Hey, where did all those people on the left go?

Hey, where did all those people on the left go?

LEIGH SALES: The de facto asylum seeker policy in Australia at the moment is onshore processing which is the Greens policy. We’re seeing the results of that policy, dozens of boats coming to Australia, boats sinking at sea, people dying, how many boats will have to sink before the Greens reconsider their position on this?

Leigh Sales to Christine Milne 27 June 2012

Indonesia is a transit country and also the victim of this situation. I think it’s not possible for the Coalition to say that it has to go back to Indonesia because Indonesia is not the origin country of these people. No such collaboration will happen between Indonesia and Australia (to) bring back the people to Indonesia.

I don’t think this issue will be asked by Mr Abbott. We never talked about it. It’s never been discussed.

Indonesian Ambassador 31 May 2013

Ah, 2012! Things were so certain back then.

Just a year ago, when 90 asylum seekers drowned in waters between Christmas Island and Indonesia, everyone knew exactly what to do. Bring back the Pacific Solution. Caught up in this steamroller of certainty at the time were the Greens, whose policy was against offshore processing.

A problem with the Greens is their tendency to take what are sometimes quite sensible policy positions and turn them into points of high moral principle. As a result their policy on asylum seekers became vulnerable against the moral imperative of deaths at sea. It meant interviewers like Leigh Sales, imbued like much of our media with the thinking of our political class, could get on her own moral high horse and clip clop off to do battle.

There is a very prosaic reason for being against the Pacific Solution. It doesn’t work. Something we now know as the boats, and the deaths, continue after its reintroduction. How the two major parties ended up being stuck defending a policy that doesn’t work is testament to the mess they are in and the role the asylum seeker panic has played in managing that mess.

Asylum seeker policy has long been an obsession of our political class out of all proportion to its importance in the electorate. Despite voters continually telling disinterested pollsters that their main concerns are health, education, the economy etc., both major parties continue to project their own obsession with asylum seekers on the electorate.

The latest, more sophisticated version of this projection is to admit that while not all voters are so worked up about asylum seekers, it is playing “big” in key electorates that will decide this election – as though (under current leadership) this election hasn’t been decided already. Laurie Ferguson may think it’s asylum seeker policy that’s killing Labor in western Sydney, now he just has to find an explanation for the rest of the country.

Asylum seekers are an obsession of our governing parties because it encapsulates their two key concerns over the last twenty years: eroding authority and national sovereignty, especially for the Coalition, and an eroding social base, especially for Labor. From the early 1990s, both these concerns have come to the fore with the twin ending of the international framework provided by the Cold War and the end of Labor’s (and hence non-Labor’s) historic role under Hawke/Keating. Against these more intractable problems, fretting about asylum seekers has become an increasingly important displacement activity for both parties.

It is why asylum seeker policy often has little do with what actually works (let alone is humane). Rather it is more as a reaction to profounder problems to which neither Labor nor the Coalition have answers. Keating brought in mandatory detention in 1992 and indefinite detention in 1994, still the boats kept coming. Howard brought in TPVs in 1999 to split up families, and still the boats kept coming (in fact even more so as entire families crammed onto boats).

It was especially during the floundering early years of the Howard government that the asylum seeker issue became seen as a touchstone of the government’s loss of authority – a point highlighted by a certain Shadow Minister for Immigration at the time who decried every boat arrival as a “policy failure”. In his book, March of Patriots Paul Kelly described Howard’s position in mid-2001:

The overall story up to August 2001 is that Howard was losing his war with the people smugglers. The weapons of TPVs, tougher detention and curbing judicial review had caused a huge political row for little practical gain.

Howard’s only solution was to escalate it further by bringing in the Navy and the ADF and, of course, it was the Tampa that became the opportunity.

There was a lot that could have gone wrong with Howard’s escalation of the issue with the storming of Tampa. The use of military forces for what was still not seen then as a security issue had the potential to cause some disgruntlement in the armed forces (as it did at the time). It also still left the question as to what to do with the asylum seekers that were taken in, a question that Howard had no answer for, resulting in their being left in limbo in offshore processing before finally mostly being resettled in Australia and New Zealand anyway. This Pacific Solution was really no solution at all but a bi-product of an escalation that Howard had nowhere to take.

