September 2010


Asylum seekers

By Robert Manne
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

The first boat in Australian history with asylum seekers on board reached our northern coastline in April 1976. Over the next 34 years a further 24,000 boatpeople, as they came to be called, arrived. One of the most intriguing and puzzling questions of Australian politics is how so apparently minor an issue has had such an impact on our national life for such a protracted period of time. No political question has more clearly separated Australia’s ‘battlers’ from the inner-city ‘elites’. No ideological issue has more sharply divided the Left from the Right. The asylum seeker issue dominated the 2001 election. It cast its shadow across the 2010 campaign. It has blighted the careers of two Labor leaders, Kim Beazley and Kevin Rudd.

The first boatpeople were South Vietnamese fleeing from the communist victory of 1975. Between 1976 and 1982, 2000 reached our shores. In order to stem the flow, the Fraser government accepted more than 50,000 Vietnamese from the archipelago of refugee camps in Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. Australians were easily panicked by the spontaneous arrival of a small number of boats. They were comfortable and relaxed about a far larger refugee program under government control. In the history of Australia and boatpeople, these were the halcyon years. The Fraser government treated all these refugees, including the spontaneous boat arrivals, with exemplary generosity. There was no talk of mandatory detention or temporary protection visas. Fraser could not have accomplished this alone, however. The success of the settlement relied on the existence of a bipartisan consensus within the Australian political elite. With the boat arrivals, the Labor Opposition under Whitlam, and then Hayden, resisted the temptation to exploit underlying racist or anti-refugee sentiment for party political gain. Even the Cold War ideological divide was blurred. The Right supported the refugees as escapees from communism; the Left as part of the project of burying White Australia.

No boats of asylum seekers arrived for several years after 1982. In the early 1990s, however, a new wave of mainly Cambodian asylum seekers landed in the north. In response, the Keating government erected Australia’s first anti-asylum seeker deterrent barricade – mandatory detention. In the mid 1990s, a larger number of boats arrived bearing mainly Chinese or Sino-Vietnamese. The asylum claims were rejected. The repatriation process was so swift, ruthless and efficient that few Australians are even now aware that it took place.

In 1999 boats with asylum seekers mainly from the Middle East began arriving. The overwhelming majority were indisputably genuine refugees who had fled from the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and from the Iranian theocratic state. While the Left in general welcomed these asylum seekers on humanitarian and anti-racist grounds, the Right reacted with undisguised hostility. The Cold War was over; the Bush-led wars against the Taliban and Saddam Hussein had not yet begun. Although, as a signatory to the Refugee Convention, the Howard government was obliged to assess the asylum claims of the Afghans, the Iraqis and the Iranians, it made their lives as unpleasant as possible. The asylum seekers were described as “illegal immigrants” and as “queue jumpers”. Under the already existing system of mandatory detention, men, women and even children faced indefinite periods of imprisonment behind razor wire in desert camps. Mental illness, hunger strikes, self-harm and suicide attempts became common. For those whose asylum applications succeeded, a system of temporary protection visas was introduced. The new refugees were unable to build secure lives or even to apply to have their wives or children join them.

Gradually the asylum seeker issue moved to the centre of Australian political life. It divided Australian society into two relatively clear groups. The mainstream was overwhelmingly hostile to the Middle Eastern asylum seekers; a smaller number of well-educated and well-heeled inner-city dwellers were their friends. Since the 1996 election, the Howard government had been searching for a way to ride the populist wave Pauline Hanson had created. In late August 2001 it discovered how when it refused to allow the Norwegian vessel, the Tampa, to unload its cargo of 433 mainly Afghan asylum seekers on Christmas Island. Mainstream opinion responded with delight at the boarding of the Tampa by SAS troops. It reacted with anger at even the slightest sign of Labor opposition to the anti-asylum seeker course that Howard had chosen. With Tampa, Howard simultaneously satisfied the appetite for an aggressive populist politics One Nation had stimulated and threatened to tear the Labor Party apart along the seam dividing its two core constituencies: the professional middle class and the traditional working class. Having forbidden the Tampa to land, the government swiftly improvised a system for preventing the arrival of any further asylum seeker boats. The government excised both Christmas Island and Ashmore Reef from Australia for the purposes of the operation of the Immigration Act. Asylum seekers would no longer need to be dealt with according to the legal obligations of the Refugee Convention. It mounted a naval and air operation the purpose of which was to intercept all asylum seeker boats heading towards Australia – to drive the seaworthy ones back to Indonesia and to dispatch the passengers of the non-seaworthy ones to hastily improvised offshore processing detention camps on Nauru and Manus Island, Papua New Guinea. It called the anti-asylum system it created the Pacific Solution.

