02 July 2012

At an impasse

Impasse (n.) a situation in which no progress is possible, especially because of disagreement; a deadlock

- Oxford English Dictionary
There are two ways to analyse the absurd situation in which the Parliament has put itself. Firstly, against an ideal, and assessing who came close or fell well short; and secondly its opposite, to look squarely at politics at its most amoral, who comes out of this looking cool and calm and in control and who lost it in the face of a big challenge.

Firstly, the ideal.

We need a situation where people who are unable to live in their country can establish a claim for refugee status (as a substitute for the legal status of a citizen to live within his or her country) and be resettled in a place where they might live and work and be entitled to a future of the type denied to them in the country of their citizenship. Australia is such a country; since World War II many thousands of people have come here fleeing persecution, and I want an Australia where that keeps happening (taking persecution in other countries as a given, or at least beyond Australia's control, rather than something to be encouraged).

In the short term, Australian naval/border patrol/other policing assets need to focus on saving lives and bringing people here to be helped, assessed, and either accepted or else sent elsewhere as required. This would be a powerful humanitarian statement and would give us strong standing in the long term in working toward a regional solution for dealing with non-nationals seeking asylum.

There is also more to be done in consultation with the Indonesians that most Australians, lacking understanding of that large and complex country, can barely imagine let alone realise.

Malaysia and Nauru are insufficient in themselves, and by themselves. The government must go through the Bali Process to engage other nations in Southeast Asia to work toward a longterm solution with and among those countries.

The government responded best to the impasse by offering to change its policy. Had it acceded to Nauru and TPVs the only question would have been the tactical one (of why it hadn't done so sooner) rather than the practical one (of whether these measures work as well in 2012 as nostalgia would have it). It did the right thing in asking an expert committee for ideas; several parliamentary committees have looked into this issue over the past 10-20 years or so and their efforts appear to have been wasted.

The Greens insisted on human rights protections above all other considerations:

  • Human rights abuses in Australian detention centres count against our ability to insist on such protections from others. 
  • The assumptions behind the UN Convention on Refugees 1951 are those of Europe at the end of Word War II as the universal human experience on this matter, a question that could do with re-examination to say the least. 
  • The Malaysia proposal promised greater scrutiny of human rights in that country than had ever been the case, as I said at the time

Still, you've go to start somewhere, and where the Greens started was with legalistic quibbling rather than practical concerns as to where you start, and with what. Having more asylum-seekers settle here is one part of a longer-term solution but it is irrelevant to the immediate urgency brought on by matters of life and death.

Perhaps the government could have got them onside by bringing them in to a wider solution; perhaps not. The Greens were happy to have wider and longer-term solutions that were bound at the outset by high-level but stringent human rights protections. The government would have found it difficult to negotiate such an outcome with many southeast Asian countries, especially given our less-than-spotless record, but I can't agree that it was better to not try at all than to sell out a scintilla of any such protection.

Sunili Govinnage is right to say that the bill before Parliament overlooked the immediate need to save life at sea. The Greens should have insisted that it do so, and offered to pass it on condition that the government thus amend it. It is understandable that they rejected the bill - you can only vote on what's in front of you, though a bit of initiative would have been nice and might have forced the government's hand.

She is, however, dead right when she says:
If, however, we, as a nation, genuinely want to stop asylum-seekers getting on to boats and risking their lives, we need to give them a viable option. A real "regional solution" is not about getting our neighbouring countries to process asylum-seekers so that we can get on with complaining about our First World Problems in peace. It means properly supporting the United Nations High Commission for Refugees to fulfil its resettlement mandate and encouraging other nations to do so do. It also means increasing our humanitarian intake.

But it is pretty clear nobody wants to touch any of that ...
Now that is grounds for weeping, of which more later. It will mean relatively fewer people coming here under a legal cloud, and more with every right to expect the promises of this country will apply to them, which might be more of a challenge than we seem prepared for.

The Oakeshott bill did not give members of Parliament the quick fix of immediate, practical action, nor the longterm satisfaction of capital works and a relatively secure policy over the years ahead. If the government was serious the Prime Minister would have moved this bill ad she would have worked with the Greens and gotten around the Coalition like she did in September 2010. As with the proposed gay marriage bill by Labor backbencher Stephen Jones, the independents will know the government's heart is in a policy when they take it on themselves.

The Coalition simply insisted that its policy be accepted in full as an exercise of raw power, combined with intellectual laziness in insisting that what worked in 2002 must and will work in 2012. It confused its position with a focus on human rights in Malaysia while ignoring those issues with Indonesia (and insisting on measures that the Indonesian government has flatly declared it will not accept) shows that it is not ready to govern this country.

Secondly, the politics.

Abbott's ploy all along has been to jam the workings of government and then assume control of them, to make the government look like it's doing nothing - or worse, stuffing up - while creating the impression that he can lead a government that will Set Things Right. This is what Tim Dunlop was getting at, and if he had written it at any point between about Easter 2010 and this Easter just gone it would have been another spot-on article from one of Australian politics' most perceptive commentators. Here, he's attributing more power to Abbott than the man himself is exhibiting.

