Contrary to the hopes and opinions of many, there are Liberals who aren't stupid. They know full well that the patterns of refugees heading toward Australia by boat is influenced more by push factors (i.e. the reasons why people abandon the lands of their birth) than pull factors (i.e. gold and soil and wealth for toil). They know that Nauru and TPVs-in-all-but-name and all that were all just security theatre; expensive, but electorally effective while it lasted. They know that the current rise in asylum-seekers has little to do with anything the government might do - but because that government isn't a Liberal one they are happy to create the impression that they have all the answers, and that the messy compromise under which the government operates is some sort of endemic failure on their part.
When Liberal journalists like Chrisses Kenny and Uhlmann paint the background on asylum seeker issues, they ignore the push factors and contrast Coalition firmness with Labor floundering. This helps the Liberals get their message out but it also reinforces that message as though it were true. It has dampened their efforts to think through asylum-seeker policy and consider what might happen if the old ways don't apply to new conditions. This does them a disservice.
The Panel have largely recommended that the Howard government's policy for most of the last decade be reintroduced: Nauru, Manus Island, boat-arrivals being prevented from family reunion, pretty much the whole Ruddock-Vanstone deal. The Gillard government has no alternative but to swallow its pride and bringing the recommendations into being, good and hard. This leaves the Liberals:
- Doing their usual pantomime of appearing to agree with the government, then raising a few quibbles and qualms, then eventually saying no (this strings out a story over days, which journos love); or
- Claiming credit and noisily denouncing Labor for backing down.
Nobody believes the Liberals when they go on about UN conventions and breaches thereof. It's legitimate to attack the government and its policy on those grounds, but Abbott and Morrison have no grounds to do so. In the same way, nobody thinks Tony Abbott building a Potemkin Village in the Top End will make a blind bit of difference to Aborigines. If they take the former path above it will only reinforce Abbott as someone who can point problems out but can't solve them.
The latter will see Labor demoralised initially, until the Coalition realise what it feels like for a government to steal an opposition's policy. If the policy succeeds, government gets credit and opposition is just me-too. If it won't, how will the Coalition scuttle away to the moral high ground (and where, exactly, might such ground be)?
If? The proposals won't succeed because:
- Facilities in Nauru and Manus Island won't be fully operational by the election this time next year;
- The key role of Indonesia has been dodged altogether;
- There will be half-baked G4S-style execution issues; and
- There will almost certainly be a successful legal challenge because of fundamental sillinesses such as the cruel folly of waiting times.
Labor has room to move - an internationalist approach building on the Malaysia agreement and the re-emergence of Burma into the international community, bringing in the UN, producing a large-scale joined-up policy that the mean reductionism of talkback radio can't beat or even match. The Coalition has no room to move
if when the Pacific Solution is discredited.
Gillard's flexibility has counted against her - but having come through on other issues and with room to move on international agreements, she can change policy tack without any loss of standing. Abbott is stuck with the Pacific Solution; if asylum-seeker boats keep coming in the face of such a policy he has no answer, he can't get an answer, he is finished. Gillard will get credit for trying while Abbott becomes just another whinger. Gillard lives to fight another day while Abbott is left with if-onlys an I-couldas.
If Abbott offers anything other than a return to Howard-era policy - in general, and on this issue in particular - he is finished. If he sounds like an echo of the government rather than an alternative, he is finished. This invidious position is another curse of the latter-day Coalition not thinking through policy from basic principles, and using the nostalgicised past as not just a platform but a hammock. It's the difference between creating the impression that you have the answer, and having your bluff called and watching helplessly as "the answer" dissolves before your eyes.
Chris Bowen's credibility is shot with this change in policy. He should go to the backbench and rethink things, but he won't. Scott Morrison will one day attempt to slink away from the position he's held to for years now, and he will fail too. It is the tragedy of the modern political class that they are so identified with their roles that they cannot resign to save themselves.
At a time where options appear inflexibly directed toward Liberal policy, it is Labor that loses less in this no-win situation. It means the election will turn on issues other than this, as voters turn to other issues to make their decision.
After all that, I looked up this picture and it just made me sad.