals within ninety days, and to use the mostly unused Christmas Island facility, while at the same time strengthening border security to ensure early detection of boat arrivals. The Coalition did not vote against these changes. But challenged with the accusation: “the Coalition voted for these measures”, Scott Morrison took refuge in “they were carried on the voices”, which is code for ‘we really didn’t vote for them’ at all.
Predictably, Turnbull labelled border security as a failed, bungled Rudd policy, insisting that it was the ‘softening’ of Howard’s policy that ‘opened the door to people smugglers’, ‘has invited asylum seekers in’, ‘has put out the welcome mat and opened the door wide’. He predicts a flood that will overflow from Christmas Island to the mainland. He insists the recent asylum seekers should not be rewarded by being allowed to come to Australia. He refuses to accept Rudd’s contention that ‘push factors’ – the war in Afghanistan and civil strife in Sri Lanka – have had any influence on arrivals; instead he invokes only Rudd’s ‘soft’ approach and his abandonment of Howard’s ‘successful’ policies as the sole causes. It is reminiscent of his insistence that everything but the stimulus package had turned the recession around.
Inherent in Turnbull’s criticism is that the increased arrivals are a serious problem for the country – Howard-style dog-whistling and scaremongering all over again. But once again his response has been blunted by lack of a coherent Coalition policy, this time on asylum seekers, and inconsistent statements by his colleagues. Sharman Stone was critical of the Rudd approach, but would not, indeed could not say what the Coalition policy was on this issue. She would not be drawn on whether the Pacific Solution and TPVs would be re-introduced by a Coalition Government. She said the public wasn’t interested in the Coalition’s position. Really? Backbencher Sussan Ley wasn’t so inhibited – she advocated both, but later retracted, no doubt after being told she has stepped out of line. The previous immigration minister Kevin Andrews, now in charge of policy review in place of Julie Bishop, has come up with the idea of an ’unlawful entrant visa’, inherently pejorative in its title, which would give only temporary protection to asylum seekers. How this is different from a TPV is unclear. In contrast, Petro Georgiou applauded the Rudd Government changes and expressed disapproval of the measures they replaced.
How serious is the refugee problem? Scott Morrison insisted that the number of refugees was falling, presumably believing that assertion would refute Rudd’s claim that push factors were the main cause of the increase in asylum-seekers. The most up-to-date figures I could find were in an UNHCR report of June 2009, four months ago. The heading was UN refugee chief cites pressing needs as those uprooted tops 42 million. It says “The UNHCR's annual ‘2008 Global Trends’ report shows the number of people forcibly uprooted by conflict and persecution worldwide stood at 42 million at the end of last year amid a sharp slowdown in repatriation and more prolonged conflicts resulting in protracted displacement. The total includes 16 million refugees and asylum seekers and 26 million people uprooted within their own countries.” And later the report reads: “Although the overall total of 42 million uprooted people at year's end represents a drop of about 700,000 over the previous year, new displacement in 2009 – not reflected in the annual report – has already more than offset the decline.” How does Morrison explain that? The UNHCR report shows that the number of people the agency cares for globally stood at 10.5 million refugees in 2008 while an additional 14.4 million people were uprooted within their own countries. A graph shows the consistency of refugee numbers over the last decade, and the rising number of internally displaced people since 2005.
Clearly it is specious to argue that the refugee problem is easing and that therefore push factors are irrelevant, when the numbers are so immense.
While we’re talking about numbers, we know that those who come as asylum seekers are but a small proportion of the regular immigrants to this country. Moreover, as we all know most asylum seekers arrive by air; the huge emotional reaction to those arriving by boat is disproportionate to the very small numbers that come that way.
Kevin Rudd has taken a two-pronged approach to the issue, which he has repeated over and again. He insists that his Government is very tough on border security and is vehemently opposed to people smugglers, whom he describes as ‘vile scum’, but is humane in its approach to asylum seekers. He seems concerned not to alienate those who believe in strong border control, but keen to placate those who believe in treating asylum seekers with dignity and humanity. Some seem to have difficulty understanding how Rudd can be so condemnatory of people smugglers yet conscious of the needs of asylum seekers who arrive on their boats. As I read it, he detests the smugglers because of the way they exploit vulnerable desperate people displaced from their country, charge them large fees, send them on risky sea journeys on unseaworthy boats, and exploit poor fishermen by commissioning their boats to make the hazardous sea passage. He sees the smugglers as ‘crime syndicates’. Although the smugglers might be applauded by some for offering hope to despairing people seeking asylum, they do so only at a high price and at great risk to the refugees’ safety. Many boat people have died.
How much traction can Turnbull and the Opposition get on this issue? How much fear can they conjure up? How many voters are amenable to such scare tactics?
Peter Brent of Mumble makes the point that while it is easy to mount scare campaigns from Government, with all the resources of incumbency, it is quite the reverse from Opposition. His article, The benefits of incumbency, written in April this year at the time of the SIEV 36 explosion, concludes “Malcolm Turnbull is probably the last person to want to take up the asylum seeker debate, but his position in the party is now so weak that all he can do is follow the script. As he is finding, however, his avenues are limited. What looks like a circuit breaker this week is usually destined to wrap next week’s fish and chips. There are no quick fixes in politics, and unless Rudd overreacts, no amount of boat people will save the federal Coalition.”
The same applies to this most recent episode – the interception in Indonesian waters of a boat with 255 Sri Lankans by the Indonesian Navy following a phone call from Rudd to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Already it’s losing political relevance, although the vision of desperate people with their beautiful wide-eyed children must pull on the heartstrings of many viewers. Perhaps it’s fortunate that being in the custody of the Indonesians, the human problem can be left in their hands, at least for the time being. This is the approach Rudd is taking.
Turnbull will find it difficult to get much mileage from this episode. Guy Rundle points out in a Crikey article The basic right to fight and kick and scream to find refuge, that there are two by-elections coming up in Bradfield and Higgins, two of the most socially liberal blue-ribbon seats in the country, where there are many ‘doctors’ wives’ who may not react kindly to Turnbull’s perceived inclination to return to the Howard policies. Malcolm Fraser has now joined the debate, accusing the Coalition of ‘scratching the redneck nerve’ with its tougher line on asylum seekers. He knows the danger of fostering false fear.
Turnbull might be wise to cool his rhetoric, provided of course he is able.
The asylum seeker issue is a vexed one. Bringing politicians out of cold storage to promote old policies is hazardous. Those who seek to make political capital out of these distressing situations by reverting to past remedies walk a dangerous tightrope from which a slip may be mightily damaging, if not deadly.
Resurrecting dead policies or politically dead politicians is folly. Should Turnbull decide to continue along this line, it would constitute yet another bad judgement day. His aggressive utterances today suggest we won’t have to wait long.
What do you think?