Yet what enabled Howard to politically get away with his escalation of the asylum issue in August were the terrorist attacks in New York a month later. 9/11 and the War on Terror gave important advantages to Howard’s managing of the asylum issue. First it gave an after-the-event justification for the use of the military to deal with asylum seekers, by allowing Defense Minster Reith to explicitly (and Howard more slyly) to link terrorism and asylum seekers. It also firmed up political support for the limbo the asylum seekers were stuck in for, as the nation’s jails testify, detaining people is generally not a problem if there is seen to be a reason.

However the most lasting and important benefit of the War on Terror was to provide the political framework for relations with the only country that could provide any real way of stopping the boats crossing into Australian waters, the country to the north that would prevent them getting there in the first place. As the world’s largest Muslim nation, Indonesia was keen to make sure it was on the right side of the growing divide, something made more urgent after the Bali bombings. The result was a sharp change in Indonesian-Australian relations that had been damaged by Howard’s intervention in East Timor secession in 1998, and greater cooperation to stopping the flow of refugees. Kelly again:

In mid-2001 Ruddock went to Jakarta to seek better co-operation and was rebuffed. ‘The Indonesians told me bluntly they weren’t prepared to detain people for Australia,’ he says. ‘I think they were amused that instead of them being blamed, Australia was now being blamed for detention. It was only after 9/11 and Bali bombing that Indonesia started to rethink.’

These new relations were formalised under the “Bali process” which allowed cooperation on people movement. Along with the greater global restrictions on refugee movement after 9/11, it was Indonesian cooperation that provided a more important support for the slowing of boat numbers, rather than failed punitive measures like TPVs.

If the Coalition was on firmer ground after 9/11, Labor was not. The 2001 loss crystallised a growing despondency from the 1990s with dwindling union membership and questions about the loss of its social base. Seeing this eroding connection with its social base as a problem of being soft on asylum seekers was more palatable than it being due to the end of Labor’s historic role. So the 2001 election became known in the collective left imagination as the Tampa election than the 9/11 election it so clearly was.

From this understanding, the only way to get their supporters back was to toughen up on asylum seekers. The afore-mentioned Shadow Minister for Immigration drafted the notorious 2002 Labor policy that included support for mandatory detention, short term use of TPVs and using the Coast Guard to turn boats back. As Gillard outlined to Conference in 2004 when opposing its watering down, this policy was supposed to be for electoral gain:

We’re here to get Labor elected. I never drafted policy to be the policy of a loser. I drafted it to win.

Of course, Labor didn’t win but went backwards at the next election, so giving an early example of the political astuteness that has fully flowered under her Prime Ministership.

This situation of the Coalition appearing in control and Labor trying to ape them, continued while the War on Terror had political resonance. As it faded by 2006, so did the political consensus unravel. Hicks, Cornelia Rau showed the growing unease of detention, and Howard’s attempt to extend the Pacific Solution in 2006, partly as a sop to Indonesian complaints over granting of refugee status to West Papuans, was eventually abandoned. The Haneef affair in 2007 showed that a lack of consensus over the war on Terror went to even the heart of the judiciary and the Lindsay leafleting fiasco showed that anti-Muslim scares had almost become a liability.

From this angle, while Labor went into 2007 election essentially with its 2002 policy, Rudd’s toning down of the rhetoric on asylum seekers was more a pragmatic response to the fading political framework that had allowed Howard to escalate it in 2001. After Labor came in, Rudd was able to depoliticise it further with the ending of TPVs and the Pacific Solution to the point that by 2008, the injuring of AFP in the Ashmore Reef explosion caused barely a stir. Despite boat numbers continuing their rise from 2006, Rudd could claim there was “no silver bullet” to stopping them, which, in fact, there wasn’t.

However, if Rudd’s toning down of asylum seekers was a pragmatic response to broader political factors, it was not a solution to the problems of the major parties. If anything these problems had become even worse under Rudd’s popular, technocratic style of government, light of any agenda except a touch of anti-politics.

The first to break were the Liberals who, after chewing through two leaders, turned in 2009 to one of their least popular options on the hope that at least he would save the “brand”. Abbott managed this seemingly impossible task of restoring an irrelevant brand by relying heavily on the Howard years. Even if the public had just voted it out two years before, it did at least give the veneer of electoral viability. Part of this reversion to Howard was to go back to the Pacific Solution, a policy the Liberals had abandoned the previous year because it had become seen as ineffectual and electoral poison.

