Rudd, reaction and refugees

In the leadup to last week’s ballot there had been a bit of a narrative going around that Kevin Rudd, if put back in the leadership, might soften the government’s line on asylum seekers. This was part of the general search for a rationale for a Rudd return, but there was a degree of logic to it, given the frustration that many people felt at Julia Gillard’s conservatism and the way that her prime ministership seemed mortgaged to the party’s hard right.

It was never a likely outcome. The political assassination of Gillard was always primarily a right-wing project, led by News Ltd, so it stretched credulity to think that its success would be marked by a policy shift to the left.

The truth is that Rudd and Gillard are both conservatives: he certainly through inclination but now also through the dynamic of the recent struggle; she from the way the factions held her in their grasp, but perhaps also from inclination, or at least habit.

The lack of any policy, ideological or even factional content to their struggle is a major part of what made it so nasty. It’s an old rule of politics that the less a contest involves ideas or policies, the more bitterly personal it becomes: after all, what else is there to talk about?

(Rudd’s return is without real precedent, but for a slight approximation think of the knifing of Alan Brown by Jeff Kennett in 1991: also brutal, driven by self-interest and marked by a curious lack of differentiation on policy or ideas.)

Anyway, the thought, such as it was, has now been well and truly laid to rest. The liberalism of the early Rudd years on the refugee issue is being comprehensively repudiated. Like a tar baby that it just can’t keep its hands off, the notion of being “tough” on asylum seekers again has Labor captive.

I quite honestly do not know where this keeps coming from. I don’t know whether it stems from the actual racism of the New South Wales apparatchik class that runs the party, or whether it’s become one of those things that’s been repeated so often that nobody thinks to ask whether it’s true or not, or whether said apparatchiks have reached the point where they just write down whatever News Ltd tells them.

But seriously, in what Bizarro version of reality does Labor have anything to gain, at this stage of the game, from being even tougher on asylum seekers? Anyone who believes that Labor is a soft touch on the issue is clearly resistant to any actual facts and so is going to go on believing it regardless of the reality.

Giving the issue more air just means increasing the chance that people holding that belief are going to bring it to the forefront of their minds and therefore let it determine their votes, and in that case they’re going to vote for the Coalition.

Deterrent may or may not have some measurable effect on the flow of asylum seekers: I don’t know, and I suspect no-one else does either. But regardless of whether it does or not, it’s never to Labor’s political advantage to say that it does, because that plays to the Coalition’s strength.

On the other hand, if Rudd were to quietly but firmly shut the door on offshore processing it could hardly make things any worse for Labor, and it would at least help to differentiate him from Gillard. And it might win Labor back some support from people who just want to see it stand for something – anything, really.

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