Something has to give this week or sometime soon as a circuit-breaker in what is policy dysfunction and a failure on behalf of the Australian community.

Rob Oakeshott

They only have themselves to blame. Let’s not forget this.

Rob Oakeshott may think it’s a failure of the Australian community, but it’s really a failure of the political class that he came in to rescue on Wednesday. So before Rob Oakeshott gets on his moral high horse and clip clops away, let’s just recall what the failed Australian community actually thinks.

This blog is going to throw something wild and crazy out into the ether, in a way that only a detached blog on the internet can – asylum seekers might not be that important an issue in voter-land.

OK, completely crazy. Anyone who listens to talk-back radio will know that this is just silly and that interesting personalities like Big Bob Francis have made a career out of its importance.

It’s just that it never seems to appear as a leading issue in opinion polls. Newspoll, who track such things, never seem to find asylum seekers as anywhere near as important as the issues that directly affect voters such as economy, unemployment, health and education. Even leadership(!) rates as more important.

But get this. Not only do the polls suggest that asylum seekers are not the big deal that politicians seem to think they are, but despite all the fretting over which is the best offshore solution, the public doesn’t even want it. Polls show that understandably, most of the public thinks that if they arrived they may as well be processed on-shore. On-shore processing is the preferred option even among Coalition voters. What is clear right across the board is that Abbott’s “turning the boats back” is not seriously considered, even by his own supporters.

So why does it seem so important? Why is it, that no matter how many times the sophisticated part of the commentary remind us of how few asylum seekers arrive by boat (as opposed to English/US backpackers by plane), it never seems to deal with what the issue is about?

Some context first. When in 1992 that nice Socialist Left Gerry Hand, then Minister for Immigration, later, amusingly, Australia’s UNHCR representative, introduced mandatory detention, it was to deal with Cambodian and Vietnamese boat refugees who in those days were flooding in at the rate of 78 a year. The initial legislation removed access to judicial review and allowed detention for a maximum 278 days, later made indefinite in 1994.

So when Howard inherited it in 1996, he had a detention system that neatly allowed boat people to be treated outside the legal system – as Hand made clear at the time:

The most important aspect of this legislation is that it provides that a court cannot interfere with the period of custody. I repeat: the most important aspect of this legislation is that it provides that a court cannot interfere with the period of custody. No law other than the Constitution will have any impact on it.

The removal of those entering the country from judicial protection and at the mercy of the executive, was a long-standing proud tradition in immigration policy that is still there with the Minister’s wide discretionary powers enshrined in the Migration Act of 1958.

The wide-powers assumed by the government in 1958 reflected the strong political consensus of the White Australia Policy that backed immigration policy. As that consensus eroded in the 1970s and 1980s, so did the ability to flaunt the discretion in the Act.

However, the resumption of that executive discretion with the introduction of mandatory detention under Keating, and its subsequent strengthening under Howard represented the opposite of what it had been before. Whereas the powers of the Migration Act reflected a strong political consensus in the 1950s, politicians returned to the immigration issue as means of rediscovering the political authority they had lost.

But it was the 2001 election after Tampa and 9/11 that really brought out the new role asylum seeker policy played. The 2001 election was a key moment in how both sides of the political class understood its relationship to an electorate from which it was becoming increasingly detached. For Labor, it allowed them to understand the success of Howard not on their own failings but on Howard’s supposed ability to tap into the deep psychosis of the Australian electorate. For the Liberals it flattered them to think that they had done so.

It was why politicos preferred to think of the 2001 election as the “Tampa election” rather than being driven by the far more significant events of 9/11. It sparked off the tedious cultural wars of the right and the left and intellectuals talking about what “real” Australians think, when of course, they are just talking about themselves.

But it was much more than that. Controlling borders became the touchstone of the political class’s own sense of authority. When Howard said “We will decide”, it was a moment of triumphalism that was backed by the War on Terror. But in reality that triumphalism was fairly shallow. Howard never achieved the political consensus the left claimed and as far as asylum policy went, sending them offshore was a way of avoiding the political difficulties of enacting a policy on-shore that never had a strong consensus.

When national security faded in importance so did that triumphalism. The key event that marked the end of it was the Haneef affair in 2007. The judiciary challenge to the Minister’s discretionary powers over the visa of what had been a suspected terrorist indicated that the political consensus behind those powers had again fallen away.