Then it was Labor’s turn. With Rudd’s popularity falling after Copenhagen and then slumping after delaying the ETS, asylum seekers became seen as a pressure point on which Rudd needed to “act”. This understanding of Labor’s falling support through the prisms of asylum seekers reached a ludicrous point with the Penrith state by-election in early 2010, essentially a verdict on a corrupt state government but turned into a vote on Rudd’s soft approach on asylum seekers. While Laurie Ferguson thinks Labor needs to talk more about asylum seekers in 2013, he clearly has forgotten that that is precisely what Gillard did in 2010, whizzing the Member for Lindsay around in patrol boats and talking about a sustainable Australia etc. etc. – all to such spectacularly successful results.

The problem that both parties now face is that having raised the asylum seeker “problem” for internal party reasons, the external conditions for solving it are no more favourable than they were in 2007-2008. In essence, both parties have pretended to repeat what Howard did but without the factors that enabled Howard to get away with it after 9/11.

The Gillard government has found this out in spades, finding neither support internally or externally for stopping the flow. First there was the East Timor solution, that couldn’t even get the agreement of a small country heavily reliant on Australia for aid, then then there was the Malaysian solution, which got international agreement but not of the courts back home. Finally Gillard had to give in and hide behind the Houston Report from the Great and Good to bring back the Pacific Solution.

In a way the Houston report was a bit of a con. While it recommended harsher measures like bringing back offshore processing, it was supposed to be offset by nicer measures based on international cooperation. The trouble was no framework for such international cooperation exists. The Gillard government has been criticised for selectively choosing some of the report’s recommendations, but most other recommendations rely on cooperation with neighbouring countries who regard it as Australia’s problem, not theirs, and so could not be implemented anyway.

For the Coalition, Labor’s discomfort has been useful. Labor’s insistence on talking up the asylum seeker “problem” legitimised Abbott’s revival of the Howard record. The problem is, the more Labor implemented the Howard program, but without the factors that enabled it to work, the more the Coalition has been forced to justify why their revival of Howard’s asylum seeker policy would work any better. The Coalition had tried to wriggle out of it by arguing Labor needed to bring in the “full suite” of policies including TPVs, which didn’t work last time, and regional cooperation, especially with Indonesia. Now Indonesia has blown the gaff.

From a diplomatic viewpoint, the intervention of the Indonesian Ambassador is extraordinary. First, because it is such a blunt intervention into a sensitive internal political issue. Secondly, because the way it was done has effectively made fools of the Coalition and especially Abbott who keeps implying that he has been in talks with the Indonesian government to get support. A lack of Indonesian cooperation undermines not only the Coalition promise to turn the boats back, but the whole basis of their asylum policy. Finally, this was done to a party that is likely to be the government in a few months’ time. Maybe it’s just long overdue payback for East Timor.

Even before the Indonesian intervention, the Coalition was already trying to back off from its policy – a point missed in the fairly clumsy sub-editing of the Guardian’s interview with Bishop just prior to the Indonesian Ambassador’s statement. Bishop was clearly trying to distance from existing promises of what it could get from Indonesia, not reassert them as the headline suggests, a point only further emphasised by Bishop later.

The Indonesian undermining of one of the Coalition’s few distinctive policies should have been a godsend for Labor. The trouble is Labor can’t claim that it shows the Coalition can’t stop the boats when Labor has been telling the electorate for the last three years it can. It was left to Rudd, in his 730 interview, to say what any politician unencumbered by trying to defend Howard’s Pacific Solution would easily say: Abbott is a liar and his policy, like Labor’s, is a fraud.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 10 June 2013.

Filed under Key posts, State of the parties

Tags: , , , , ,


18 responses to “Whatever happened to the Asylum Seeker debate?”

  1. Chad on 10th June 2013 10:05 am

    1. The Pacific Solution has not been implemented.

    2. When it was, the number of asylum seekers arriving and also not dying on the way, dramatically reduced.

    3. It was dismantled by Labour, and cheered by the left who never think about the consequences of anything, and of course, the numbers dramatically rose. Over 1,000 deaths the left are responsible so far.

    4. Please employ a fact checker in future articles.

  2. The Piping Shrike on 10th June 2013 11:01 am

    Even Scott Morrison called what the government put in last year the Pacific Solution, so let’s not play word games.

    Let’s also not play who’s-got-the-more-deaths game otherwise we end up going on about all the deaths during Howard’s time as well.

