Gillard on migration, shows a perilous pragmatism that risks unleashing the darker side of Australian public opinion writes Ben Eltham in ABC’s The Drum.Published in ABC’s The Drum Unleashed on 8 July 2010.
What sort of Prime Minister will Julia Gillard be? The answer, I fear, is a minor and morally diminutive one.
Gillard is a leader who came to power with no clearly articulated platform or governing philosophy, beyond what we already know about her commitment to education and the principles of collective organisation in the workplace. Now, on the issue of asylum seekers, she is showing a perilous pragmatism that risks unleashing the darker under-currents of Australian public opinion.
Gillard’s inaugural speech to Parliament made much of her background as a migrant. “What the last red-headed woman who made a first speech in this place will never understand,” she declared, in a back-handed reference to Pauline Hanson, “is that the vast majority of migrants come here determined to make a better life for themselves and their kids, and they are prepared to work unbelievably hard to achieve that dream.”
How the worm turns. Barely 12 years later, the former One Nation leader now finds herself in furious agreement with Julia Gillard on the issue of migration.
Gillard’s speech to the Lowy Institute on Tuesday was nuanced, careful and calibrated, in keeping with her public statements as Prime Minister so far. As The Age‘s Michael Gordonpoints out, there were sops to all sides of the debate: concessions to critics like Julian Burnside, rejoinders to Tony Abbott’s hard line, but also resolute statements of intent on the issue of offshore processing of seaborne asylum seekers.
There has been much debate about whether Gillard’s repeated statements of understanding for those with “concerns about unauthorised arrivals” amounts to “dog whistling”. I’m not sure why. Gillard’s statements are a textbook example. They reveal a deep vein of political opportunism in our new Prime Minister that augurs poorly for the moral standing of her administration.
The best discussion of dog-whistle politics in Australia is by Josh Fear in this Australia Institute paper. Fear defines the practice as follows:
“Dog-whistle politics is the art of sending coded or implicit messages to a select group of voters while keeping others in the dark. Just as a dog whistle can be heard by dogs but not humans, a dog whistle in politics can be heard by some members of the electorate but not others. Its key feature is plausible deniability: the dog whistler can say ‘I didn’t mean that, I meant this instead’. And it is usually a divisive or reactionary message that it conceals, one that would risk offending or scandalising more tolerant voters.”
Judged on these grounds, Gillard is adept at the practice. Instead of confronting the fear and xenophobia at large in the community on this issue, she is giving succour to those who would vent and exploit them.
Fear and resentment are powerful human emotions. They have always played a role in democratic politics since the time of Pericles. As the psychologist Jonathan Haidt reminds us, human political judgment is essentially a process of creating rational explanations for the snap emotional decisions we automatically make. Haidt’s research demonstrates that when it comes to deeply-held moral beliefs, most of us can’t be argued or reasoned out of our positions, even by the most patient of interlocutors. Most of us think incest is simply wrong, and nothing I can tell you about a particular act of incest (for instance, that it was completely voluntary and mutual, and that no psychological or physical harm resulted) will change your mind. Fear of the outsider is another such deeply-held moral belief, which may even have evolutionary explanations in humanity’s early origins as a small-group species.
Even if you don’t subscribe to such Darwinian theories, it certainly seems as though reason plays depressingly little role in the current debate. Asylum seeker policy is one of the least rational of all Australian policy fields.
As the Centre for Policy Development’s Kate Gautier observes in a forthcoming book More than Luck, almost the entire debate about asylum seekers is factually inaccurate (Disclosure: I am a Fellow of the Centre for Policy Development).
“There has been no proper analysis of the impacts that domestic policy changes have had on asylum flows to Australia. Claims that Howard era deterrent policies ‘stopped the boats’ by reducing pull factors to Australia is sloppy policy evaluation at its worst, using only a temporal link to prove cause and effect. Claims that only push factors, such as in-country security concerns, have increased boat arrivals have no basis in proper research either.”
In fact, seaborne asylum seeker numbers have closely tracked global trends over the years.
Labor came to office promising an end to the harsh border protection policies of the Howard Government. There would be “seven principles” for immigration policy based on “key values” to which the Government would adhere. Immigration Minister Chris Evans declared in a speech to ANU in 2008 that those seeking to enter the country would only be detained as a last resort and for the “shortest practicable time”, that children would no longer be detained at all, and that the “inherent dignity of the human person” would be restored.
All that has now gone by the board. When we consider how quickly this Labor Government has slid backwards from its pledges on refugee policy, we can quickly dismiss the validity of the current “East Timor solution” as any kind of robust policy solution to the asylum seeker non-problem. Given the small numbers of people involved, processing and resettling them in Australia is the very minimum of what should be demanded of us by common decency and generosity, let alone our international treaty obligations.
The language of the asylum seeker debate has been systematically corrupted in the current debate. There is no “threat” to the “integrity” of Australia’s borders posed by unarmed boats full of desperate people. Our borders are indeed “protected” – by a substantial and well-armed naval presence.
The demonisation of “people smugglers” is another example of the degradation of political language in the asylum seeker debate, which George Orwell so memorably described as “the defence of the indefensible.” It is amusing to see politicians from both major parties, who are ostensibly committed to free trade, condemn impoverished Indonesian fishermen for providing a service to those who so desperately desire it. Given that the vast majority of those arriving by boat are in fact genuine refugees fleeing brutality and persecution, Indonesian people-smugglers have most in common with Oskar Schindler or US abolitionists in the pre-Civil War underground railroad. But because the asylum seeker debate demands scapegoats, “people smugglers” provide an appropriate target for febrile phrases such as Kevin Rudd’s “absolute scum of the earth”.
Ultimately, the asylum seeker debate is a test for Julia Gillard’s ability to separate her interests in being re-elected from those of Australian society as a whole. As early observers of US democracy like Alexis de Tocqueville realised, democratic government suffers from a serious institutional weakness when it comes to protecting the rights of unpopular minorities.
Asylum seekers and other legitimate migrants to this wealthy and privileged country are amongst the smallest and most vulnerable of our minorities, and in a civilised society are therefore deserving of the greatest protection by what European social democrats once called the “provident state“.
You won’t hear much about these ideas in our daily newspapers or on 24-hour news channels, obsessed as they are with the movements of opinion polls and the so-called “political reality” of the coming election campaign. But we can observe the inconsistencies and logical fallacies of democratic politics in particularly acute focus if we compare the debates about the mining tax and seaborne asylum seekers.
The mining tax was, at heart, an attempt by the state to distribute more of the windfall profits of a mineral resource boom to the broader citizenry, by investing in their retirement savings and lowering other taxes. In other words, it was an attempt to redistribute wealth away from a privileged minority to the broader society.
The asylum seeker debate is about denying a tyrannised minority access to the broader wealth and opportunities of our society, on the dubious and arbitrary grounds that they did not apply for refuge in the appropriate way. In other words, it is an attempt to restrict and constrain the redistribution of wealth and opportunity from the privileged majority to a persecuted few.
In the example of the mining tax debate, powerful vested interest groups were able to mobilise their vast wealth to minimise the harm to their interests. Asylum seekers enjoy no such wealth or power, and can therefore expect little support in our contemporary political system.
Ben Eltham is a writer, journalist, researcher and creative producer.