Since Kevin Rudd was comprehensively defeated for the Labor leadership earlier this year, Abbott has been a diminished figure. Abbott was ready for a Rudd victory, or a Gillard victory by a slighter margin than she achieved; but not for Labor to unite so comprehensively behind a leader they knew was under pressure but whom they did not believe was finished. Since then he has cracked hardy by insisting that refugee boats can be sent back to Indonesia against their wishes, and at the same time that his government would teach their languages in schools (provided the budget ... but you've heard this before). He has moved away from his impetuous comments about proud Whyalla but in doing so he has not moved anywhere that people will follow.

When he stood at Geelong today watching a handful of fertiliser slip through his fingers it was as though the local candidate was trying to cheer him up, to give Abbott the support he was meant to be giving her. Abbott has lost his spark and there's a story there, journalists: go get it and tell us what it is.

Until recently, it was sufficient for Abbott to invoke nostalgia for the Howard government, talk down the incumbents, link himself to Howard and against the evidence and generally bluff his way past an adoring media. By digging his heels in he isn't looking strong, he's looking like a piker out of ideas (although he has somehow succeeded in getting the media to stop asking him about Thomson-Jackson and Slipper-Ashby).

In this article which you can read for free on Google News, Peter van Onselen offers this telling vignette:
One well-placed Liberal source told The Australian that Abbott would rather see Labor continue to bleed politically with ongoing boat arrivals. If that means deaths at sea continue, he said, so be it. Perhaps Abbott thinks such tragedies reflect more badly on Labor than his own side because the government appears responsible for the mess courtesy of changing John Howard's asylum-seekers policies in the first place.
If someone had said something like that about John Howard, he'd have denied it forcefully and acted all wounded. Behind closed doors he would have gone through the parliamentary party like a dose of salts until he tracked down whoever said that, and dealt with them with great vengeance and furious anger.

Abbott just lets it go. He has no power to do anything else - same with this. This time last year, or two years ago, no Liberal would have dared say such a thing because of the premium on sticking together with government so close. That quote shows confidence in Abbott is not as strong as it was within Liberal ranks, and mitigates against the idea that Abbott is a strong leader headed for inevitable victory.

The firebrand who almost took the Coalition to victory in August-September 2010 and who kept the pressure on the government has not been completely neutered - not yet - but he is less than he was. A second wind can only come from an appealing set of policies.

Yesterday's Insiders showed Michael Keenan, Joe Hockey and Senator Sarah Hanson-Young acting all emotional over refugees while voting for the status quo. Some of the nation's most experienced journalists wrongly declared they were "obviously sincere", despite such obvious facts as:
  • Keenan distributing material in his electorate inciting fear and uncertainty over "illegals" (it is not illegal to come to this country and seek asylum), the very people over whom he suggestively scratched his eye;
  • Hockey was a minister in the Howard government, when all that he would "never support" was done - and worse. Hockey might not send vulnerable people to Malaysia but like Crocodile Tears Keenan he would tow them to Indonesia, or as with Shayan Badriae, neglect them on our soil. Hockey was mentored in his career by Phillp Ruddock. He is a relic of the promising young man I knew and a mockery of the leader he could have been had he principles to stick to; and
  • Hanson-Young showed that she has not made the transition from activist to legislator by her set-up of the straw-man "Hussein" and refusing to do anything that she couldn't have done as a bullhorn-wielding outsider.
All of those people offered what was most personal to them - their emotions, and their reactions to matters of life and death - as human shields to monstrously inhuman policy positions. Each of those people had the standing within their party to force change, and show their leaders that you can be politically flexible without having to be a moral weather-vane. Their failure to get over themselves is failure indeed.

Speaking of Insiders, weren't they gutless over their mate Steve Lewis? People who've seen hordes of weasels come and go should be better at spinning, but Malcolm Farr and Fran Kelly were clearly caught napping. Here is a heresy that only a blogger can admit: Lewis is entitled to the same presumption of innocence that Craig Thomson is. Oh yes.

Abbott is right in saying the Houston committee shouldn't tell the Coalition what its policy is - Howard would have sounded more defensive had it been his place to say such a thing. Abbott is wrong to maintain, at a time of impasse, that his policy is the only policy. He risks being outflanked by nimble diplomacy, of which Gillard and Carr are increasingly capable, and of which Morrison and Bishop are not. Abbott has painted Gillard as a bullshit artist, and evidence for this is receding further into the past to the point where such an accusation is an occupational hazard for all politicians. Gillard was sensible to deny that Abbott would really abolish the carbon price, the sort of shirtfronting Abbott badly needs. Labor celebrations that Whyalla had not gone the way of Pompeii or Gomorrah are a small step in turning that attack back on its originator.

