Blowing up in his face – wrap-up

Saturday, 25 April 2009 

Like a distracted three year old, the media seems to have wandered off from asylum seekers and gone on to something else.

But before it does, let’s just re-cap what happened over the ten days since the boat explosion off Ashmore Reef, because it is telling on the state of Australian politics right now.

When Barnett said that he thought refugees had set fire to the boat, it set off the media because it was seen as a repeat of Howard’s claim of children overboard that led to the criminalizing of the refugees.

But it wasn’t the line the coalition in Canberra actually pursued. Turnbull’s comments on the day focussed on the tragedy to the refugees:

The deaths on the asylum seekers’ vessel remind us of how dangerous, how very, very dangerous, this pernicious business of people smuggling is. It puts lives at risks.

Sharman Stone, the shadow immigration spokesperson, came out with a political attack during the day, making a link between government policy and the incident, but was toning that down by Lateline that evening and taking a closer line to Turnbull. She distanced herself from Barnett and refused even to say that anything much should be changed, other than the “message”. The resurrection of the Pacific Solution was ruled out and she avoided mentioning TPVs.

The focus from both sides of the political divide was almost wholly on people smugglers. It was noteworthy that although neither side wanted to say who started the fire without evidence, they were both quite happy to blame it on people smugglers without any evidence either.

Far from stirring things up, the coalition looked more intent on calming things down, even Barnett was foisting himself on the unfortunate patients in hospital with Turnbull wanting to do the same. Without proposing the return of TPVs or the Pacific solution, the coalition’s concern about ‘message’ became largely confined to what the government was saying than doing, i.e. that it should say clearly that it had a tough border policy and was especially tough on people smuggling. This was something that Rudd was only too happy to do. By the next morning Turnbull was on AM calling for a bipartisan approach with the government on asylum seekers – but only because one already existed in reality.

Yet to listen to the media over the following days it was as though a major fault-line had ripped open across the political landscape. Suddenly we were re-living Tampa all over again and Howard’s criminalizing of asylum seekers was somehow being equated with Turnbull’s rather confused attempt to say something distinctive.

From where did this come?

Two directions. For the right, this was clearly viewed as an opportunity to rehabilitate the public debate over Howard’s discredited Tampa tactics. This meant an obsession from some in the media to know the ‘facts’ of why the fire started. This would surely just be of concern only to those involved, but politically it became a way to justify what Howard did last time. It was inevitable that those in the federal coalition who also wanted to undo the discrediting of Howard’s immigration policies (especially one whose reputation was so destroyed as a result) would eventually be tempted to re-open up the fissures in a defeated party, torn between those rehabilitating the past and those trying to escape it.

These tactics of the right were summed up in a weasely article by Gerard Henderson in the SMH on the 21 April. The unpleasant thinking behind the right’s sudden enthusiasm for freedom of information is summed up in this section:

The explanation for what happened seems clear. It is known that, at times, desperate people take desperate and sometimes ill-considered actions. It is likely that petrol was ignited on the boat by a person or persons who believed that this was the most effective way to ensure that those on the boat were taken by the navy to Australian territory. It is unlikely that anyone intended that there should be an explosion followed by a sinking.

It is much the same with the children overboard controversy that occurred before the 2001 election. In fact, in that particular instance, no children were thrown from an asylum-seeker boat by their parents or guardians. But if such an eventuality had taken place, this would have been motivated by desperate persons believing that this was the best way to ensure that all the occupants of the boat were rescued by the navy. John Howard got the facts wrong. But his more significant failing was an inability to exhibit an empathetic understanding about how desperate people sometimes act.

Desperate for what? Desperate to give their family a better life? So why would they threaten their kids’ lives by throwing them into the sea? Howard’s failing wasn’t that he didn’t show empathy for parents putting their children’s lives at risks. Who would? It was no surprise that when he said, “we don’t want that sort of people in this country” it touched a chord.

Howard’s problem was that he lied about the facts in the first place. The utter irrationality of the action he was suggesting was why it was no surprise it didn’t happen. Dressed up as mealy-mouthed empathy for what ‘desperate’ people do, Henderson does exactly what Howard did, criminalise the asylum seekers as those capable of actions that no reasonable person could comprehend.

There are remarkable similarities here to how Howard used the NT indigenous abuse claims two years ago. Once again the claims were accepted by even their supporters but excused by their ‘desperation’. Howard rightly enough brushed aside such excuses as beyond the comprehension of a reasonable person. The only problem was that there was no more evidence that such claims were true as the children overboard claims in 2001.

