Still searching for 2001

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

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8 responses to “Still searching for 2001”

  1. kymbos on 30th October 2009 12:50 pm

    So what has changed since 2001? From dispiriting personal experience, I believe that many otherwise decent people were convinced in 2001 by a dishonest government and an insipid and lazy media that asylum seeking boat people posed a genuine risk to our country and our way of life. I’m not sure they were very concerned, but if told by our government that there was a risk, they were willing to believe it.

    Now, in 2009, is the only thing that has changed a more reasoned and less inflammatory government? That is, now that we’re told it’s not a huge issue, we are willing to give the new government the benefit of the doubt?

    Or are we more informed than we were? I guess the fact that the sky didn’t collapse after all, and most asylum seekers have turned out to be genuine refugees, might be assisting. But I doubt the level of active interest by the public.

    As you note, the media is left playing catch up, having safely assumed there a rich vein of latent racism to be tapped with an issue like this.

    I’m forming the view it’s mostly down to a more decent and rational message from government – you change the government, you change the country sort of stuff. Supported by the better part of a decade for some of the truth to filter through. Would be interested in your view.

  2. The Piping Shrike on 30th October 2009 7:54 pm

    In my view, the heat went out of the asylum issue even while Howard was in, as the political power of the War on Terror faded. The clearest example was the way Howard couldn’t even use the terrorist bogeyman to get the judiciary to detain Haneef.

    Rudd’s initial comments showed even he was unsure about how the issue played. His initial criminalising of asylum seekers was totally unnecessary and it was no surprise he backed away from it later.

    Of course none of this means anything has improved for the asylum seekers themselves …

  3. monica on 30th October 2009 10:15 pm

    Weeell, TPS, actually the changes the Labor Party has made while in government has, in my experience, made a substantial difference. In my area of work, Western Suburbs/Melbourne, there are significant numbers of people who are refugees. Let me assure you and other readers, they are very relieved to not have to be virtual slaves for the rest of their lives to pay back the so called debt for their detention, for example.

  4. The Piping Shrike on 31st October 2009 7:50 am

    I think you’re right, some things like ending the need to repay for detention and TPVs have made it easier for those who are here. On the other hand, the government looks as though it is working pretty hard to restrict people from getting here in the first place.

  5. hannah on 31st October 2009 6:53 pm

    Don’t agree with any of the four comments I have just read which all seem very left-leaning. I think that most people, self included, are just so over the debate – it is all so samey – but it is not that there is a different viewpoint about illegal immigration suddenly becoming okay. I am sure it still offends most people’s sense of fairness. What about all the poor people who can’t afford people smugglers and are stuck in refugee camps in holes like Pakistan etc etc. We are all tuned out but keep them coming and as St. Kevin’s halo starts to diminish it will be another thing.

  6. Goode Luck on 1st November 2009 3:46 am

    The gods are still smiling on Kev.

    The 78 seekers are now said to have lived up to 5 years in Indonesia. Makes their boat trip a bit of a set up. No sympathy for them now. And makes it a simple matter for Indonesia to take them ‘back’.

    Kev has no halo, I think after years of Howard many people suddenly realised how sinister he was and Kev be comparison is the saviour from the dark place we were about to be dragged into.

  7. Ozymandias on 1st November 2009 6:22 pm

    The only thing about which I would disagree, TPS, is that Chris Uhlman’s editorialising is “highly Unusual” -he’s always doing it.

  8. The Piping Shrike on 1st November 2009 10:36 pm

    You’re quite right, I more meant unusual for an ABC Chief Political correspondent. Brissenden had enough trouble telling us what Costello thought, let alone his own opinions.

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