Just last week the journosphere was full of one issue: asylum seekers. There was this piece by Robert Manne (which was topped, literally and figuratively, by John Spooner's cartoon here). The ALP conference passed a policy motion by and for the Immigration Minister which bound him to do what he planned to do anyway, demonstrating the power of membership and democracy in the ALP today.
The Leader of the Opposition pledged to work all through Christmas to resolve the issue once and for all, which in his mind involved restoring all elements of the Howard Government's immigration policy from five years ago; thereby demonstrating that the Rudd-Gillard government was some sort of clerical error on the part of the voters, and the Coalition will take it from here, thanks. He put out a cheesy picture of his family over Christmas, proving to everyone but goldfish-brained journalists that he was not actually involved with asylum-seeker policy at all. There was this palpable difference between what Abbott said and what he did, and that kind of dissonance has the potential to wreck the way that the journosphere covers politics.
Abbott had insisted on conducting negotiations himself, and not allowing Scott Morrison to bind the Coalition in any way in negotiating with the government. At any other point in the history of the Liberal Party the shadow minister would have said to the leader: what are you afraid of? Do you want me to do this job or not? If you don't want me to negotiate the details of my portfolio with my soon-to-be-predecessor, why am I even in this job? Get your fucking chief of staff to do it herself if she's so toey about me doing this.
People are still risking life and treasure to come here by boat. They are not on holidays like Australian politicians and journos are, and nor are they necessarily distracted by:
- Retailers trying to establish themselves as the new farmers: Dollar's up so give us a handout. Dollar's down so give us a handout. Weather's fine so nobody's shopping, give us a handout. Weather's terrible so nobody's shopping, give us a handout. No matter what the conditions are these titans of Australian business can't make a go of it, and won't change to suit the market. The only possible answer is to dip into the revenue stream that the government uses: government can send you to prison for not giving them money, a power unavailable even to the most ferocious retail marketing campaigns.
- The fact that Launceston has exported its typical summer to the entire country, causing climate change deniers to declare victory once and for all.
For its part, the Left has generally been unwilling to concede that as a means for deterring asylum seeker boats the Pacific Solution actually “worked”. The evidence here is straightforward. Between 1999 and the introduction of the Pacific Solution in late 2001, 12,176 asylum seekers arrived by boat. In the years of the Pacific Solution – 2002 to 2008 – 449 arrived. Since the abandonment of the Pacific Solution toward the end of 2008, 14,008 asylum seekers have reached Australian shores. Yet on the Left the meaning of these facts, for some reason, continues to be resisted. The Left’s unwillingness to acknowledge what ought to have been self-evident has been of even greater political significance in recent years than the moral callousness of the Right.For his part, Manne assumes that asylum-seeker policy must be judged against the Right's frame of reference. It doesn't matter how many people do or don't come here. Manne ignores the push factor that propels people from their homes, communities and nations: in 2005 every country in the world (except Zimbabwe) recorded economic growth, a factor that lessens emigration.
Like most commentators Manne also ignores the economic arguments. In domestic law-and-order debates it is frequently noted that the cost of incarcerating someone for a year exceeds the cost of putting them up and a five-star hotel and sending them to university. During the Howard Government, it was frequently noted that Stalag Nauru cost over a billion dollars a year and 90% of claims were found to be legitimate. Both a government seeking a surplus net year and an opposition seeking $70b of savings from the current budget, reinstating Nauru is untenable. Why an Abbott Government would seek to reintroduce such an absurd situation is unclear, unless you accept that they lack imagination and sense and are seeking a return to 2005 above all else. Why Robert Manne gives Abbott a free pass on this is so unclear as to be bewildering; a light dusting of pox-on-both-your-houses is simply inadequate.
So far as I know no one on the Left with an interest in asylum seeker policy – and I include myself – was farsighted or independent or courageous enough to offer the incoming Rudd government advice along these lines.Manne is a Professor of Political Science. I know for a fact that there are numerous members of the Liberal Party who have, over the years, become active in inter-party debates on this topic from that perspective. I have no doubt that the ALP and the Greens have many members who have done the equivalent in their party. The fact that Manne ignores even the possibility of such people is an astounding oversight.
Guy Rundle insists that Robert Manne is not a member of the Left at all. I was originally going to ignore this internecine squabbling but it raises a larger question: why should Manne be or feel excluded from "the Left"? Cliff Richard still insists on his membership of "the rock-n-roll fraternity" and nobody from Rammstein calls him on it. I thought "the Left" was like any other kind of faith, where espoused belief alone was sufficient for membership: in the words of Curtis Mayfield, "You don't need no baggage, you just get on board".
Rundle's piece is the better one, arguing from first principles about our obligations moral and legal. He doesn't make much of a case, however, for building a broad movement. Centrist Liberals like Judi Moylan or Russell Broadbent are part of this debate, despite he fact that either have more to show for their advocacy in terms of both achievement and personal struggle than Rundle has for his, on this or any other subject. You don't build a broad movement by just arguing your own corner and that ultimately is the limitation of this piece by Rundle and pretty much every other by him.
This excellent piece from The Politics Project makes an important point on any hope for 'a regional solution':
... asylum seekers know that the trip is dangerous. But they do it anyway. Doesn’t that tell us something about their plight? Doesn’t that tell us that these people would rather risk their lives, and the lives of their children, rather than remain indefinitely in the squalid and dangerous conditions of Malaysia or Indonesia, countries that are already poverty-stricken and cannot afford to look after their own people?(I say the above is "excellent" and "important" not because it agrees with my position: it doesn't. It makes the flimsy basis for my belief in the Malaysia Solution as a first step very damn difficult.
The debate is currently focused on “stemming the tide of boats”, on making the issue go away so that we, Australians, don’t have to worry about it, or feel guilty about it. Offshore processing is a way of making the issue disappear, for us. It will have absolutely no benefit for those seeking asylum; it will not help those developing countries which serve as transit zones for refugees; it will not in any way solve the issue. But it will make us feel better, and it will help our politicians to be re-elected.
We hear a lot of talk about finding “regional solutions” … to stop the boats. Not regional solutions to deal with the causes of displacement, not regional solutions to ensure that refugees have access not only to human rights protections, but also to adequate food, clean water, shelter, education and healthcare.
It isn't news that the same-old-same-old has come out for another airing. It is news why the country's leading politicians can't even talk about it in a sensible way, and why those who can and do are shunted to the margins and ignored; and whether "public opinion" really does want this issue to fester like a suppurating sore on the face of the body politic. It is news that such an issue should go from red-hot to non-existent without either a solution or a circumstance that fundamentally changes the debate. If you really think that the journosphere focus on its own industry, news-as-news, is actually valid then chew on this:
- Why has the political system failed those of us who elect it to represent us and settle political debates in policy and legislation?
- Why has the so-called Fourth Estate devoted far more to the challenge to the Investec Loyal than to a debate that was supposedly going to go all through Christmas until it was settled?
- Given that the politico-media complex has failed us, why is anyone surprised that interest in either party is waning, and why do so few wonder what the consequences of that disinterest will be (other than job losses)?
- Who dares try to reframe the debate on asylum-seekers while maintaining a viable political career?
- Who dares pursue an issue of enduring importance, and stand up to those who would reassign them to less important issues?