Friday, 29 June 2012
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.
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