01 January 2012

Disappeared and lost

While enjoying Christmas and the Melbourne Test as much as anyone, it is more than a little strange that an issue that was absolutely burning last week is non-existent today. It'll flare up again: but I'd hoped for better from the journosphere that a story that was red hot last week, and a perennial issue in he country's politics, has pretty much vanished from public debate. The so-called newshounds of the Fourth Estate just let it slip away.

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:
  • DRS.
  • 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.
Asylum seeker policy has been a perennial issue of Australian politics, certainly in the last dozen years or so. Absent any personal financial or sexual issues on his part, immigration and racism was the dirtiest and darkest aspect of Howard's legacy. The fact that the issue went from being uppermost in the public debate to having utterly disappeared is astonishing. The media will be diminished the next time they decide to crank it up, and try and reverse-engineer what is happening with that policy behind the scenes now.
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?

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.
(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.

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?


  1. Manne seems to determined to reject the Malaysian solution that it clouds his thinking.

    The reason he advances for not even considering Malaysia is the return of 800 refugees up front.

    He doesn't seem to consider for a moment the argument that the threat of return won't see 800 arrive in the first place, or acknowledge that 'the Malaysian solution' has already improved conditions for all refugees in Malaysia.

    Indeed, his refusal to contemplate Malaysia leads to a fundamental disconnect in his argument, which seems to go something like this:

    Nauru worked because it was mean and nasty. We'll put Nauru back but it won't be mean and nasty this time (unlike Malaysia) because we'll be overseeing it.

    Because it won't be mean and nasty, eventually asylum seekers will realise this and will continue to arrive.

    So we'll put in a quota to restrict the number of refugees we accept.

    Which is where the whole Manne case falls down. If we put in a quota, we must do something with the 'excess'. Do we inter them perpetually? Or do we return them to their country of origin?

    And if we're sending refugees anywhere, how is taht different to the Malaysian solution?

    Manne is basically admitting that Nauru won't work. But having reached that conclusion, he seems to go into some kind of mental meltdown.

    It's interesting psychology; he'd much rather give credit to Howard than Gillard, and is willing to do all sorts of mental gymnastics in order to do that.

  2. As for the 'regional processing will make the problem invisible for Australians' argument, that says more about the flimsiness of the refugee advocates concerns than it does about anything else.

    If people are as passionate about the plight of the poor and desperate as they claim, where asylum seekers are being processed should make no difference to the intensity of their scrutiny.

    Implying that this will cease if refugee advocates aren't actually seeing AS drown tends to suggest that their concerns are in themselves political.

    Accepting death as a necessity in order to generate the desired levels of concern is scarcely moral or ethical.

    As for the 'they risk death knowingly, therefore they must have greater drivers' goes against the testimonies of AS themselves, most of which reveals that they had no idea of the risks they were going to be exposed to when they set out.

    Many of the tens of thousands in Malaysia and Indonesia know the risks, and don't take them, choosing to wait instead. Yet all the evidence suggests that these people are in far more dire straits than those who pay people smugglers.

  3. Zoomster, I agree with you about Manne and his mental gymnastics. We all have some work to do on our premises.

  4. Fair cop guv ...
    The fact that Launceston has exported its typical summer to the entire country, causing climate change deniers to declare victory once and for all.

    Ahh, but on reflection I think I geddit.

    You must be writing of that Superbly Crafted Weather that is sent across the Strait in green Stubbies and labelled Classic Blonde

    GO Jimmy Boag

  5. On a more serious note.

    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.

    More and and more I am finding it difficult to 'know' what my position is. There have been many words written and very few with much common sense in them.

    I have been swayed a little by Ken Parish over @Troppo and now your writings today and I am yet to get to the Politics Project article.

    One thing is totally clear to me though. The political system has totally failed us on this issue and the games that are being played on both sides of the chamber are more than a blight on us, it is bordering on downright criminal behaviour.

    As to the fourth estate and its' part in the whole sorry saga in some ways they are only reflecting the downright childish behaviour of our political leaders and failing miserably in their self proclaimed 'duty' to hold the barstewards to account.

  6. So, what, you gonna be quoting Guided by Voices next?

  7. Mick: I'm disappointed that Boag's is blanding out but am glad that 2012 has brought Sydney weather back to Sydney. You're right about the poverty of the asylum-seeker debate, and as I'll establish tomorrow the media are complicit in that.

    Anon: what?

  8. I find it difficult to write about asylum seekers any more. There seems so little left to say, and no matter what is said nothing ever changes.