    Of course, after reaching then record levels, numbers dramatically reduced in the 7th year of the Howard government and I’ve set out why. Those conditions no longer exist.

  3. Doug on 10th June 2013 11:42 am

    The flow of asylum seekers is going to drive an increase over the next few years, with the withdrawal of overseas troops from Afghanistan and the potential spill over from the conflict in Syria.

    Both parties have steadfastly refused to acknowledge that “push” factors are at the heart of the problem and have managed to commit themselves to a suite of policies which are unnecessarily, costly, ineffective and consequently in appropriate and lacking any coherent moral basis.

  4. Steve X on 10th June 2013 12:08 pm

    Crikey ran a piece saying that it was all push dominated. The ALP came in and changed the policy and boat arrivals took off. That’s no longer a tenable argument.


    The estimates are for 25K this year.

    Unless you can show that global refugee numbers also exploded by a factor at least 20 in 2008 the argument is over.

  5. Greg on 10th June 2013 12:25 pm

    Agree with Steve X. Just coincidence that Howard reduced the boat numbers to almost zero? This is about marketing and perceptions, and they can be changed. Bring back TPVs, and give a go at pushing some boats back, it just might work.

  6. The Piping Shrike on 10th June 2013 12:33 pm

    These arguments sound three years out of date, after things were relaxed. More punitive measures have been since been introduced. Maybe for some its not enough, but why haven’t numbers at least started to go down?

  7. Steve X on 10th June 2013 12:43 pm

    We will see. If the coalition brings boat arrivals down then they will have succeeded.

    How would you explain the massive increase in boat arrivals after the policy changed? Do you think it is unrelated?

  8. The Piping Shrike on 10th June 2013 12:49 pm

    I set it out in the post. Factors that led to an increase in movement worldwide and more so in the region with relations with Indonesia. The Coalition knows this which is why they go on about it. TPVs didn’t help last time, in fact made things worse, so probably will again.

    There seems a weird disconnect in this discussion. Everyone talks about what Howard did, but nobody seems to know what actually happened then.

  9. F on 10th June 2013 1:20 pm

    Steve X how do you explain the uptick in boat arrivals in the last months of the Howard government?

    I remember it very well. You know why? Because it involved certain members of the current Labor government saying this:

    “another boat, another policy failure”

    You think Morrison and Abbott wrote that script? No, that has been what oppositions have been saying to criticise the government since the late 90’s.

    There is nothing new in this debate, the solutions have stopped working, if they ever actually worked in the first place.

    We now have ourselves as a nation in an uncomfortable position. Both sides of politics have decided for the reasons that Shrike has outlined above to make THIS the defining characteristic of our most significant near-abroad relationship. It is crowding everything else out. Nothing else matters but the arrival of a few thousand people by boat, an amount that pales in comparison to what other Western countries have to deal with in regards to illegal arrivals.

    Neither side is really considering the grave risk we are placing our relationship with Indonesia in. This isn’t the 1960’s any more, the Dutch and the British are not going to fight the good fight for us in the jungles of Borneo. It is just us and the Indonesians, and we are fucking it up royally.

    The Indonesians have signalled repeatedly that they don’t give a shit about what they see as extremely minor concerns of a paranoid remnant of colonialism. For an ambassador to interject in a domestic debate like that? Are you completely blind to the ramifications of a miss-step between a gun-ho Abbott government trying to restore the mythical Howard years, and a reactive rootless Labor party who can longer find its arse with both hands?

  10. Damien Walker on 10th June 2013 6:16 pm

    What a waste of time this discussion is. No political party of either persuasion can stop boat arrivals. Crediting Howard with reducing arrivals under his watch shows an incomplete understanding of international conditions at the time. Bleating about Labor’s failure to stop boats coming shows an incomplete understanding of both the Huston Report and the Malaysian deal. Howard got lucky and Gillard hasn’t been allowed to implement her solution. Suggesting one leader is more or less capable than the other is to disregard the facts.

    As far as boat arrivals are concerned, we’re at the mercy of the vendors in shopfronts on the streets of Baghdad and Najaf selling passage to Australia. Almost nothing in our country’s control can stop that. The best our politicians can hope for is to whisk boat people off to Malaysia or back to Indonesia before anyone here at home notices.

