Refugee debate drags Labor along in its wake

Not for the first time, it strikes me that all you need for successful commentary on Australian politics is to recycle things that have already been said: the issues never seem to change, and no-one ever seems to have learned the lessons from last time.

So it is with the ALP conference’s debate on asylum seekers. Go back to what I wrote two years ago, on the occasion of Kevin Rudd’s return to the Labor leadership:

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.

It’s all still true. There is one major difference between now and 2013: then Labor was in government, now it’s in opposition. But that only makes the situation worse.

A possible answer to my proposal in 2013 to “quietly but firmly shut the door on offshore processing” would be that it might not work. (Of course it worked perfectly well in the decade or so before Tampa, but no-one wants to talk about that.) For a party in government, that’s a genuine problem: in the unlikely event that the result was an unmanageable flood of refugees, it would have to come up with an alternative.

But a party in opposition doesn’t have that problem, because it doesn’t have the responsibility of acting. Its policy isn’t about implementation, it’s about rhetoric – specifically, about whether or not to buy into the other side’s rhetoric.

Every time Labor adds its voice to the chorus that is already saying that “toughness” (detention centres, turnbacks, offshore processing) works and is justified, it undercuts its own position, because those who are convinced by that line and vote on that basis will vote for the Abbott government. Why on earth wouldn’t they?

Supporters of the new Labor position argue that, far from “giving the issue more air”, the point of the change is to shut down the debate by eliminating any difference between the two sides’ positions. But while again that might perhaps be possible from government (although Rudd’s experience is discouraging on that front), it’s not going to happen from opposition – certainly not for this opposition.

Every time Labor shifts position, the Coalition and its allies in the media will simply move the goalposts, attacking Labor in turn for not matching the new “tough” stand. That’s how we got here, and the government is already working on the next stage, demanding that Labor sign up to temporary protection visas as well.

Maybe (says he, tongue firmly in cheek) Bill Shorten is adopting a quasi-Marxist position of “heightening the contradictions”, aiming to goad Tony Abbott into adopting more and more insanely extreme positions on asylum seekers, in the hope of eventually reaching one that will inspire spontaneous public revulsion.

But in fact one of the lessons of the whole issue is that by and large the public does not “spontaneously” take any position; it only chooses between the positions that are on offer. If Labor refuses to offer a humane alternative (recall the unhappy history of the Malaysian solution), that option will disappear from public view.

(First Dog on the Moon has, of course, already covered the debate much better than I can.)


One thought on “Refugee debate drags Labor along in its wake

  1. The issue isn’t too difficult to understand, Richard, once you realise that currently there’s NO International agreement on whether the problem can be tackled let alone resolved, and nothing Australia can do will make much difference except severely harm the interests of Australian Citizens.
    No matter how tragic this may be, pipe dreams aren’t going to solve it, which is why Public Figures are unable to speak openly about what they intend doing.


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