Unity is death

Monday, 27 July 2015 

In 2002, the up and coming shadow Immigration Minister launched a tough new line for Labor’s policy on asylum seekers. It wasn’t popular at Conference, but the hardheads felt it was necessary. Labor had lost an election on immigration, the current leader was unpopular and seen as weak, and Labor felt the Coalition was making hay with the perception Labor was too soft on asylum seekers. Labor went on to lose the next election with what was then the lowest primary vote in the post-war period.

In 2010, that former shadow Minister, now leader, Julia Gillard (for it was she), went into an election with a new tough line on asylum seekers. It wasn’t popular in the party, but the hardheads felt it was necessary. They and Gillard were worried that the Coalition was making hay with the perception Labor was too soft on asylum seekers. She went on to achieve what was then Labor’s second lowest primary vote in the post-war period.

After she was ousted in 2013, her successor, Rudd Mark II, then came out with Labor’s toughest anti-asylum seeker policy in its history and was promptly rewarded with what now stands as the lowest ever primary vote in the post-war period.

Now in 2015, the up and coming shadow Immigration Minister has launched a tough new line for Labor’s policy on asylum seekers. It wasn’t popular at Conference, but the hardheads felt it was necessary. Labor had lost an election on immigration, the current leader was unpopular and seen as weak, and Labor felt the Coalition was making hay with the perception Labor was too soft on asylum seekers. Hum-te-dum-te-dum.

In reality over the last twenty years, there is only one election that Labor has arguably not toughened up on its asylum seeker policy going into it, the 2007 election, and that being also the only election it has won in that twenty years.

There may not be a direct relation between softening up on asylum seekers and Labor winning an election, but there sure as hell isn’t one the opposite way.

In the recent series The Killing Season, Lachlan Harris, in talking of that 2007 election, said that Rudd had gone in with the brilliant strategy of following Howard because everyone knew that the best way to get people to vote against Howard was, er, to emulate him.

It is true that on the economy (and the NT intervention) Rudd trailed and aped Howard. But perhaps Harris didn’t think the Iraq War, Workchoices, the Pacific Solution, climate change and the Apology were important, because on each of those there were quite clear differences from Howard. In fact on those issues, if anything Howard was having to adapt and trail Rudd.

Harris is not alone in arguing this and the possible reason these differences may be forgotten was that on nearly all of them, Rudd was going with the flow – with the keenest sense of where that flow was heading than any Labor leader since the 1980s.

Dumping the Pacific Solution was so much going with the flow that the Liberals followed Rudd the following year in 2008 by dumping the Pacific Solution and TPVs themselves. The reason was the fading of the War on Terror, which Howard had slyly linked to refugees, especially those on the Tampa. So with the War on Terror fading so was the importance of maintaining a hard line, indeed, was the issue itself.

That context has not returned. Polls show that asylum seekers have remained a middling issue for the public, behind the normal concerns of health, education, the economy and (sometimes) national security. What has returned, indeed become even worse, is the insecurity of both parties, and asylum seekers remains the perfect football to kick around to express those insecurities. The right is concerned about sovereignty and authority, and the left is concerned about their eroding base – and the asylum seeker issue captures both sides.

It is why the current policy doesn’t even make much sense for what would be in the narrow sense of “national interest”, which would be more expected to see Australia be one of the leading industrialised countries for taking refugees, especially one in an Asian region surrounded by developing countries and wanting to maintain good relations with them. Instead it has a policy with mediocre intake and managing to conduct it while annoying the nearest neighbours, especially one of the most important ones to Australia’s immediate north.

If there were domestic grumbles, it would be regarded in much the same way as foreign aid, a “national interest” necessity that it is never felt much need to explain to the minority that worry about such things.

Nor does it even make much sense for electoral reasons. Success in stopping the boats hasn’t done the Coalition much good in the polls and for Labor the benefit’s even more dubious. Leaving aside the lack of causality between a tough asylum policy and electoral success described above, it is possible to construct a case why the tougher line on asylum seekers given to Shorten by National Conference on the weekend will be a mild negative.