  9. @zoomster The argument for regional processing is far more convenient for politicians than refugee advocates. Boat scares are easy tactics, stopping the boats quite a bit harder. This has now devolved to "my lame solution is better than your lame solution". The whole idea of regional processing was to take the issue off the boil for governments so they can whack oppositions with it when politically convenient. Now that is no longer the case.

    To me the situation is akin to Prohibition law enforcement: you've created a market and encouraged organized crime to take advantage of it. A way to correct that might be to remove the conditions that led to the market in the first place.

    You can upscale enforcement, but that doesn't stop the boats, and only entrenches organized crime: as we're now seeing, it's in the ranks of the Indonesian Army. You can take over the market, by running "safe boats", but I doubt that will fly with focus groups. But taking the money out of people smuggling is key to any long-term "solution to boats", if you really think there can be one.

  10. The quote from "The Politics Project" set me thinking. They are close, but not quite there. I think the reason the media have gone quiet on the negotiations is that they know that most of the chattering classes just want the issue to go away so they can get back to worrying about how we can avoid any decline in our standard of living (currently #2 in the world if Pollytics is right, which seems likely). From my viewpoint this is a pretty sad indictment of the morals of your typical Australian.

    It is convenient in this climate to blame all politicians because they are not making it easy for us the way we would like - we want them to just fix the nasty little problems so we don't have to worry about them, but instead the buggers are just having political bunfights.

    It would be nice if the Malaysian solution could eventually be put in place with enough support behind it to actually also do a tiny bit to fix the underlying problems, but I am a bit pessimistic about that. I think Labor would like to but I think the political class as a whole cares far more about power than fixing problems (oops, there I go blaming politicians for not fixing all the nasty problems). Possibly the real problem is that few of us give a damn about anything in this debate apart from cricket, standard of living and telling ourselves what wonderful people we are. Can't see that changing any time soon.

    I have to say your blog is one of the few putting intelligent effort into trying to make us think and counteract our morally slothful tendancies. I think you are to be commended for that. Please keep trying.

  11. Good comment, Anonymous above, but only increases - or should one say enhances? - one's sense of despair.

    It's been said many times, but I still think it's true: if the 'illegals' were whites from Zimbabwe there'd be no issue, no debate, no political point-scoring.

    "Possibly the real problem is that few of us give a damn about anything in this debate apart from cricket, standard of living and telling ourselves what wonderful people we are."

    - Dead right. We lead the world in one thing. Self-congratulation.

  12. Bushfire Bill2/1/12 2:57 pm

    This morning's article (2 January) in the Oz by Debbie Guest makes it clear that asylum seekers are NOT scared of Nauru and believe they have certain "rights" to come here, amounting to a duty of care by the Australian government to fast-track any asylum applications from punters who have been on-board a sinking ship and survived.

    The logical extension of this is, of course, carefully stage-managed "disasters", where boaties get their feet wet without coming to any more harm than that, but I digress...

    What they DO seem to be scared of is having to join the UNHCR-run queue with the rest of the common herd in a camp in Mayalsia or Indonesia, for the unendurable period of (and I quote) "two years", before they receive from the Australian governmnet permanent residency, eventual citizenship (with concomitant Family Reunion rights) and the rest of the perks they seem to believe their self-appointed status as "Special Needs" asylum seekers confer on them.

    The basic fact is that you can't fly here and you can't walk here if you want to come "unauthorized".

    You have to come by sea, which (depending on whether you're a starry-eyed Green in love with the drama of it all, or a hard-assed wowser from the Liberal Party looking for a head to kick), is either exciting and romantic, or dangerous and threatening, respectively.

    And just EVERYONE wants to make political hay with THEIR solution to the problem.

    The Greens just want everyone to be let in, to the point of sending safe, clean boats for them and then returning said vessels to the charming people smuggler man with the nice line in "Customer Service" patter.

    The Libs and Nats (on behalf of their dumb Bogan supporters) want everyone to come here too, for as long as they can string out negotiations by playing "Bring me a rock" and then telling Gillard "It's the wrong rock." As far as Tony Abbott is concerned, Gillard could haul a whole quarrie out Wahringah way and nothing of what she brought would cut it, rock-wize.

    Labor, naively thought that unauthorized entry was a thing of the past, that Nauru had worked. They got to have their Condemnation Cake and ate it too.

    But the Labor loophole became a rort, as loopholes do, and now all kinds of smarties are profiting from keeping the boats coming, only some of them being people smugglers and their clients, and the rest well-dressed pollies with polling points to rack up before the election campaign evens things out (as they always do) in 2013.

    The answer is: "Malaysia". We lose 800 boaties and gain 4,000 genuine, needy, deserving, PATIENT asylum seekers who'll be grateful for our help, not making demands that Gillard does this and fixes that before they embark from their ports of choice to join the rellies already here.

