Ben Eltham | Moral Failure The Crux Of This Policy Mess

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Labor’s struggles to come up with a workable policy on asylum seekers show that no matter how hard politicians try, it’s impossible to remove the moral dimension from politics, writes Ben Eltham

First published in New Matilda here

In a week when the carbon tax debate continues to simmer, two other issues of stark moral clarity are dominating Australian politics.

One is the issue of live cattle exports to Indonesia. The other is the Labor Government’s plan to exchange refugees with Malaysia.

Both issues have to do with the trafficking of creatures across borders for profit. Both are fundamentally moral and ethical issues that continue to polarise the political debate.

It is certainly easy to understand the uproar over the live cattle trade. The sudden explosion of public concern over live cattle exports to Indonesia can be traced to Sarah Ferguson’s expose of shocking conditions in Indonesian abattoirs on the ABC’s Four Corners program.

The revelations — and especially the imagery — created an instant firestorm of negative publicity about the live export trade, and immediate calls for government action from many sections of the community, as well as key parliamentarians like Tasmanian independent Andrew Wilkie. Wilkie wants all live animal exports banned within three years, and many Labor backbenchers clearly agree.

As with any issue that arouses strong moral intuitions, the nuances of the story suggest a more complex reality. Many would point out that the inside of an abattoir is by definition confronting, and that there is a certain amount of public hypocrisy inherent in the outcry over the issue, given the healthy Australian appetite for beef.

The proposed “solution” to the issue, after all, is to kill and slaughter cattle in Australian abattoirs rather than Indonesian ones, a distinction which reveals the difficult ethical conundrums in play. Even the use of the word “humane” here is a loaded one. After all, the desired result will be less animal cruelty, but exactly the same amount of animal death.

That hasn’t stopped the phones ringing off the hooks in marginal seat electorate offices, as outraged citizens demand that the government immediately cease live cattle exports to Indonesia.

The other issue in which moral sentiments continue to dominate is of course the issue of seaborne asylum seekers — specifically the Gillard Government’s plan to exchange asylum seekers arriving in Australian waters by boat with UN-assessed “genuine” refugees from Malaysia.

Boat arrivals to Australia are actually falling, and have been for some months now. But few issues have as little to do with the empirical reality as asylum seeker arrivals, an issue for which the Government seemingly has no compelling response.

That’s not for want of trying. It has only been three years since Labor took office, but in that time we have already seen at least three different attempts to “solve” the asylum seeker issue. The first was the Rudd government’s attempt to regularise and normalise asylum seeker policy, while downplaying the seriousness of the issue. That approach failed spectacularly once boat arrivals started to climb in 2010, allowing the Opposition’s big lies about “stopping the boats” to gain traction.

The second approach, mounted by Julia Gillard after becoming PM, was to admit there was a problem and to announce a third nation “solution”. East Timor was quickly announced as the proposed location of a regional processing centre. Unfortunately, no-one bothered to properly consult with the East Timorese. The Gillard Government was eventually forced to admit that this policy was not tenable.

The current plan, to exchange 800 seaborne asylum seekers with 4000 UN-vetted Malaysian refugees, is effectively Plan C. As is all too common with this government, the policy appears to have been cooked up quickly and announced before all the details had been worked out. As a result, the announcement was made before the Malaysian government had formally signed on, and before all the difficult implications of what the swap would mean had been teased out.

These include the obvious problems relating to Malaysia’s less-than-stellar human rights record. Malaysia is far from a liberal western democracy, and refugees living in Malaysia enjoy few rights and suffer significant privations — even caning. There is also real concern, including from the United Nations, about whether the swap will involve the transfer of unaccompanied children to Malaysian detention camps — a possibility the government at first admitted and then denied. Unsurprisingly, the government has been struggling to convince anxious backbenchers and wary voters about the merits of the policy.

As usual, Labor is in another mess of its own making on asylum seeker policy. It’s a measure of just how poorly this government manages issues like this that Tony Abbott and even some refugee advocates started to argue this week that re-opening the old detention centre on Nauru would be more humane (that word again). Christian Kerr was spot on last night, speaking with the ABC’s Mark Colvin when he argued that Labor had effectively “wedged itself” on the issue.

Since Ferguson’s Four Corners episode, more than a few observers have pointed to the irony of the public outrage over inhumane treatment of cattle, at the very time that the Government is also planning to traffic thousands of refugees and asylum seekers between various prisons in what is becoming a regional gulag archipelago.

Matters are not being helped by the absurd media secrecy being implemented by the Department of Immigration. As Leigh Sales reported on 7.30 last night, media restrictions on reporting inside detention centres are now more draconian than those she faced when reporting from the US military prison in Guantanamo Bay. As Sales put it, “apparently Australian detention centres are less open and transparent than the most notorious prison on the planet”.

Labor’s struggles over refugee policy are entirely the result of its own moral failings. One response to the problem of seaborne asylum seekers would be to end mandatory detention and to implement onshore processing rapidly, fairly and efficiently. Instead, Labor has tried a series of policies which it has hoped will allow it to appear tough on border protection while somehow still meeting Australia’s obligations under international law. None have worked, because none have addressed the fundamental causes of Labor’s political problem: the mismatch between the evidence of small and manageable asylum seeker arrivals, and hostile public opinion egged on by irresponsible media outlets and opportunistic conservative politicians.

There is a broader conclusion to be drawn. The continuing political controversy over refugee policy and live cattle exports shows that politics can never be conducted simply as an exercise in utilitarian efficiency, management or political fixes. Even if policy-makers believe they have crafted a solution which can keep the tabloid press quiet, back-benchers happy and voters satisfied, issues which appear to ordinary people to be simply morally wrong can never be easily swept under the carpet.

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