The political asylum seeker debate

I had the following piece published this week at New Matilda and at Online Opinion.  One interesting aspect (at least for me) of publishing a piece on a few different websites is seeing how different the comment threads can be responding to the same piece.


Two consecutive questions on the asylum seeker issue during House of Representatives Question Time last week demonstrated the shifting fault lines that are occurring on this issue.

We are now facing the curious situation of Liberals starting to criticise Labor for the poor conditions asylum seekers are being kept in – including the “keeping kids behind razor wire” refrain – while still complaining about Labor’s “softened” policies.

I get the feeling that there is a significant realignment happening here, and lots of people across the spectrum are feeling their way rather tentatively trying to find some solid new ground. The language and the policies are still in a state of flux, and it’s hard to be sure precisely where either major party will end up. Even the final position of the Greens may be hard to predict, as the detail of the (I think badly named) “Indonesia Solution” will continue to unfold over time. It is hard to see how the debate and the policy decisions could turn as toxic as the post-Tampa environment in 2001, although with the history this issue has, it is unwise to be complacent.

The Question Time exchange looked to me like both sides were as keen to paint the other as cruel and ineffective as they were to paint themselves as firm but fair.

The first of the questions came from Labor’s Member for Petrie, Yvette D’Ath, seeking the government’s response to people smuggling. Over about eight minutes, Kevin Rudd basically outlined why the Liberals’ old policies were inhumane, how these policies didn’t work anyway because it was push factors in other countries that slowed the flow of boat arrivals, and how even the Liberals didn’t want to keep any of their old policies that Labor had changed since coming to government (but the Libs were still inhumane anyway).

This was followed by a question from Malcolm Turnbull, asking who would be detaining and processing the asylum seekers intercepted in Indonesia, whether they would take longer than the 90-day limit in Australia and where they would be resettled. In effect, he was asking whether refugees would get a tougher deal in Indonesia than they would if they were processed in Australia. Unmentioned but relevant was the fact that the 90-day goal for processing asylum claims of people in detention was introduced by the former Liberal government (after a lot of arm-twisting). Rudd responded by making “no apology whatsoever for … expanding cooperation with the Indonesian Government in the area of people smuggling”.

Commentators, politicians and other partisans know who they are meant to be on the opposite side to on this issue. They just can’t figure out quite where the other side is at, so they’re not sure exactly what they should be opposing or how. The reverse also applies, although the government has the major incumbency advantage of being able to set the policy direction, and to some extent the tone, just as John Howard could eight years ago.

Adding to the uncertainty are the internal divisions within the parties. The Liberals’ divisions are obvious, but there are undoubtedly some strongly varying views within the ALP too – they just have the good sense and discipline to stay mostly quiet about them.

Labor is wanting to simultaneously portray themselves as just as tough as the Opposition, while also being humane. The Liberals want to own the fact that a low number of boats arrived for a few years after 2001, while not wanting to still be tied to the policies that were in place at that time. The position – contentious but arguable – that the Howard era policies stopped the boats is inseparable from the other widely recognised (and totally undeniable) consequences of those policies, which were kids behind razor wire, the children overboard fiction, Cornelia Rau, etc.

However ironic it may seem that the Liberals are expressing such concern for the welfare of people seeking refuge it is still a good thing that attention is finally being paid to the living conditions of asylum seekers in Indonesia and elsewhere. If that level of attention lasts beyond the current media cycle, there is a real prospect of a significant improvement occurring in the speed of processing and the treatment of asylum seekers intercepted in countries to our north.

Meanwhile, there are key differences between the Pacific Solution and the so-called “Indonesia Solution”. A major one is that, at Australia’s behest, Nauru kept almost all journalists, lawyers and advocates out of the country so they couldn’t see what was going on. Another improvement over that old situation is that Indonesia is not a bankrupt country willing to house refugees in return for financial support. Indonesia will stand up for its interests and we will have more chance of seeing how the refugees in its care are treated. However there are still plenty of reasons to be concerned over what that treatment could look like in Indonesia.

