21 December 2012

Just doing your job

The Howard Government's policy on deterring and discouraging asylum seekers from coming to Australia by boat was widely regarded as both cruel and effective. The Labor government tried to dismantle it but this was deemed not to have "worked", if you assume that a) deterring asylum-seekers is what we want for the country, and b) every time an asylum-seeker boat arrives, it irritates you personally.

The government set up the Houston commission, framing their terms of reference to assume deterrence and discouragement as policy objectives. The commission reported, with part of its recommendations that the entire report be implemented as a comprehensive package.

The Houston commission recommended that detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island be reopened. This is basically in line with Coalition policy, which is itself an exercise in nostalgia: there was, by coincidence, a decline in the number of refugees worldwide in 2005, and for Coalition supporters that coincidence validates their policy and makes it the benchmark against which all immigration policy is judged.

Coalition policy is expensive: it costs billions of dollars to intercept boats in international waters, and then transfer them to those places and accommodate them there until their refugee status is determined. There was more money available to the government in 2005 than there is now, for two reasons. First, in 2005 every country in the world except Zimbabwe enjoyed economic growth; today many countries are struggling with economic stagnation or decline, which in some cases puts strain on the political system. Second, the Howard government was (believe it or not) a much higher-taxing government than the Gillard government.

The Coalition has won a political battle in having the government basically adopt its policy (all but for TPVs, of which more later). They know it's expensive, they know it's inhumane, and that people will go crazy with the heat and the indefinite waiting; and that the catering company from which Scott Morrison gets his costings will do little to alleviate either.

The government should not tolerate any criticism by the Coalition about asylum-seeker detention. They should point out that this is the policy they wanted, and that deterrence means that good people will continue to suffer while bad people will get away with murder. They should point out that this is the policy that the Coalition will continue if elected, only more so because Morrison will crack down on media visiting those places.

This is what passes for a principle for such people as Scott Morrison; the impact that such people have when they take their place in the real Australian community is less important than their impact on the imaginary and nebulous "24 hour news cycle".

The government should not merely explain, but assert and rebut narratives to the contrary, that they are merely carrying out the Houston committee's report (first step, though, is to actually do so, in full). This is what mandatory detention and deterrence looks like, people. Labor should position itself as the party that is open to new ways of doing things, while the Coalition and the Greens are pretty much stuck.

Bob Carr is right to use foreign policy as a means of securing co-operation over asylum-seekers. He was, however, wrong to start with a jaunt to Sri Lanka. It's not clear that decades of bloody civil war have settled down into a peace of mutual respect and the sort of competition/co-operation on which social and economic prosperity depends. There aren't too many genuine alternatives presented to Sri Lankans who want to migrate here by means other than people-smuggling, and the Australian High Commission in Colombo employs too few Australians and too many locals to do its immigration assessments.

That said, Carr is owning the policy - and given that his opposite number is the nebulous Julie Bishop, he can be forgiven for not taking the fight to opponents who have pretty much vacated his field.

The Coalition knew mandatory detention is absurdly expensive, and that it would blow out the budget. Again, the government should call them on their pretense of suddenly giving a damn about foreign aid, and that the Coalition would cut foreign aid still further because of its budget-surplus fetish.

What's also expensive is forbidding asylum-seekers from working and putting them on welfare. This is a result of lobbying from unions representing poorly-paid, low-skilled workers, many of whom are migrants anyway. It's stupid policy and the Coalition would be right to attack it, were it not for their laziness over Temporary Protection Visas (it was never clear who was being protected, from what or whom). The unexamined government is not worth electing.

The Immigration Minister, Chris Bowen, apparently gets along well with Morrison. What is needed is an Immigration Minister who will take Morrison on for his dishonesty that the Coalition would run asylum-seeker policy differently, better and cheaper. A minister who would rip out Morrison's heart, dump in it, and then have it run against Morrison in his electorate and preference against him is a minister that can make this issue work against the Coalition. Accepting the Howard government's detention and deterrence policy as some ideal of perfection is stupid and unsustainable.

The same goes for the Coalition's criticisms of the government over corruption within Customs. The relevant minister, Jason Clare, is supposedly a rising star in the NSW ALP, but he was a wet fish against the Coalition's Michael Keenan. Firstly, it never occurred to the Howard government to investigate corruption in Customs, and secondly the Coalition have a budget-surplus fetish that militates against more and better resources for that agency. There are the two sticks with which you beat Keenan, and the rest of the Coalition, away from partisan criticism of a story where the government did its job. The government has no excuse for being caught out, the Fairfax-ABC investigations did not precede law-enforcement examinations, they occurred in parallel, with the minister and the AFP Commissioner across the detail.