    The article by Debbie Guest made that blindingly, bloody obvious. The boaties - some of them lining up to have another go on another boat already (according to Guest) - are shit scared of having to slum it with their impoverished colleagues in Malaysian hellholes (or so they, Scott Morrison and the rest of the caning-fixated crocodile tearies see them).

    And, as night follows day, they'll be the first to join the rest of the wowsers here in Campbelltown, Kingswood, Regents Park, Rooty Bloody Hill and the rest of the 2GB-La-La-Land suburbs, demanding that the government shuts the gate on the disgusting trade in human misery that is people smuggling... but only after THEY have gone through it.

  13. Wow Robert, I didn't always agree with you but I knew a piece from you was researched thoroughly. I understand why you'd pack it in though.

    ewe2: another is to make legal options so freely available that the illegal options are more trouble than they're worth. We've seen the business models of backyard abortionists and SP bookmakers go down this way. To do this you need the sort of genuine regional engagement that neither party really wants but which Labor seems more likely to deliver.

    Anon: "chattering classes" however defined seem to be the only ones not focused wholly and solely on lifestyle and living standards. Your people on >$150k grizzling about carbon pricing are not as big an impediment as you might imagine.

    Macondo: I'd like to see more Zimbabweans in the mix. Had the MDC not been part of the govt I'd have liked to see a Government -in-exile run out of Perth.

    Bill: I'm not sure that all those who take the trip are hearty sea-dogs who've been blown around Cape Horn more times than you or I've had hot dinners. The people who stay put in Indo/M'sia seem to be those with an inkling of how tough the voyage is. Will check the Guest article.

  14. Aphabajangodelta2/1/12 10:15 pm

    The Malaysia 'solution' simply represents further Australian policy failure in meeting our international obligations regarding the rights of individuals to seek asylum. Labor's perpetuation of Howard's border excisions is just one of the bizarre contortions this extensible failure has drawn us into. Connecting the former with the latter part of your post the media have a part to play in this by focusing too much on the 'politics' and less on the policy and the possible alternative national responses, let alone on the causal factors behind the flow of asylum seekers and our international obligations (although SBS is perhaps an exception). It doesn't hurt that 'ZOMG BOAT PEOPLE!' is a cheap headline that can be easily resold to multiple audiences, thus offering little incentive to the media to see the issue settled. If it was they'd have to find another ~15% of other political content to fill the space. More of that tasty doorstop goodness anyone?

  15. I didn't pay a huge amount of attention to the ongoing story, but it sounded like the politics went: Abbott says he's going to cancel Christmas to say yes to something; Abbott says no instead, surprising absolutely no one; we all keep chewing our Christmas leftovers.

    Abbott's strategy here was completely predictable, but I wonder what the Labor thoughts on it were. Surely they knew he would say no yet again. Why give him the opportunity? Does it benefit their narrative to remind the voters how there's only one word in his negotiation playbook? Was it defensive, just so that he couldn't claim that he would have said yes to something if only given the chance?

  16. It amazes me the oxygen that the asylum seeker debate continues to generate. Sure it has been in the forefront of politics for the last 12 years or so, but before Tampa and Hanson it was much less of a political football.

    I hate the way that the major parties (assisted by the meedja) seem to be able to define the terms of the 'debate'. It makes out Australians to be blinkered, racist and intolerant when I don't think that is the case. The meaningless distinction between asylum seekers coming by boat and those coming by plane gives lie to the idea that the debate is genuinely motivated by a need to debate the issue of asylum seekers generally.

    I have long felt that politicians are attracted by generating noise and controversy around issues which don't have meaningful consequences for whichever group is being pitched to. Hence the popularity of law and order debates centred on increasing jail times pitched to the largely law-abiding electorate who don't imagine that they will ever be affected by it. Gay marriage is an issue like this for people who don't have contact with gay people. And the controversy about asylum seekers is the ultimate issue about "the other".

    It would be nice (a forlorn hope) if some in the media would push back on these issues, not just using the other side's talking points, but actually some common sense inquiry about how various "solutions" fit with our international legal obligations or the questions of economics that you outline.

  17. Great article Andrew. You've given me a lot to think about.

    Yet the media/pollies seems intent on going around in circles with the false dichotomy of onshore and offshore like it's one or the other. I swear the argument has not changed in the last 2-3 years...even 10 years (I wasn't old enough to be keenly aware of the happenings then).

    I suppose Labor is the most willing to try to go beyond this, but nobody seems to be giving them credit for that, and of course with Abbott, it's always his way or the highway.