The big challenge will be to convince countries such as Indonesia and others in our region that a cooperative approach based on a humane and rational attitude to asylum seekers in the region is in all our interests. Malcolm Fraser achieved something along these lines with the influx of Vietnamese refugees over 20 years ago. There are different factors at play this time, but the principles are the same as they were then, and as they were when the Refugee Convention was first established back in 1951.

The parties would do well to remember that convincing others that a rational approach is the best way is impossible when we don’t follow our own advice.

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  1. Hi Andrew. Just got back from Online Opinion where I had a post prepared and then “lost” as I searched for another article title.
    In high dudgeon came here expecting a strong turn out here, but while thirty comments (many of them quite tragic as to what they reveal about certain educationally or cognitivly deprived sections of the Australian community) exist elsewhere, I have no one to talk to, here.
    Largely in agreement. It’s a long time since the strung out times of Howardism in full-flight seven or eight years and hope I, too, have moved from being spooked by the likes of Ruddock, like so many others who now glance contemptuously into the rubbish bin of history. Here the remnants of discredited classical or overt ideological neo conservatism and neoliberalism now moulder unmourned due to the overwhelming of “plausible deniability” by the sheer weight of contradiction at work involving Iraq, Afghanistan and with neocapitalism itself, in the wake of the $Thirty Trillion bailout for millionaire louts who would probably demonstrate none of the ethics or resoucefulness shown by much poorer people.
    Now the unions have seen governments past and present resort to more surreptitious and covert methods to undermine theAustralian underclasses and the unions, and these know from their own betrayal over Serf Choices by Howard and Andrews; then Rudd and Gillard, that the current lot are no more to trusted than the old one.
    Like the Sri Lankans, they backed off from the Indonesian solution, seeing perhaps that same glint in the eye that environmentalists, workers, gays, aborigines and others missed in the euphoria of the new ”
    humanface”, Rudd , replacing tired, grumpy and unmasked old Howard.
    Quick ps, “lost” Pubop post trying to hunt article from Swinburn College academics Savitri Taylor and Brynna Rafferty-Brown (whew!) entitled,
    “Liberalism’s asylum dilemma”,
    which was a bit more nuanced than some the depressing stuff posted elsewhere.

  2. Jessica:

    Here’s an example of a political asylum seeker whom I have known for a couple of years.

    She, her husband & 2 children escaped Cuba and went to Guantanamo Bay, due to political disagreements with Fidel Castro. Her husband had been incarcerated a few times.

    The USA tried to resettle them in Latin America. They said they wanted to come to Australia, and since George Bush was on excellent terms with John Howard, it was easily arranged.

    These people are well educated and have made good Australian citizens, but as is often the case, the poor got left behind in Cuba.

    The term “Indonesia Solution” leaves me just as cold as the “Pacific Solution”. I feel these terms have something in common with Hitler’s “Final Solution” inflicted on the Jews.

    During the President of Indonesia’s visit to Canberra, I paid close attention to the body language etc of both the President and Kevin Rudd.

    I can guarantee those 2 men hate one another with a vengeance, probably blaming one another for not wanting to accept responsibility for asylum seekers.

    I think the number of asylum seekers wanting to come to Australia might ease off when the current visa holders go back where they came from in disgust, and spread the word about the slave labour, poor working conditions and low wages available in Australia – largely due to the empowerment of large corporations.

    I agree with Paul Walter.

    I think the Slave Labor Party, the El Richo Liberal/National Party, and also the small pseudo-liberal parties falsely claiming to belong to the Centre Left, can all sod off.

    I am completely sick of the mud slinging that goes on in both the upper and lower houses. I would like to see more ordinary people with a decent set of manners elected to the parliament, instead of this largely rich, out of touch, ill-behaved mob.

    I don’t want those who sit on the boards of large corporations, or who have other vested interests, to be allowed to run for election any more.