Rudd’s toning down of some of Howard’s measures was recognition of the lack of political consensus. Just how successful was this toning down was probably shown by the way the Ashmore Reef incident in 2009 became a political non-event, even when asylum seekers were found to have put both themselves and Navy personnel at risk with the sabotage of the boat’s engine.

However, even though the heat had been taken out of the asylum issue, the legacy of 2001 remained embedded in the outlook of the major parties. It was the prism through which the erosion of Rudd’s authority was understood, especially when the Oceanic Viking was left drifting off the Indonesian coast.

It was why when Rudd was overthrown, and all Labor’s insecurities came to the fore, Labor saw its detachment from its base as a problem of being too soft on asylum seekers. So we had all the political genius of Sussex St come out with such spectacularly successful results.

It’s because this is really about how the political class sees itself which is why it has so little to do with what the electorate actually thinks. It is also why it is irrelevant how many more come by plane than by boat – nothing shows the political class’s impotence more than its inability to stop a drifting boat full of hapless refugees. Those who try to “win” the debate by constantly pointing out their small numbers miss the point. Controlling the borders is about political authority and not really much to do with asylum seekers. Refugees are just pawns in the political class’s wrangling about its own authority.

Sooner or later asylum seeker policy ends up not managing the underlying weakness but exposing it. That’s why since Gillard assumed the leadership, asylum seeker policy has been one humiliation after another, yet making the government even more desperate to keep coming back to it to try and find a solution.

Wednesday was a sign of how low it will go to find that elusive authority. The Oakeshott Bill removed even further protections for asylum seekers in what is already one of the most anti-immigrant pieces of legislation in the developed world. It was intended to help the government get out of a mess entirely of its own making. Of course it did nothing to help asylum seekers, but then, that’s not what it’s ever been about.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Friday, 29 June 2012.

Filed under The Australian state

Tags: , , , ,


17 responses to “Asylum seekers: a panic of the political class – an update”

  1. Alex White on 29th June 2012 9:12 am

    As we have seen in the US, when both major parties cannot agree, the issue (whatever it is) becomes used as a political positioning tool by one side or the other (or both). As Mumble said, it’s in the interest of the Liberals and Greens political party to continue to the boat people dramas — so regardless of what Labor does or proposes, there will never be bipartisan support for a policy.

  2. mick smetafor on 29th June 2012 9:21 am

    i never hear anyone talking about this at any time other than when a tragedy occurs and when the local liberal bufoon(baldwin)tried recently to whip up some interest with a meeting he got about six people and a couple of stray dogs to attend.

  3. F on 29th June 2012 10:19 am

    Finally someone has said it!

    I find it hilarious when MP’s say on camera how “Australia is watching us” when they discuss the so called ‘failures’ of the parliament in regards to Asylum policy. No one is watching and no one cares, except for political saddo’s.

    Don’t kid yourselves.

  4. Riccardo on 29th June 2012 2:00 pm

    I love this stuff. Definitely in the political ‘saddo’ camp.

    I thought TPS might blog how the whole ‘pollies failed us’ meme is the Meeja getting back at the political class becoz for the last couple of weeks it has been the pollies dumping on the Meeja eg Fairfax.

    Conroy in particular has been going to town, him of the internet blocking fame.

    What has also been interesting is to watch some ABC journos being more strident in letting their opinions be known, generally anti-Lib (be nice to the refugees) but also anti-Green (it is ‘realistic’ to send them to Malaysia).

    When is my preferred governmental arrangement – benign authoritarianism – coming? This farce is becoming so ridiculous I have to shield my gaze from any newspaper headline or television. Joe Hockey crying, Bob Katter – I can’t take it any more!

  5. Dr_Tad on 29th June 2012 4:34 pm

    A very good post, TPS. I’ll use this opportunity to shamelessly promote my own bit on this from Overland yesterday:

  6. ana australiana on 30th June 2012 10:45 am

    Very thought-provoking post, thankyou TPS.

    What do you mean exactly by “the political class” in this instance – people who are employed by/otherwise invested in the process of state decision-making….?

    Also, is one implication of your thesis that a re-connection of “the electorate” with “the political class” might see a different response to asylum seekers?

