A pathetic attempt to look in control

Thursday, 15 October 2009 

I make absolutely no apology whatsoever for taking a hard line on illegal immigration to Australia.

K Rudd 14 October 2009

Apology to whom? Rudd’s tough guy talk, for what is a fairly popular stance, sums up the grandstanding that’s dogged immigration discussion over the last decade. If there is any apologising to be done, it is probably to those he is wrongly accusing of being illegal, since seeking asylum is obviously not against the law. Indeed given that Rudd himself listed the major ‘push factors’ as the war in Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, they are likely mostly to be found to have a case. What is illegal is overstaying a visa and the main culprits are actually the Brits, gawd bless ‘em, followed by the Americans.

Anyway, if the current fuss about boat people was purely about restricting immigration and asylum seekers, why isn’t there more made about the far greater numbers that seek asylum by plane? It is, of course, because this is nothing to do with numbers, or even immigration, but the fact that nothing symbolises the lack of control of our political class than a vessel chock full of foreigners drifting towards our shores.

Paul Kelly in his book March of Patriots describes quite well the background to Howard’s politicising of boat refugees nearly a decade ago that came not just from political opportunism, as it is almost wholly viewed, but also as a reaction to a lack of control Howard faced here and overseas.

Kelly notes that the first time the immigration issue took this form was during the exodus of Vietnamese refugees during Fraser’s time in the late 1970s. This is a suitable starting point because the fall of Vietnam that precipitated it, marked the start of what has underpinned this entire debate, the unravelling of order in the region. The US’s defeat marked the end of a century of Western dominance in the region, on which Australia had so much relied and has been forced to manage ever since.

When Australia faced the first wave of boat refugees in the 1970s and a second wave from China in the early 1990s, regional relations were still in place, so that most of the processing of refugees was done off-shore. By the end of the 1990s, however, a decade after the end of the Cold War and Clintonian drift in international relations, Howard found that much of those relations in the region to manage immigration were no longer there. Kelly quotes Keating putting his finger on the problem Howard faced with border protection:

… he doesn’t have the region on side, he can’t negotiate an agreement with Indonesia and that means he can’t solve the problem.

In part, Howard was forced to find a different response because of the deterioration of Australia’s influence in the region.

The other problem was of course at home. Howard had spent five years bouncing from one initiative to another trying to give his government a sense of purpose. One, his attempt to stir up secession movements in East Timor, nearly went spectacularly wrong when Indonesia called his bluff and encouraged a referendum. Using a major neighbour as a fall guy for political purposes is a bit tricky, using a couple of hundred vulnerable refugees is easier. Acting tough against the vulnerable gave Howard the issue to make him appear like the conviction politician he always wanted. Given Beazley agreed in principle (which was inevitable given that it was Keating and Socialist Left faction member Gerry Hand who gave us mandatory detention camps in the first place) Howard could get away with it.

A decade later and the international situation has somewhat improved. Ironically just as Howard was beefing up the immigration threat, the US was beefing up the terrorist threat following 9/11 and combined with the common interest over the Bali bombings, gave the grounds for a new footing with relations with our largest neighbour that we saw on the display this week. Even if Indonesia looked to have to be reminded for a favour for which no doubt there will be payment in kind, it at least allowed Rudd to look as though there would be a solution.

But the internal problems are still there. Chris Uhlmann castigated Rudd for not using his political capital to take a less populist line on asylum seekers, but in reality there is no political capital. Rudd’s popularity is real and sustainable for at least some while, but not because he has a firm base of support in society. This is a Prime Minster detached from his own party which in turn is detached from society as a whole. Rudd’s political strength comes from his ability to accommodate to the exhaustion of the old politics and a favourable international climate, plus the inability of the opposition to deal with either. However, none of this provide a firm base on which to take unpopular decisions, despite the polling numbers, and it is why this government rarely does. It is why we have a government that is obsessive about responding to the media in a way that seems out of all proportion to their lead in the polls. So, despite their best intentions, the temptation to respond by targeting another group of rootless drifting individuals seems to be too much to pass up.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Thursday, 15 October 2009.

Filed under Tactics

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3 responses to “A pathetic attempt to look in control”

  1. Ben on 17th October 2009 1:57 pm

    I wonder about this most recent boat incident involving 256 Sri Lankan Tamils. The spokesman for the group had a US/Canadian accent. How is that possible?

    About two weeks ago, talks were held between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and External Affairs Minister S M Krishna to consider granting Indian citizenship to Lankan refugees in Tamil Nadu, India:

    Centre to consider granting Indian citizenship to Lankan refugees – Sat 03 Oct 2009

    Last I looked, India and Sri Lanka are playing cricket together, with a number of players for Sri Lanka being imports from Tamil Nadu.

    If the recent asylum seekers are genuine, then they have the option to fly to Tamil Nadu (Colombo to Chennai about $118) or cheaper ferry/bus/train and apply for relocation at UNHCR camp at say Palar Anaicut in Vellore district.

    With the people smuggler boat fare set at $15,000, then that is a saving of $14,882 just there in doing the legal option.

    What is really going on? Is this economic asylum shopping or genuine asylum seekers with money to burn apparently?

  2. James on 19th October 2009 5:51 pm

    One letter to the West from a Sri Lankan claimed they were Tamil Tiger agents trying to infiltrate Australia.

  3. The Piping Shrike on 20th October 2009 7:15 pm

    Is the status of these refugees relevant? It seems academic since the Australian government appears too scared to even consider their application.

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