  3. I just finished a short video with Oday El Ibrahimy explaining his brother Madian’s situation in detention on Christmas Island. His brother has lost his wife and children in the boat tragedy on 15 Dec, the wife and 4yo son are lost to sea, the 8 mo daughter is in the morgue still not buried. Oday is asking for his brother to be released to bury the child and come into his care in Sydney. View video here

  4. colman

    most the detainees on christmas island through mobil phones mostly suplied to them at the govt expence knew the boat was on its way and when it was expected to arive .
    question has to be asked why did they not tell someone when the weather turned bad they also knew who was on the boat.
    i have great sympathy for those who lost loved ones .

    ease off when the current visa holders go back where they came from in disgust, and spread the word about the slave labour, poor working conditions and low wages available in Australia – largely due to the empowerment of large corporations.

    so what you are actually saying is that the majority of these ppl comming here is just for the money and when its not as good as they hoped they leave
    i would think that would be an isult to the generosity of this county .

  5. Red Crab:

    I was talking about visa holders who come here by plane as permanent residents.

    It isn’t “generosity” when government allows farmers, bankers & others to pay people from other nations an even more un-Australian wage to work in jobs that already pay very low wages to Australian citizens.

    People who come here legitimately from elsewhere still have to pay the same charges for rent, electricity, food, fuel etc. I think this discrimination is also a recipe for racial tension.

    I know visa holders working in aged care centres & hospitals here who are considering departing for Canada or the UK, where both pay and working conditions are better.

    These are legal immigrants who came here for a better life, not to be treated like slaves.

    Would you want to stay somewhere that didn’t offer the necessary infrastructure to support a growing population? Would you stay in a place where you couldn’t even afford to live?

    As for the idea that visa holders won’t join unions, I have found this to be incorrect. I think there are far greater problems with white Australians.

    A friend has recently unionised an entire Woolworths store, but the shop assistants’ union cannot get anywhere with the government on pay and working conditions because the Slave Labor Party only listens to Woolworths, which is No. 3 in the top 2000 companies operating in Australia.

    The real villain of the piece is the government working in cahoots with corporates to lower our standard of living.

    When I was speaking with Tony Zegenhagen recently, he said he had heard that around 9 boats approaching Christmas Island have disappeared under very suspicious circumstances, mostly with wholesale loss of life.

    I have also commenced reading submissions to the Productivity Commission on changes needed in Aged Care, only to find that service providers want to rip off both government & individuals to the greatest extent possible, while providing more places for the rich.

  6. Colman:

    Thank you for your interesting video link. It is my belief that global bodies (such as the United Nations) are more interested in redistributing populations and wealth, than in ensuring people are safe and well provided for in their countries of origin.

    The behaviour of the Australian government in failing to pick up asylum seekers from a number of boats before they sink or “go missing” is highly suspicious.

    It’s hard to know if they deliberately allow people to die to deter other asylum seekers, or if they are using an unconscionable method of obtaining a mandate from the Australian people for our navy to pick up both refugees and asylum seekers more directly from foreign shores.

    I don’t like the way the Australian government uses skulduggerous, legalistic agendas to manipulate the masses into the mindset or mandate they prefer, while floating dissonant policies.

  7. When I was speaking with Tony Zegenhagen recently, he said he had heard that around 9 boats approaching Christmas Island have disappeared under very suspicious circumstances, mostly with wholesale loss of life.

    thats correct but i was told the number was 7 but who knows it could be more

    i was talking about visa holders who come here by plane as permanent residents.
    ok my mistake i agree with you anyone working in australia should be payed the same wage

    only one thing i must add in most cases english must be spoken because of safty for those who work with them
    i say this because i know someone involved in an incident on a construction site where someone died because two imported workers couldent speek english or read the safty signs .and the person who told me this couldent get to the kill switch in time the two imported workers were standing next to it.and couldent read the sign,.

    Woolworths, which is No. 3 in the top 2000 companies operating in Australia
    what sort of idiots would let cols and woolworths two companys get control of 90% of the countrys food supply.

    The behaviour of the Australian government in failing to pick up asylum seekers from a number of boats before they sink or “go missing” is highly suspicious.
    you cant be serious these ppl are not forsed onto the boats buy the aust govt then they try to cross some of the most dangerous and unpredictable waters to be found in boats that are completly unseeworthy overloded.and they cant swim!!

    as i have sead recently this has become an industry now and there will be loses.
    80 million a month for christmas island and just how much has the govt donated to AUSTRALIANS in queensland and nsw.

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