First because it means Labor is again talking about what is the Coalition’s favourite topic. Second because it makes Shorten look inconsistent and expedient – which is sort of a problem for him at the moment with the voters. Thirdly no one will believe Labor will be as tough as the Coalition anyway, not because of what they do, which is, but because it retains that loyal fringe of mouthy hopefuls who believe they might not.

In fact there is little from the Conference that will help a leader widely perceived as untrustworthy, believing in nothing and willing to say anything to get elected. While journalists seem to believe Shorten’s wins has added to his authority, this is only inside the bubble of the Conference. What we are seeing here is not the revival of the Labor leadership but the exposing of the absence of any alternative, especially from the left.

On asylum seeker policy we had the unedifying sight of the left deputy leader going around and arguing for the turn back policy in left meetings at Conference while voting (by proxy) against it. Even on gay marriage, while we had a compromise that no doubt was excellent for all those concerned within the party leadership, you probably couldn’t have designed a position more likely to ensure it didn’t happen in the medium term in reality. A motion that would not bind MPs until after 2019 means that Abbott now has the perfect excuse not to drop his party’s own binding position while ensuring that the numbers from Labor won’t be sufficient to overturn the Coalition in the meantime.

The cave-in by the left was not because the left position’s in terms of numbers was weak, it was arguably a majority with the independents, but because the leader was weak and the left leadership had to go all out to ensure that he wasn’t embarrassed.

What we had in Conference was the affirmation of what had been evident since the election and the leadership election over nothing immediately following it. The protagonists Rudd and Gillard may have departed but the essence of what they were rowing about, the future of a party that has lost its social base, remains. Except now having got rid of the only solution they had, albeit one who would have cost those like Shorten his influence, they have nothing to replace it.

This is why the last few weeks have been so bad for Shorten as the Killing Season and the Royal Commission reminded everyone that Shorten was just more of the past. Now the conference on the weekend has also reminded that the left have nothing to replace him with. As a result, they still have no case for government, and that might suggest the link, because when they did, that’s when they were able to put something like a hapless group of refugees into the humanitarian perspective it deserves.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 27 July 2015.

Filed under State of the parties

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4 responses to “Unity is death”

  1. F on 27th July 2015 9:04 am

    I keep scratching my head at a party elected in 2007 on a progressive platform, then turning around and repudiating almost the whole thing. Totally ludicrous.

    The current gay marriage kerfuffle is beyond a joke. Right now almost two thirds of voters support marriage equality. In four years time what will it be? 80%? How far behind voters does Labor have to be for the “hard-heads” to get it into their thick skulls?

    Marriage equality should be front and centre of the ALP’s campaign for the next election. Instead we have this mealy mouthed disaster. Abbott will not allow it through, his backers would skewer him for Morrison. All this talk of conscience votes is so silly, its beltway nonsense.

    Rumours of splitting abounded. Fear of Farrell, Bullock, Conroy and O’Neill et al, crossing the floor or leaving the party. Um, good riddance? I can’t see a downside to this…..

    Also, I highly doubt turn-backs will be an issue over the next few years. The economy will be in ruins by this time next year. They’ll be almost zero pull factor, unlike what there was during the middle of the greatest resource super cycle the world has ever seen….or will ever see again.

    Everything is going south faster than expected. If the government thinks it can wait till say next March for an early election, they must be smoking something gnarly. Try disaster by Christmas, at the latest.

  2. Marilyn on 27th July 2015 6:01 pm

    Refugees don’t stop leaving war and persecution and seeking safety because of mining booms ending in rich countries.

  3. F on 27th July 2015 6:18 pm

    But economic migrants do, Marilyn. And it isn’t a mining boom ending in rich “countries”, its a mining boom ending in THIS country. Even people fleeing persecution discriminate between countries, hence why comparably few trans-Mediterranean refugees stay in Italy, or even France. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see how it pans out over the next few years.

  4. Guy on 28th July 2015 9:04 pm

    Shrike, your potted history seems to point clearly to one conclusion – swinging voters don’t care that much about asylum seekers. And why should they – the pollies certainly don’t, despite the bogus shroud-waving that goes on.

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