A losing game for Labor

Tuesday, 20 October 2009 

Peter Hartcher’s claim that Turnbull’s tough line on asylum seekers represents a return to Howard’s tactics is true – except for the popularity bit. Turnbull’s tough line has made not a scrap of difference to the party’s standing compared to what Tampa did for Howard. But Turnbull is probably not too worried. His main concern over the last couple of weeks is to ensure his survival with his own party, and this is pretty well all that was achieved at the coalition’s party meeting on the weekend. Turnbull’s hardening line on asylum seekers since the Ashmore Reef incident in April is a sign of his faltering grip on the party. The only thing that is keeping him there is that there simply is no alternative.

That’s Turnbull’s excuse. What’s Rudd’s? It could be argued that Rudd’s ‘tough’ stance is a tactical move to keep the threat from the right in check, as though Rudd has any need to worry about that. More likely it shows a government unsure, even at its current stratospheric popularity, just how issues like this will play out in the electorate given how badly it worked for Labor back in 2001.

Polling on asylum seekers is a little more mixed than it would appear in the media. While there is support for strong immigration controls, the public is unconvinced any government can do that much about it. At the height of the media furore over the Ashmore Reef explosion in April, only a third thought tougher controls would make any difference, with over half thinking there was no point. It’s probably why there was little differentiation in the public’s opinion to either party’s immigration policy at the time and, as with most things, a general level of satisfaction with the government’s policy despite it being presented as a softening.

Given this, and even ignoring the minor issue of what would be the decent thing to do, the apparent toughening of Rudd’s policy since April makes even less sense. Public scepticism that government can do much about immigration shows that it has a firmer grip on reality than our political class. Because there is a good reason why the Fraser and Keating governments, which both faced a wave of boat people, were reluctant to turn the control of borders into a test of strength – they couldn’t, at least not on their own. No country can control the numbers who approach their borders asking for asylum, even an island such as Australia. Any attempt to control boat people in reality depends on the level of cooperation from neighboring counties, especially Indonesia. The irony of the boat people issue is that keeping them out requires an even greater engagement with the countries from which they come.

This was an essential part of Fraser’s strategy with the first wave after the fall of Vietnam. As part of the rehabilitation of Fraser that has happened during Howard’s time, Australia’s answer to Mother Teresa was not, as suggested on Insiders last week, an enthusiastic welcomer of these refugees. Rather he was forced into it following hostile media coverage to boat arrivals in the run up to the 1977 election, leading him to both circumvent it by increasing transfers directly from the refugee camps while encouraging Indonesia and other northern neighbors to hold back the boats. A similar approach was taken by Keating in the early 1990s plus the added bonus of mandatory detention replacing the sweeping discretionary powers of the 1958 Migration Act.

Managing the issue this way was not a solution for Howard, especially after he cheesed off Indonesia over East Timor in 1999. Widely seen as a weak leader of a pointless government in 2001, a year the government was polling record lows, he had even less room to manoeuvre than his predecessors with a situation that was looking out of control. Howard’s tough actions were born out of necessity; TPVs and the so-called ‘Pacific solution’ basically involved running around trying to bribe (or bully) smaller neighbors to take refugees that would have been dealt with by Indonesia.

As so often with Howard, he was being forced to make a necessity out of a virtue but as a practical policy it was a failure. The Pacific solution was an unsustainable extravagance and Ruddock’s attempts to bypass the legal system over appeals floundered in the courts. As Barry Cassidy brought out nicely with Sharman Stone on the weekend, it is for that reason that while the Liberals can talk about how terrific their policy was under Howard, they have no wish to return to it. It simply was impractical both as policy, and politically. What enabled Howard to get away with it at the time was partly the incoherence of the then Labor leadership, which first agreed with Howard’s actions and then balked when taken to its logical conclusion, but more importantly, the War on Terror that followed soon after.

It was 9/11 that turned the refugee issue from a question of effective policy to a moral imperative as Howard did his best to suggest that Al Qaeda had decided to take the slow boat to Australia. Just as the terrorist threat concealed the military stuff up of Iraq, so it concealed the fact that Howard’s hard-line policy was a practical disaster. It wasn’t Howard’s policy which stopped the boats, but rather a worldwide slowdown in refugee movement and the renewed relationship with Indonesia that the War on Terror allowed.

Dealing with that legacy is clearly giving Rudd problems. For a start, Labor’s criticism of Howard’s Pacific solution looks a little hypocritical when it comes to acknowledging the resumption of the Indonesian one. It also might make Rudd feel as though he is copping out compared to Howard’s strong man act. It is hard otherwise to explain the bizarre coyness over the reliance on Indonesia displayed by Rudd when questioned over the first boat last week and repeated by Albanese on Q&A. It might also explain Rudd’s repeating Howard’s tactic of criminalising asylum seekers by calling them illegal refugees, something even the Australian press have ruled out doing. None of this can conceal that being tough on asylum seekers means either setting up squalid detention camps here or over there, both of which Labor has spent the last few years discrediting.

As seen with the Apology, Rudd has been at his best over the last two years when he was depoliticising those miserable games his predecessor was playing to look like a tough politician, usually at the expense of vulnerable targets. It is a shame, in the name of political tactics, that he can’t do the same here. Banging on about ‘vile’ people smugglers doesn’t quite cut it. After all, what’s so vile about them? At least they’re providing a service, especially if they do what really seems to make them unpopular and bring their clients safely to our shores. What’s worse, earning a trade out of human misery or making politics out of it?

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Tuesday, 20 October 2009.

Filed under Tactics

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5 responses to “A losing game for Labor”

  1. Steve 1 on 20th October 2009 12:24 pm

    ‘It was 9/11 that turned the refugee issue from a question of effective policy to a moral imperative’. I am glad someone has a clear memory of what actually happened in 2001.

  2. The Piping Shrike on 21st October 2009 10:49 pm

    That context back then is important. Forgetting it leaves some to imply that the Australian electorate is for all time just a bunch of racist hysterics, as Greg Barns gave a grim example of this week.

    It means that not only is it unwise for Labor to play up a hard-line stance, but unnecessary to do so. Stephen Smith gave an example of a toned down approach on Lateline last night and it will hardly cause the government any problems (even though it will do nothing for asylum seekers).

    It does need Indonesia to play along though …

  3. Riccardo on 21st October 2009 11:17 pm

    So what do we have to offer Indonesia in return?

  4. The Piping Shrike on 21st October 2009 11:26 pm


  5. Graham on 22nd October 2009 2:02 pm

    I know what Indonesia would really like, and that is to be taken off the DFAT Traveling advisory list where it current sits near the top.

    Its not just important for tourism, it effects all sort of people to people links as well.

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