Walking straight into it

Friday, 2 September 2011 

There is no doubt that the High Court ruling is a political disaster for the government. This is not to say that it will necessarily be reflected in the next round of polls (it is hard to go down from this level as it is), but it now sets firmly in the media’s mindset at least a sense of the weak foundations of this government that go beyond a carbon tax, a tawdry sex scandal or resentment over a leadership change.

This is all about political authority, not the refugees themselves. But then that is all the asylum issue has ever been about anyway, for government of either persuasion. Just as the fate of indigenous communities is merely a sideshow to the state grappling with its weakness at home, so the misery of refugees is merely collateral damage for the real game of the both sides of the political class grappling with the state’s authority over its borders.

This is why trying to play the asylum debate through numbers never works. Highlighting how few asylum seekers actually come to Australia, especially when compared to those who come by plane and overstay their visa, is irrelevant as far as this debate goes. Overstaying a visa has not become a test of government authority like controlling refugee boats has, ever since Howard decided to make it so (something “we will decide”) in the heady days after Tampa and 9/11.

The subtext behind the asylum debate over the last few years is how to manage the issue now that the passing of the War on Terror has revived that problem of authority. Rudd’s strategy was to downplay it, talk of there being no silver bullet and turn into a vague, unsolvable regional problem. It was something that worked reasonably well, especially with the Ashmore Reef incident, until the government itself started to lose authority after Copenhagen and Rudd came under pressure to beef the rhetoric up, resulting in the Oceanic Viking fiasco.

Those that did put Rudd under pressure, when they took over themselves, naturally beefed it up even further. In doing so they committed a fatal blunder: they thought the problem was the symptom, rather than the erosion of political authority that lay behind it. So the first thing Gillard did was to ‘fix’ the problem around the lack of control over the borders. She brought the asylum issue to centre stage and make it central to her case for taking over and her own political authority.

Effectively the government staked its authority over an issue that not only did it have little control of with regional partners, ignoring what Rudd had already found with Indonesia, but now with institutions at home as well. Against both she brought nothing to the table in political terms.

Commentators are dismayed at Gillard’s ‘outrageous’ attacks on the High Court, but what is really striking is how mild it is. Imagine if the High Court had handed down a similar decision to Howard in 2001 or 2002. There would have been accusations of being soft on terrorism and misguided laxness on the safety of Australia’ borders. From Gillard we have had little but a lawyer’s technical argument of re-writing the terms of the Migration Act, but there has been no political attack behind it, because Gillard had nothing political to say about border control beyond a justification for taking the leadership.

[The follow up post to Tuesday has been delayed]

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Friday, 2 September 2011.

Filed under The Australian state

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8 responses to “Walking straight into it”

  1. kymbos on 2nd September 2011 8:45 am

    You’re on very solid ground here, PS. Great work.

  2. Lorry on 2nd September 2011 2:20 pm

    Good post, but I feel that ‘controlling the boats’ as a ‘test of govt authority’ goes back further than the Tampa…

    It goes right back to 1992 when Labor introduced mandatory detention, thereby criminalising the seeking of asylum.

    It is that legislation, more so than the Tampa, that has led us to the shameful position we are in today…

  3. Riccardo on 2nd September 2011 5:47 pm

    So why didn’t the High Court hand down such a decision in 2001? Similar bench, fired up refugee advocates willing to pro bono, Nauru wasn’t member of UN refugee convention.

  4. The Piping Shrike on 2nd September 2011 6:05 pm

    I think there was the issue whether the processing was carried out by Australia or Nauru. Dare I say political factors may have also played a role?

    I think it is quite right to go back to Keating and mandatory detention, but I think it was Howard with the combination of rescuing a floundering government and the ‘opportunity’ presnted by 9/11, to make it central to the issue of political authority.

  5. Austin 3:16 on 3rd September 2011 7:51 am

    “Getting tough” on asylum seekers will never work for a Labor Government. Mainly because this is one of those issues where the Liberals will always be seen as “tougher” than Labor.

    The more Labor points out to the public that stopping the boats is important the bigger the plus for the Liberals.

  6. Riccardo on 5th September 2011 11:04 am

    Banquo’s ghost laughing quite loudly now – the NSW RIght always try to portray themselves as masters of the art and fixers, but when the problem is to their left they can’t fix it.

  7. Michael on 6th September 2011 5:07 pm

    This is not about the asylum seeker sideshow, but about the timing of the Rudd coup, rather than the fact that there was a coup. It occured to me today that by choosing to use the Resources rent tax as an excuse to move against Rudd, Gillard has empowered the governments opponents. Now every whinging self interested enemy of the people will feel like it’s worth a try against this weak government and that just drives away Labors own voters. Will we ever see good government again?

  8. Riccardo on 8th September 2011 11:49 am

    ^^I suspect there are a lot of ‘angry’ voters being polled out there who are part of the 73% not endorsing Labor – but who are not supportive if Liberal policies (explicit or implied) – in fact I wager a good proportion would be old fashioned ‘socialists’ in the Australian mould, and the sort Pauline used to harvest. People who would be more than happy to tax the mines harder to get money for redistribution.

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