18 August 2016

Our quagmire

Involvement in Vietnam was not - as the critics were later to assert - a conspiracy of the best and brightest brought into government by Kennedy and inherited by Johnson but the application of principles pursued for a decade by two presidents of both parties. Like his predecessors, Kennedy considered Vietnam a crucial link in America's overall geopolitical position. He believed, as had Truman and Eisenhower, that preventing a Communist victory in Vietnam was a vital American interest.

- Henry Kissinger
Australia's position on the Vietnam war was different to that of the US. When the Menzies government committed Australian troops in 1962 Labor was tentatively opposed, trying to walk a fine line between commitment to the US alliance without slavishly going along with everything Washington said or did. The Coalition won the next three elections. Liberal campaigns combined anticommunism with old tropes of Asian domination. These almost undid the quiet rapprochement Australia had undertaken with newly decolonised Asian countries through the Colombo Plan and Opperman's slow, patient work unwinding the White Australia Policy.

When Labor finally won office in 1972 Australian troops had all but been withdrawn. Labor supporters from the time win bragging rights for being on the right side of history, while Coalition supporters admit returning servicemen should have been treated better, or double down on Cold War rhetoric that was half-baked at the time.

Wars displace people from their homes. In Australia's first wars, ad hoc conflict against Aborigines and then in New Zealand against the Maori, displacement was the whole point. In the wars that followed displaced persons were largely accommodated within their own countries - within South Africa after the Boer War, or within Turkey, Belgium, or France after World War I - or else they joined that vast migration to the United States that ended in 1920. Australia had not needed to accommodate systematically those displaced by war.

World War II was different because of its sheer scale. Many European countries had been smashed and could barely sustain their non-displaced populations, let alone re-integrate the displaced. Asian countries retained their war-torn populations, and emigration to Australia was not an option anyway. Australia developed a postwar immigration program targeted at displaced Europeans, hoping vaguely to grow as a nation rather than trying to re-integrate returning servicemen into the stagnant economic backwater Australia had been following World War I.

So too, the immigration of refugees following the Vietnam war (including those from Cambodia) is a benefit to the nation that goes far beyond multicultural happy-talk about phở gà. It speaks to a recognition of suffering and displacement from war, and the need to provide not mere shelter to its victims but real opportunities as those who contributed to the destruction. This reflects well on Australians generally, and on our political leadership in particular: the Defence Minister at the height of the Vietnam war was the Prime Minister who insisted refugees be admitted, shepherded across the Arafura Sea by the Navy and quietly, slowly accommodated into the community. The then Labor Opposition could have fomented division to its short-term benefit during the rising unemployment of the late 1970s, but thankfully chose not to.

Bipartisanship clearly has its uses. Over the last quarter century it has let us down. The system of mandatory detention for displaced persons seeking asylum is our bipartisan quagmire, in the way the Vietnam war was for the US.

The closure of Manus Island and the Guardian Australia Nauru Files cache shows the system cannot go on. It is as decisive in its way as the release of the Pentagon Papers was to the eventual end of the Vietnam war - maybe not as immediate as those measuring the impact of traditional media might like, but decisive in policy and historic terms nonetheless.

As an aside, in line with a central theme of this blog: that cache of documents was uncovered by investigative journalists rather than press gallery hacks. Once again, the press gallery is clearly the wrong place from which to report about what is going on within government.

Those who want Peter Dutton to go on trial at The Hague for crimes against humanity must accept that any opprobrium on him also falls upon his predecessor, Scott Morrison; and on their Labor predecessors, Tony Burke and Chris Bowen; and so on, back into the past until you get to Gerry Hand, the inner-Melbourne leftie who set up mandatory detention under Keating in 1992.

The whole idea of bipartisanship is that it renders politicians immune from accountability. If there is no partisan difference there is no partisan criticism - quibbling about delivery models or degree rather than any fundamental re-examination. The press gallery can hunt out differences better than it can examine policy; having spent so much time revelling over political division and then bleating for bipartisanship, it tends to regard instances of bipartisanship as opportunities to berate critics who Just Don't Get It, who Just Have To Accept The Underlying Fundamentals of Politics, and that any refusal to do so can only be the work of irrelevant ratbags.

Michael Gordon from The Age has been admirable over the past year or so for recognising the appalling outcomes from mandatory detention: the physical and mental damage to the detainees, the brutality of the guards and the loot that goes into maintaining those camps; and how Australians are all worse off, financially and morally, for perpetuating these disgraceful locations and the policies that manifest them. But Gordon is no workaday journalist: he's federal politics editor, and as such has harangued us all on how there are good people and dills on both sides (and there are only two), and what we need is more bipartisanship. He can't face the fact that mandatory detention is the fruit of bipartisanship. No press gallery journalist can.

He dodges the issue with a well-meaning but ultimately futile call for a summit, the emptiest of talkfests that would succeed only at diverting journalistic resources from actually finding out what is going on. He covers yet another legal action. He dares not go to the dark heart of bipartisanship, though he knows it well. Gordon yearns for more and more of that which would negate journalism while keeping people like him employed.

