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