I wish other areas of policy received as much in-depth coverage in the mainstream media as asylum-seeker policy; even so, it isn't enough. It is not too late to rebuild Fairfax around producers of high-value journalism like Nick McKenzie, and away from the false idols of journalism that are Grattan or Paul Sheehan or Peter Hartcher.

Bowen's record as a minister is dutiful but uninspired, in a key policy area where the price of failure is too politically high. Dumping him would not only encourager les autres (as Napoleon Voltaire said of the British practice of executing admirals) but it would send a clear message to the underperforming NSW ALP to either replace him with Clare, or someone outside NSW and the Labor Right entirely.

In the absence of that - or perhaps as well - the government should acknowledge the fact that it is just doing its job. It should hold up a mirror to the country that supposedly wants to shun people and do it all on the fiscal and moral cheap. Any shifting of the asylum-seeker debate (in any direction other than, say, machine-gunning people at sea or a reintroduction of racial quotas) works to show Labor as the party open to ideas about the country's future. Sensible people do not fret about shifting the debate: only PR dollies, media-relations hysterics and dictators like their debates cliched and contained.

The government should be open to changing its mind after the election but committed to the Houston findings in the short term. It should brook no nonsense from the Coalition over this commitment and beat them with the surplus-fetish stick. That's how you not only deal with a suppurating wound but start a process of healing that is also a key responsibility of government - another responsibility that the Coalition insists it can shirk, and which a lazy mainstream media will let it shirk.

Part of the fallacy behind the politico-media complex is the idea that because the mainstream media isn't doing its job, the government can get away with not doing its. The Coalition has fallen for this and relies entirely on government errors and media sloppiness. A government that steps up and does its job gets re-elected. The government should own both the status quo and the future, on asylum-seekers and customs and the budget surplus and every other issue.


  1. I think it was Voltaire in Candide who had the line about executing admirals.

    1. I listened to Waleed Aly with Mathias Korman on a.b.c drive and it was pathetic on the ministers behalf.

      Hyperventilation to the highest degree but Waleed made him look idiotic with facts.

      Great interview to listen to peeps!!

  2. David Perth21/12/12 2:08 pm

    Isn't it something of a trap for this Government to be seen changing its mind on policy issues? But you are right about Bowen's performance. I get the impression that he doesn't really want to be in that portfolio and he has publically offered to give it up at least once. Maybe its just that he is too lightweight. Undoubtedly the logistics of the portfolio have been a handful.

  3. Why do you whinge about the Greens who are the only ones who think we should actually abide by the frigging law that we helped to write?

    Gillard though hates refugees, you just don't get that point do you Andrew? She wrote the dumb damn policy they are using now which breaks all laws and rules because she loves it.

    The ALP have no conscience at all, don't care and they did after all do the White Australia policy and hang on to it for dear life.

    It is the two major party racists who are doing the damage, not the Greens.

    For fucks sake grow up.

  4. Been meaning to comment for ever such a long time. Absolutely adore your blog and I know quite a few others who do too. We discuss your thoughts, analysis, at length.

    So, to the ubiquitous AS problem.

    Bowen and Morrison get along? I would have thought, given Bowen's release of his correspondence with Morrison, round about this time last year, would have signalled the opposite. Although, you never can tell with these pollies.

    And no mention of the Malaysian/Regional Solution, which really is at the heart of Gillard's policy and the Houston report?

    But, you're right, it is indeed time the Opposition was taken out the back and really exposed on this issue. Bowen's sulking because he doesn't want the portfolio, so it's unlikely he'll step up to the mark. Pity. Because he could do it if he tried - but he and JG are both over a barrel on this issue:

    He's got a ministry but can't be moved or demoted because of Rudd. Looks like Carr is going to have to do the heavy lifting. And I reckon he's up to it.

    One slight quibble that I've been meaning to apprise you of, Russell Broadbent, while a small businessman before coming into parliament, was never in furniture retailing. It was menswear in Pakenham. His parents owned a drapery business in Kooweerup. And Russell decided to expand the business but to specialise.

    Genuine bloke, and the only nice thing about having a Lib rep in Macmillan is Broadbent.

    1. Good to have you on board, will fix the Broadbent furniture thing. Great to see that old-school moderates can be appreciated.

  5. White Australia policy is spot on!!

    Rich inner city apparatchiks from hell as advisors contribute to that crap!!

    Shallow idiocy that allows their inferiority complexes to be used in political positions

    Pretentious wankers Anon

    I want jail sentences for Kathy Jackson and the NSW right wing factional corrupt arm of the alp