Somewhere deep in the Department of Immigration and Citizenship there must be a senior bureaucrat with a sense of work ethic tearing her/his hair out at how a half-arsed report by “experts” can now set the direction of policy on asylum seekers.

The Panel’s report is a cursory affair. On the central question of whether tough measures against asylum seekers actually do prevent boat arrivals, it does little more than point to the table on boat arrivals to show that such tough measures work.

Of course, the table does no such thing. First, because when TPVs were introduced by Howard in 1999 to separate asylum seekers from their families, it was followed by a thumping spike in arrivals – partly explained by the need for the women and children to have to accompany the asylum seekers as well, as explained by former Immigration Minister, Chris Evans:

The claim that the TPV introduction halted arrivals is not supported by the evidence. … In fact, in the period after that there was a huge surge. Our figures show that in that period the percentage of women and children went from around 25 per cent to around 40 per cent. We saw more women and children taking the very perilous journey to come to Australia by unlawful boat arrivals.

Secondly, the disappearance of boats after the Pacific Solution was introduced in 2001 wasn’t because the boats were no longer coming, just that they were being diverted to Nauru and so no longer counted in the statistics as arrivals (even though most of its passengers ended up here anyway). In other words, Howard’s Pacific Solution was little more than a statistical sleight of hand believed, it seemed, by naïve “experts” and right-wing ideologues who think that politicians saying they can decide who approaches a 26,000 kilometers coastline actually means something.

The Pacific Solution stopped neither the boats nor the deaths at sea, so there is no reason to suppose its revival will either. But then the report was not about policy, but a political fix-up, It’s why we have something for everyone; Nauru, Malaysia and increased intake, all slightly undermining each other as policy, but at least all the parties can give a little, get a little.

But Howard could get away with calling his ruse a “Solution” because while the War on Terror had an impact, questions were not asked – to the extent that even the idea that refugees who had risked their lives to bring their families to a better life would chuck their kids overboard could get a bit of a run. When the War on Terror faded, so did the illusion that we will decide and Rudd could come in and tone it down accordingly.

The revival of the Pacific Solution has not come because the political environment that enabled Howard to get away with it has returned, far from it. It has come at the end of a disastrous attempt by the power brokers of the ALP to regain control of their party on the basis that they knew how to “relate” to the electorate and banging on about asylum seekers was the way to do it. That effort has now staggered last over the finishing line and left the Gillard government winding up its rationale behind an independent unelected committee to propose the type of mess that those who were elected don’t want responsibility for.

Nevertheless Gillard is stuck with it. Now she is prone to attacks from the opposition as she tries to implement a policy that won’t do what it was supposed to. And who would better know how to expose a failed policy than those who tried to implement it in the first place?

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Wednesday, 15 August 2012.

Filed under The Australian state

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13 responses to “The day the Gillard government died – an update”

  1. F on 15th August 2012 1:34 pm

    Surely the main point for Gillard is to try and undermine the Coalition noise rather than to solve the problem? The number of people who will actually vote on the issue of asylum seeker treatment is pretty small, other concerns loom much larger, and in any event the majority of people support onshore processing. So the rights and wrongs of policy are pretty irrelevant here – and I am a bit surprised that you are blogging about them, given your normal attitude to these things Shrike? Surely you would be the last person to link the political impact of a policy to whether it actually works?

    It’s another example of the political conversation becoming totally divorced from reality with politicians and the media operating in a world of their own – a trend that can only be reinforced by media moguls who are more concerned about pushing an agenda rather than actually getting readers. Speaking of which, the Fin Review seems to be turning into a mini-me of The Australian these days – perhaps Fairfax has not realised that the massive circulation of the Oz is more due to selling at below cost price and having a monopoly in many parts of the country rather than the rabid right wing views of the population….

  2. Tom on 15th August 2012 4:58 pm

    Here’s the Australian’s first attempt at explaining why the number of arrivals will not now reduce.

    “… fears remain that rhetoric from the time [the Rudd asylum seeker policy was in force] has destroyed the deterrent effect of re-establishing offshore processing on Nauru …”

    “… fears remain in Canberra that the effectiveness of the measures has been reduced by Senator Evans’s rhetoric and a sleight of hand with data from his time as immigration minister …”

  3. The Piping Shrike on 15th August 2012 5:20 pm

    F, I guess what I was trying to say was that the Pacific Solution wasn’t really policy, but a political manoeuvre posing as one, the conditions for which no longer exist.