For all the criticism you can make against Turnbull and Dutton, the simple fact is that you can't make the case Labor would be more effective, or more humane, than the incumbents. This response to the Nauru Files cache is beyond underwhelming, genuinely pathetic in its inadequacy to meet Australia's needs and those of displaced persons.

If detention was a deterrent, all those horror stories about deprivations and depravations would not need to be exposed by Guardian Australia. There would be an aggressive program by BorderForce to revel in every sordid detail. There would be a reality TV style program showing asylum seekers being refouled to those they had fled, suppurating tropical ulcers and other cruelties for the delectation of the sort of people who vote Hanson anyway. The fact is, there are too few of those people to sustain popular support: any attempt to boost support would take the risk of arousing revulsion. Acquiescence requires ignorance. Dutton is happy to supply as much ignorance as anyone could want, and Labor's embarrassment at the Nauru Files shows their reluctance to fight a weak government on this front. Nothing fosters ignorance like censorship (or the output of Chris Kenny, whose output is so anti-journalism you are less well informed after you've read it).


Polls show that Australians hate having their noses rubbed in the reality of mandatory detention, and this hatred obscures simple racism or interpretations of questions like "Do you agree with mandatory detention Y/N". Coalition supporters today are like their forebears during the Vietnam war era: they know they are supporting a doomed, expensive effort but are determined that there is a good cause somewhere: the myth of the queue, the myth of civil unrest that is often threatened but never quite manifests in a nation of immigrants. The drowned-or-detained argument is only waged by those whose only wish is that displaced persons never join our society.

Decisive action one way or another is not possible with ignorance and acquiescence. The incumbent government likes it that way and so does the likely next one. For the press gallery, the flow of appalling stories will continue, rationed out at intervals, as it has for 25 years now. Experience counts for little in press gallery coverage, as predictable events must be misrepresented as unprecedented by journalists yearning for an audience as stupid as they are - one that might keep them in the manner to which they've become accustomed.

The secrecy is a denial of war. We were open about our involvement in World War II and Vietnam (less so about Korea; displaced persons were accommodated internally, or in the US. Australia has received a surprising number of Korean migrants through the normal migration system). Successive governments have restricted coverage of Australian involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, and this has diminished acceptance of a postwar migration program. You can only represent asylum-seekers as queue-jumping bludgers if you make no connection between their suffering and displacement and the policies of the Australian government. Only once you make that link do you extend to today's refugees the courtesies extended previously to Europeans and Vietnamese.

The idea that the system might collapse and be replaced by something altogether different would require policy analysis beyond the skill of the press gallery. The party that reversed course would cop a shellacking from an abandoned press gallery, and would probably resist the attempts of that party to paint their opponents as perpetrators of grievous cruelty. They'd regard any serious, anything-you-say-may-be-used-against-you inquest as a witch-hunt, and would fear the random politics that would lie beyond any disgrace and excision of key players in parties of government.

We see this in other policy areas. It's one thing for clouds to hang over Senator Arthur Sinodinos in terms of party fundraising. Any far-reaching inquiry that decimated the political class would leave political journalists stranded. Remember their impotent fury at Ricky Muir and other minor-party MPs who simply refused to engage the press gallery: the collapse of mandatory detention would prompt such a far-reaching change of personnel in so short a time that the press gallery would become like rain dogs, unable to function. As happened for much of the Gillard government, they would simply lose the ability to describe the reality before them.

Let us have no more of Dutton's nonsense that Manus veterans will not be resettled here. This is no quagmire, this is face-saving from a man who has already failed. For all the money thrown at this we could have bought those people fine houses, and may yet have to do so as compensation.

Speaking of nonsense, Pauline Hanson's fixation on toilets as a cultural icons is consistent with a lifetime of Australasian Post articles on the Fair Dinkum Aussie Dunny. It's hard to play up cultural differences with a universal human act. It doesn't matter what colour your skin is, your sexual preference or political views, and religions have little to say on the matter: urination and defecation is pretty similar for us all. These days Hanson is not an authentic political creation of her local community, but a creation of the media that granted her second shot at a lucrative old-school parliamentary pension. The price of that is she will be obliged to comment on every story too stupid for even the biggest media tarts in the major parties to waste their time or dignity. Whenever you see Hanson pumping up a non-story like this, you see a news editor lunging desperately for a demographic that would otherwise slip away from them.

The integration of displaced persons into the community happens at the local level, from which almost all journalism has now been stripped. One minute refugees are being denounced in parliament, the next they are turning up in that parliament as members grateful to the nation and willing to serve it, without any ability to explain the turnaround. The quagmire of the current position means that neither major party harbours any insurgent movement capable of defusing the cruel, stupid, and expensive status quo.

Watch for a quick-n-dirty deal between the two former Immigration Ministers who are now Treasurer and Shadow, to be praised extravagantly by the press gallery which will then soon bury the issue, where:
  • nobody goes to prison;
  • PNG and Serco and Transfield keep their money;
  • the victims vent but receive little if anything (reported as though no-one is to blame, or the victims brought it on themselves) until the generosity of local communities kick in; and
  • we all realise that these are people we can help, and who can in turn help us, out of their quagmire and ours.