Friday, 30 October 2009
In the meantime what you’ve got is an escalating situation in terms of how you are being perceived by Australians, how you’re being perceived by Indonesians and how you’re being perceived in the region and in the rest of the world as to how you are conducting yourself with these refugees.
Kerry O’Brien to Stephen Smith on The 7.30 Report
Actually he hasn’t got any of these things. While the anti-asylum seeker sentiment is not as hot as it was in 2001, because of the international context, neither is pro-asylum sentiment likely to be hot the other way. Irrespective of what is happening with the Oceanic Viking, public opinion is likely to be fairly unchanged.
The same cannot be said of the media. Over the last week it has undergone a bizarre flip-flop over how they have interpreted the politics of this issue. Last week Rudd was walking a tightrope against passionate anti-immigrant Cronulla-beach fury that was threatening Rudd’s popularity like it did Beazley’s in 2001. Now this week, Rudd apparently has to contend with the opposite, i.e. that his treatment is likely to drag Australia’s reputation through the mud once again as outrage grows over the treatment of the 78 Sri Lankan refugees.
The strange thing about the media’s expectation that Rudd will come under pressure is why the media has chosen now to see a problem. It is not just the particular case of the Oceanic Viking, where it could be argued that the government has perhaps reacted more reasonably than other cases, given that all that has happened is that an Australian ship picked up a distressed vessel in international waters on Indonesia’s request and took it to the nearest port. As the Indonesian Foreign Minister admitted, Indonesia would be expected to take the boat’s occupants irrespective of what it had agreed with Australia.
But more importantly, there has been no change in government policy. Labor’s immigration policy now is in reality no different to what it has been since it came to power and in fact is little different from Howard’s in the final years of his government. There has been an ‘Indonesian solution’ for years, with a bit of a break following Howard’s games over East Timor, but subsequently resumed. Those Australian funded detention camps in Indonesia did not spring up overnight.
What has changed is the political presentation. Howard had been forced to make a virtue out Australia’s isolation when the wave of asylum seekers started to build at the end of the 1990s, and hung on to that line even when it no longer fitted reality. The first clear sign that the link between immigration and the War on Terror was weakening was the Haneef fiasco and as we saw when the asylum issue first came back into the headlines in April, the political momentum of the debate is not what it was. Despite this, the government, probably paying too much attention to the media and without enough roots on the ground to confidently think otherwise, initially reacted as though asylum seekers was still a live issue. By last week, however, Rudd could relax and be a little more upfront about the regional solution that had been there all along (even if he couldn’t resist playing it up as a ‘new initiative’).
But in doing so he ended the morality play. For most of the last decade the media has seen the Howard government’s survival as resting on its ability to tap into deep sentiment in the Australian electorate (sensible or ‘dark’, depending on political tastes). Rudd was only supposed to have been able to come to power by aping Howard’s tactics, when in fact he has done exactly the opposite, one by one dismantling those so-called ‘powerful symbols’ of the Australian psyche, with no problems whatsoever.
For the media that relied so heavily on this narrative, adjustment has been difficult. It dived into this issue two weeks ago expecting a rerun of 2001. When none occurred, it conducted it on its own, starring in a morality play of one, leaving not only the Greens and a couple of voices from the ALP trailing in its wake, but the Liberals as well. This upfront role by the media is not just confined to commentators and editorials. The highly unusual editorialising coming from the ABC’s Chris Uhlmann sums up the changing way the media is seeing itself in the political vacuum.
Posted by The Piping Shrike on Friday, 30 October 2009.Filed under Media analysis