    Read this for more details http://ausvotes2013.com/2013/03/11/stop-the-boats-seriously/

  11. Millie on 11th June 2013 12:57 pm

    There is only one solution. Australia must repudiate its adoption of the UN protocols on refugees and send all refugees back to their point of origin. We of course would then be pariahs globally but so what – it would stop refugees coming here. And save lives. At least on the high seas.

  12. Doug on 11th June 2013 6:50 pm

    Right – the moral calculation is we should feel concerned if people die at sea – which involves a choice on their part but we are not worried about the morality of our sending them them back to a situation in which they are killed by the Taliban (for example) or they die in trying to get away to the north of Afghanistan through dodgy people smuggler container vans run by the Russian mafia?
    No easy answers but a bit more recognition of our fellow humanity might be a start

  13. Avalon Dave on 11th June 2013 6:57 pm

    spot on Doug !

  14. Riccardo on 12th June 2013 1:50 pm

    Why is this debate held in isolation of any international context? Thousands of refugees are on the move worldwide, Australia’s involvement is tiny

    It is like any Australian debate on any matter of international affairs:

    a) always overstates Australia’s importance
    b) always assumes Australian superiority over other countries’ positions
    c) takes as read the idea that Australia is a great place, rather than an also-ran
    d) has a hidden assumption that our great and powerful friends are looking after us.

    Imagine if China decided to send 100,000 people our way as punishment for some slight and US said “Your problem”.

    What would we do? F_ all, because that’s all an insignificant little jurisdiction (that happens to occupy a continental-sized land mass) could ever do about it.

  15. Riccardo on 12th June 2013 2:07 pm

    Australia suffers from ‘original sin’

    -founded at a time of enlightenment in Europe, but in a very unenlightened way which included genocide and expropriation against all principles of British and other European law at the time.

    -founded as a federation based on racism within and without. Both political parties/movements contaminated with this at their source

    -no firm mythologic or cultural basis for an Australian nation-state. Just the convenience of a few politicos and empires for bureaucrats. Never even actually achieved ‘independence’ as this was not the point of federation.

    -white population stuck between several rocks and hard places in terms of race policy today. Want to be seen to have ‘moved on’ without acknowledging that karma is a b__h and that some of your sins can’t be so easily dodged.

    -no clear place to stand and argue race policy from. Haven’t experienced an actual transition such as South Africa or accommodation such as Malaysia, or German denazification or enforced racial harmony like in Singapore. Lash out at the likes of Japan yet fail to realise Japan is prepared to ‘pay the price’ of their racism while we seem to not be prepared to ‘pay the price’ of anything much.

  16. patrickg on 13th June 2013 5:38 pm

    Oh it’s always about saving lives for the racists, but of course never if Australia has to give something up – Pro-tip, dudes: Have you checked out Afghanistan recently, Sri Lanka if you’re Tamil? It’s not exactly Club Fucking Med. Of course, Millie – we being white, rich, smarter Australians – will somehow be able to hoodwink some poor Hazara that life in Kandahar is definitely better, despite ample evidence to the contrary. It must stick in the craw, but _they_ make the choices, take the gamble to come here, not us – whatever Howard crapped on about. And what kind of conditions do you think prompt someone to pay all their life savings to a con artist and risk death for them and their families? Hmm, I dunno.

    I’m genuinely surprised to see such ignorant nonsense posted on your blog Shrike – readers here being self-select political tragics, after all. Unless you have a following amongst the Labor right?

    Laurie bloody Ferguson and all the droogs who follow him need to lay off the turps. Like so many other issues; gay marriage, etc – it’s absolutely not a vote maker or breaker. If it was, why would Rudd have been electing promising to shut it down? Stupidity. Unlike most Australian political stupidity – this is hurting people in very real ways.

  17. Lt. Fred on 29th June 2013 11:49 am

    Surely, if we’re serious about saving lives, we should abandon any attempt at deterrence, which is largely ineffective. These people are fleeing pretty horrible stuff in ‘Ghan and so on, we’re not going to abuse them as bad as the Taliban even if they have perfect information which they do not. So deterrence is theoretically ineffective, let alone in practice.

    What we need to do is provide an alternative to the current, dangerous, route that is not dangerous. I suggest a commercial liner sent monthly.

  18. Sovereign Borders | life and fate on 27th February 2014 12:16 pm

    […] panic about asylum seekers is primarily a panic of the political class, that politicos on the left and right continually project onto the public, but for whom polls show […]

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