    I’ve tended to think the lack of interest in asylum policy by electors as you’ve outlined here is partly a function of the way the actual experiences and voices of asylum seekers is absent from the debate and the decision-making. Which, I suppose, is a logical outcome if politicos are only interested in each other.

  7. The Piping Shrike on 30th June 2012 9:00 pm

    On the political class, it’s a good question, as it is in the process of becoming clear who this includes. I guess I mean those that have an interest in resolving the problems of authority of the political parties, which lie behind the asylum debate – the parties themselves, the (many!) hanger-ons, and those in the media who are caught up in it and share their outlook.

    Certainly it seems that the electorate think very different from the way the political class talk about it. I suppose a reconnection with the electorate would have to address that, but at the moment we don’t seem to be heading in that direction. I think the lack of interest comes from no one making a convincing case why there should be.

    I do think though that for now the difference between the politicos’ view and others should be made clear on this issue – so they don’t use us as an excuse for what they are doing.

    Dr T, always welcome self-promotion, except if you’re a Canadian pharmacy!

  8. Marilyn on 1st July 2012 7:24 am

    the refugees in 2009 did not sabotage the motor of that boat, petrol fumes burst into flames.

  9. The Piping Shrike on 1st July 2012 12:08 pm

    The coronial enquiry concluded they did.

  10. Adamite on 2nd July 2012 8:49 pm

    PS – I may be wrong but I took Oakshott to be referring to the failure of the politicians, not the Australian community, as the problem which needed to be addressed. Based on that reading the events of last week could actually be read as the moment when the dominant partisan discourse on the asylum seeker issue was finally challenged by a small number of politicians who were no longer prepared to accept the partisan game in the face of so many tragic deaths at sea. The problem, of course, is that any such responses prompted by the moral conscience of the individual are inevitably strangled by the broader dictates of party unity within the Parliament.

  11. The Piping Shrike on 2nd July 2012 10:47 pm

    Think you are right re. what Oakeshott said. But his bill aimed at watering down protection on asylum seekers so they could be shunted to Malaysia (and Iran, Afghanistan etc.) so it didn’t do much for asylum seekers. I think it was more about solving the problems of Parliament and the government than dealing with deaths at sea.

    I think you’re right though that last week marked a turning point. Less because of the Oakeshott bill, but because of what happened after – the referral of the government’s asylum policy to committee.

  12. ilyas252 on 7th July 2012 11:29 am

    the problem with politics is that we have a two party system; generally a percentage of the population will vote for A or B- polling statistics will demonstrate this.

    to effect a swing you only need a small percentage of that voting block to go either way.

    so even if boat people is not a major issue, there is I suggest, a sufficient number of rat-bags for whom this is an issue and they will vote accordingly.

    the irony is that it is never a majority who vote a or b in; just a (usually) small number of swingers.

  13. Marilyn on 7th July 2012 7:00 pm

    The inquest did not conclude that they did. Do not slander people.

  14. The Piping Shrike on 8th July 2012 8:52 am

    Ilyas I think swinging voters rank asylum seekers even less than the rusted-ons do.

    MS, the coroner’s finding I’m looking at delivered on 17 March 2010 at the NT Coroners Court found that the explosion that killed five people was caused by the passenger/s deliberately lighting petrol that had been deliberately spilled in the boat. You’re right he concluded it was not the passengers but the crew members that had earlier put salt in the motor, but it did not cause the explosion. None of it really much to do with the point I was making, but there you go.

  15. Marilyn on 13th July 2012 6:46 am

    Well as the stupid coroner could not prove that and as no-one was charged for it surely to god it was not true?

    No-one lit a frigging cigarette lighter because they didn’t have any to light.

  16. This could take a while: The slow agony of the Gillard government - Left FlankLeft Flank on 4th September 2012 2:23 pm

    […] blame all politicians for the mess, seeing their actions as narrowly cynical. As The Piping Shrike has pointed out, there is little evidence that the asylum issue has been a substantial vote-switcher, even if most […]

  17. Some thoughts on the Biennale boycott and the state - Left Flank on 15th March 2014 10:58 pm

    […] at most a second or third order issue in the electorate. In that sense it inadvertently plays into the panic of the political class on the […]

Comments are closed.