Time for honesty on immigration

Ronald Reagan used to disarmingly tell reporters that he was “not smart enough to lie.” It wasn’t true, but the line could more accurately be used by Australia’s immigration minister, Peter Dutton.

Not that Dutton doesn’t lie, but his level of guile is so low that his lies are unusually transparent, and his real intentions are obvious in a way that is rarely the case, even with politicians pursuing a a similar range of policies.

And so we see the latest controversy in Australia over immigration, where Dutton is either unable or unwilling to weave the usual web of deceit that others have used over the last 20 years of this sad story to hide from observers, and perhaps from themselves, the actual nature of what they were doing.

At the time of the Tampa affair in 2001, both participants and pundits told us that the demonisation of refugees or “illegal” immigrants was quite consistent with maintenance of a generally pro-immigration policy. For a time, the figures seemed to back them up.

Some even said that the two were organically linked: that tough “border control” policies were necessary to preserve public support for immigration. My friend James Button, for example, in an excellent profile of Dutton and his department secretary, Michael Pezzullo, a few months back, linked the department’s long-standing bureaucratic Stalinism – “rigid to the point of obsessional,” as he put it – with continued high levels of immigration.

But it was all a con. Others, of whom I was one, argued that while it might work in the short term, demonisation of certain categories of arrivals was bound to affect attitudes to immigration in general. Xenophobia can’t be neatly contained; once unleashed, it tends to spread, and the genie resists being put back in the bottle.

So the Liberal Party’s base (just like Donald Trump’s), having been taught to hate asylum seekers, now demands that immigrants in general should be regarded the same way. And politicians like Dutton – and like Tony Abbott, who (for somewhat different reasons) shares some of Dutton’s transparency – are only too eager to comply.

All this is doing terrible damage to Australia’s economy and reputation, not to mention the lives of the people concerned. But there is at least a gain in clarity.

Can we now stop pretending that this is all about “illegal” immigration? It’s not, and it never was. It’s about scapegoating, about “othering”, and the identity of the “other” can change from day to day. No-one can be sure that they will not be in the targeted group tomorrow.

This is the new fault line in world politics. The friends of an open, tolerant and cosmopolitan Australia need to push back against the narrow creed of Dutton and his like.

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