Abbott has promised a lot and delivered nothing, and his continued appeals to us to vote him out of his loserdom are growing increasingly plaintive. He told his Federal Executive that he staked his leadership on rolling back the carbon price, an indication the position really is in play. Kim Beazley said the same thing about the GST, and my wasn't that a winner (well, it pumped up his polling position, which isn't quite the same thing - experienced political journalists, please note). There are plenty of examples where a Prime Minister gains credit for doing the right thing without having to be popular, which is why Gillard's personal polling matters not a jot (again, any press gallery journalist with a track record has no excuse).

If Labor succeed at painting Abbott as the bullshit artist, he's finished: he is supposed to be the action-man, not the loser who gets stymied all the time, on every issue. He is the doer with an eye to the future: not the Field of Dreams guy who not only thinks the world before the Global Financial Crisis can be resurrected, but that he's the one to do it. His line that roads symbolise progress in the 21st century was nothing short of pathetic. Abbott is not going to be defeated in some do-or-die clash but he is being ground down, bogged down, his worst nightmare (because he and his party are powerless to turn it around).

Every party conference will feature a colourful piece of dissent as a show of democracy in action. Labor has the power to deal with pantomime from a Paul Howes or a Doug Cameron because ultimately the party has the clout to pull them into line if need be: the party is bigger than them, they need the party more than it needs them. The Liberals do not have the ability to discipline Palmer, he knows it and so does every member of the party.

For Abbott to lead his party to take the opportunities over the next year or so he will need to draw on both rolling successes and popular support that is non-existent and not in prospect. In a situation framed as an impasse, one in need of new answers, Abbott isn't filling the vacuum with his substance, because he has none to offer. Why he can't slake his thirst for service in some other capacity isn't clear, and is ultimately not our problem. The momentum is with the government and not with Abbott: the polls don't measure that so the journalists don't, which is why they aren't talking to us or with us in any meaningful way.


  1. statements prefaced with "in a perfect world' are s variant of straw man argument .. was used in asylum debate

  2. The hubris was clearly on display with Morrison on 7:30 last week saying that there wasn't anything Labor could do to get co-operation on asylum seekers because Labor were completely without merit on any subject.

    And so it is with Abbott - any major reform of the Labor government has to be rolled back to pre 2007.

    Heather Ewart was actually asking Abbott a few hard questions about this on 7:30 Report tonight (2 July). The general theme being that businesses are asked to gamble their approach to carbon pricing based on predicted results of the next election. Abbott doesn't see the need to reveal anything of his policy details to these businesses.

    For the sake of the economy we can only hope our bloggers will shame the journalists to start asking more of the hard questions needed. I think this is how it works in our media these days.

  3. It does seem that Abbott is occasionally getting some harder interviews these days. John Faine asked him a few yesterday morning. It was instructive to hear just how poorly Abbott answered them. Of course they're unanswerable. How can he fund tax cuts paid for by Carbon and mining tax if he's going to abolish them? But at least he's being asked.

  4. Thank you for your comments on the 3 pollies in tears.
    Keenan snivelling over someone else's experience had me sorry to admit) yelling at the tv. Did Keenan cry as much when the sailors recounted their saving the children, who were NOT thrown overboard.
    enough of that rubbish

    How come every time Steve Lewis is mentioned we here, "I am a friend" stuff that be a journalist and report. The Grech affair should be proof enough that Lewis goes for the headline rather than an in depth research of facts.

  5. "The momentum is with the government and not with Abbott: the polls don't measure that so the journalists don't, which is why they aren't talking to us or with us in any meaningful way."

    Interesting. Do you think Labor's power brokers believe this? In other words, are they willing to hold their nerve and not change leaders in a panic? (For what it's worth, I believe Labor will win the next election if they do hold their nerve.)

  6. The problem is that we don't get to white out the high court and constitution in the pretence it will save the lives of people who still have to get here before we shunt them off to somewhere else.

    The media did not report what Oakeshott was really on about, Peter Van Onselen nailed it and so did Frank Brennan and Savriti Taylor.

    It had zero to do with saving one life, it had to do with stripping all human rights from one small group of human beings to suit the bogans in the western suburbs.

    I do wish people would think before prattling.

    ""At its core perhaps the biggest embarrassment in this whole debate is the way that Australian law-makers (politicians) are running away from Australian law. The whole unsavoury point of offshore processing is to restrict boat people from Australia's appeals courts, which give them numerous opportunities to prove their refugee status. That's why Christmas Island was excluded from the migration zone in the first place. That's why politicians want the navy to intercept boats and ship them to offshore sites, whether it's Nauru or Malaysia or anywhere else.
    How utterly pathetic that the only political solution our two major parties have come up with is to hide from the laws of the country they represent. Surely they either must change these laws if they don't like them (even if doing so requires a referendum), or they must accept the consequences?

    One of the conseequences of course of us breaking the law is that all the other 147 signatory nations would do the same and then what happens to those we committed to protect?

    The impasse is just what is required, now go and do some research of the facts.