    In that way it is different from a Rudd-ite technocrat move, which would first rely on it being depoliticised – which certainly hasn’t happened here. Without the cover of the War on Terror, I think the political manoeuvre would be more easily exposed. For example, deaths at sea during the last Pacific Solution could be brushed off politically, could that happen now?

    Must admit I wasn’t aware of the circulation power of The Australian. I had thought its dominance was confined to the nation’s airport lounges and the consciousness of our febrile political class.

  4. Northern Steve on 15th August 2012 5:22 pm

    The Coalition at least have an out (of sorts) if this doesn’t work, in that their amendments didn’t get up. They still passed the bill so can’t be blamed for nOt being supportive, but will be able to wash their hands of any failures (‘we wanted something different’). I isn’t hope this issue comes off the front pages now.

  5. F on 15th August 2012 5:30 pm

    Yes I can see how Howard may have got an easier time of it by linking to the war on terror, but I think it has more to do with the instinctive feeling of most Australian journalists of all political persuasions that really the liberals belong in power.

    Have just been inspired to go and look at circulation figures and indeed the Australian’s are pretty piss poor – which makes it all the more strange that the Fin seems to be using it as a role model, and also rather strange that it gets given as much respect as people seem to give it….

  6. Rob on 15th August 2012 6:33 pm

    Do you have figures for the diversions to Nauru (and Manus I assume)?

  7. The Piping Shrike on 15th August 2012 6:46 pm

    1,637 according to that APH link above. So, after allowing for boats turned back and sinkings, it apparently did little more than track the world-wide trends in asylum applications.

  8. Persse on 16th August 2012 12:28 am

    Cogent and spot on.

  9. jane on 16th August 2012 5:33 pm

    Unluckily for the Nopposition, the Pacific Solution just means stopping the boats and sending asylum seekers to Nauru.

    When it doesn’t stop anything, the perception will be that Abbott’s much touted “Pacific Solution” doesn’t work and will be used as a blunt instrument to force the Nopposition to the negototiation table.

  10. The Piping Shrike on 16th August 2012 6:56 pm

    Think more likely that they will just say it wasn’t implemented properly.

    The crucial concesssion they have now won is Labor agreeing it worked last time.

  11. F on 19th August 2012 9:45 pm

    Why is Australia focussed on this debate? Is it worth three Shrike posts? Is it worth all of the acres of newsprint? The actual “problem” is not exactly number one on the Australian agenda in terms of actual importance… even if we are getting 20,000 people a year, how much is that going to cost? maybe $2 bn/year to deal with… but compare that to the cost of healthcare or education and it is not terribly significant. What are the key challenges facing Australia? Probably strategically, Chinese economic turmoil in the short term and China’s rise in the long term. Economically, probably dealing with an oncoming slump in the resources sector in the short term, but also dealing with the problems of infrastructure and education, as well as an ageing workforce.

    So why focus on this as a political issue? Well for the politicians it is an issue where talking tough can be presented as being cruel to be kind, so appealing to those who like the tough talk but not in a way which is too off putting. For the coalition it harks back to the “golden years” of Howard rule (rather easy being PM during the NICE era). The media gets lots of spectacular shots of people on boats (is it any wonder that shots of people arriving in airport departure lounges are not featured so often?).

    So why would an intelligent writer of political blogs (and associated commenters) feel the need to concentrate on this issue? Who knows…

  12. The Piping Shrike on 19th August 2012 10:17 pm

    Thanks for the “intelligent”.

    I write about it not because it has much to do with immigration or, as I have mentioend before, even what the electorate is concerned about, but because asylum seekers is about how the political class understands itself, which is why they can’t leave it alone. As so, it is revealing on the nature of politics today, which is what this blog is about.

  13. dedalus on 20th August 2012 8:30 am

    “The crucial concesssion they have now won is Labor agreeing it worked last time.”

    Sadly, exactly. And this falls in with a long-standing, unfortunate habit of the progressive side of not challenging conservative myths.

    Perhaps the most successful political strategy is to use inflated or devious language to shapeshift perceptions. The conservatives are masters of it. It’s simple: they have a natural alliance with the media (capitalism’s mouthpiece).

    Lacking its own shock jocks, mainstream outlets and propaganda machine, the progressive side just keeps going backwards.

    A charismatic populist is what is needed. Logic and policy are too hard for normal people to comprehend.

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