But while the right werre engaged in the quaint task of reclaiming history, there was an unpleasant agenda coming from other quarters. From the left, we had a big deal made up about the political non-debate because of fears it would set the Australian public off into Cronulla-esque pogroms. If the right were criminalising the asylum seekers, others in the media were criminalising the rest of us. On Insiders David Marr talked about the “savagery and hatred” in Australian opinion, which the Liberals have touched off. He described how they did it:

Under Brendan Nelson changes were made, the Pacific solution was abandoned, Temporary Protection Visas were abandoned and it was a bipartisan policy to abandon them. Under Turnbull, Sharman Stone has been hectoring since last August about the so-called softening line. This is a long campaign to establish this and, in fact, has got no traction, until the tragedy of this week.

Most of this is right. There was a bipartisan approach to abandon TPVs for the same reason there was a bipartisan approach to introduce them in 1999, changing political conditions made it expedient to do so. Under Turnbull (and Nelson) the abandonment of another principle that the Howard government was supposed to be known for, led to tortured attempts to try and present the party as standing for something distinctive, but with no content to it. Unsurprisingly it had no traction until the boat tragedy set off the Great Australian Tinderbox.

Except it didn’t. The polls came out and showed indifference, which was probably because, given there was so little actual political difference between the two parties, there was no issue. The only real difference over what happened on Ashmore Reef was how a weak political class reacted to a media campaign. One side so unsure of what it stands for, that it is incapable of making a coherent position on anything, and a government so unsure of its base in the electorate that it escalated into a global crisis an issue it didn’t even need to respond to.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Saturday, 25 April 2009.

Filed under Media analysis

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6 responses to “Blowing up in his face – wrap-up”

  1. Ad astra on 25th April 2009 5:38 pm

    Nice summary Piping Shrike. The media has gone cold on this; even the Sri Lankan asylum seeker boat got little coverage. The only thing that might revive it is ‘the wedge’. Sharman Stone has been trying to wedge Labor on this issue for months but nobody gave her much attention. This was why she leapt on the boat fire with such enthusiasm. Malcolm Turnbull was initially cautious but then looked for a wedging opportunity. After some vacillation he has settled now for this: In an interview with Leon Compton on ABC Radio Darwin, after circumlocuting about the Coalition’s asylum seeker policy and the issue of TPVs, Compton asked directly “Is it policy now; is the reinstatement of temporary protection visas policy for the conservatives now?” to which Turnbull replied “Leon, what I have said is that we believe that the reinstatement of temporary protection visas or a variant of them, which provides a differentiated set of visa entitlements for people who arrive by boat, should be very high on the agenda for discussion with the Government in terms of creating a new, amended set of policies that will be effective.” So he’s now not prepared to back the reinstatement of TPVs as Coalition policy, I suspect because he wants to avoid being wedged. But he wants this high on the Government’s agenda!

    For his part Kevin Rudd is determined not to be wedged, a skill he honed in his contests with John Howard. He knows what an explosive issue this could be after the ‘kids overboard’ episode, and is fearful of being wedged by Turnbull. With both men fearing being wedged by the other, they are playing a cat and mouse game. Maybe they will neutralize each other.

  2. Ad astra on 26th April 2009 7:06 pm

    The new boat from Indonesia, presumably SIEV 38, has revived the debate. On Insiders this morning Andrew Robb tied himself in knots avoiding saying what the Coalition policy was.

    So avoidance of being wedged remains the name of the game.

  3. Graham on 26th April 2009 8:35 pm

    Dunno PS. Just heard the WA Health Minister talking up the ‘millions’ of dollars, beds etc involved in treating victims of the blast. He chose Sunday, the quiet news day with the highest news ratings for this statement.

    And finished: “It does take up space and it does mean that patients that would normally go through that hospital having their treatment will be affected,” But, weasel wordily,
    “We are a humanitarian society”.

  4. The Piping Shrike on 27th April 2009 5:01 am

    That Robb interview was a shocker! “Our policies were right under Howard, but we can’t go back to them.” Sums it up really.

    They need constantly to think of something to make themselves distinctive so I’m sure it won’t go away Graham, but I don’t think they can pursue it too far without destabilsiing themselves. What would have happened if the WA Health Minsiter had done what he implied and denied them hospital care?

  5. Monica on 28th April 2009 8:15 pm

    Well, this evening on PM, Malcolm is demanding, demanding, that there be a proper enquiry into the whole business of people smugglers, etc.. You’d think he might try and find a different brick wall against which he could bang his noggin in the faint hope another idea may occur to him.

  6. The Piping Shrike on 1st May 2009 8:24 am

    He has a party that doesn’t like him to deal with.

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