Since the early 1990s Australian governments had been searching for an effective anti-asylum seeker deterrent. The old system of deterrence begun under Keating and completed under Howard – indefinite mandatory detention in desert camps, temporary protection visas, anti-people smuggling operations – had comprehensively failed. Between 1999 and 2001, some 180 boats bearing around 12,000 asylum seekers reached Australia. The new system of military repulsion and offshore processing in detention camps on godforsaken Pacific Islands was an equally comprehensive ‘success’. In the six years between 2002 and 2007, 18 boats arrived with fewer than 300 asylum seekers. The liberal political imagination finds it difficult to accept that political ends are often achieved through the use of brutal means. History is however full of such examples. The Pacific Solution was one. Through a combination of military force, diplomatic bribery and legal chicanery, the Howard government was able to solve Australia’s ‘problem’ with asylum seeker boats.

In the six years between the Tampa and the election of the Rudd government, the friends of the asylum seekers seemed incapable of thinking clearly about the meaning of what had occurred. It was one thing to condemn the Pacific Solution as immoral. It was an altogether different thing to pretend that Howard’s anti-asylum seeker deterrent barrier had not succeeded. The friends of the asylum seekers found it impossible to accept the main reason that asylum seeker boats had stopped coming to Australia, namely that no one was interested in paying people smugglers thousands of dollars for the privilege of languishing in misery in the hellhole on Nauru. This failure of intellectual honesty was not costless. By the third year of the Rudd government, there would be a heavy political price to pay.

In ‘Faith in Politics’, an article written for the Monthly prior to his bid to lead the Labor Party, Kevin Rudd wrote passionately about the question of asylum seekers.

Another great challenge of our age is asylum seekers. The biblical injunction to care for the stranger in our midst is clear. The parable of the Good Samaritan is but one of the many which deal with the matter of how we should respond to the vulnerable stranger in our midst.

Rudd was true to these words. In 2008 his government abolished temporary protection visas; it pledged to try to settle all asylum seeker claims within three months; it formally ended offshore processing by closing the nearly empty detention camp on Nauru. Softening mandatory detention and ending temporary protection were unproblematic. Neither measure had succeeded as a deterrent. Abandoning the Pacific Solution was not. It had been the creation of the offshore processing camps that was primarily responsible for stopping the asylum seeker boats.

In retrospect it is clear that the government would have been wiser to move towards the kind of regional offshore processing centre that Julia Gillard suggested on the eve of the 2010 election than simply to close the detention camp on Nauru. What reason did the government have for believing that if the Pacific Solution was simply abandoned asylum seeker boats would not return? If the Rudd government wanted to help asylum seekers, it could have increased substantially its annual quota of refugees. As in the days of the Fraser government with its intake of Vietnamese, a generous refugee resettlement program would have posed no danger for Rudd. Dismantling Howard’s Pacific Solution and presiding over an apparent loss of control at the border carried grave political risk.

The risks it ran were always obvious. In November 2008 I argued in the Monthly that the Rudd asylum seeker policy was morally admirable but politically perilous:

The hope of the government is … that because of the success of the Howard government’s brutal deterrence policy, people smugglers will continue to give Australia a wide berth. The new humanitarianism of the Rudd government’s asylum seeker policy is free-riding on the ‘success’ of the Howard government’s inhumanity. Rudd is gambling on the fact that the shaky logical and moral foundations of its asylum seeker policy will not be tested.

Other friends of the asylum seekers probably found this an inconvenient truth too unpleasant to face. As we now know, that gamble failed. During the course of 2009, almost 2800 asylum seekers reached Australia by boat. During the first eight months of this year, 4000.

Less than a year ago, the question of boat arrivals became a serious political problem for the Rudd government. Rudd now spoke rather incoherently of his determination to find an asylum seeker policy that was simultaneously “tough” and “humane”, that is to say, which expressed a Good Samaritan’s sympathy for asylum seekers but treated the people smugglers who served their interests by bringing them to Australia as “vermin”. He sought to convince the public that changes in the international situation rather than the abandonment of the Pacific Solution explained the return of the asylum seeker boats. Unfortunately this defied common sense. In 2008 and 2009 there had been an identical number of asylum seeker claims lodged in Western countries – 377,000. By contrast, in 2008 some 160 boatpeople had reached Australia and in 2009, as we have seen, some 2800. Sensing the danger the return of the boats posed for his government, Rudd struggled to save the situation by attempting to improvise what became known as the Indonesian Solution. In return for the funding of detention centres, intelligence sharing, co-operative naval searches and joint anti-people smuggling operations, Indonesia, it was hoped, would prevent the onward movement to Australia of asylum seekers. The hope was almost instantly stillborn. Corruption ensured that anti-people smuggling operations would be partially successful at best. Moreover, Indonesia had unpleasant memories of the international criticism it had attracted from the West over conditions in the Galang detention camp it had agreed to run during the period of the outflow of Vietnamese refugees. Two attempts were made to institute the Indonesian Solution. Two hundred and fifty Sri Lankan asylum seekers were intercepted on Australia’s behalf and brought to the port of Merak. Seventy-eight Sri Lankan asylum seekers were rescued by Australia at Indonesia’s request and transferred to the customs vessel the Oceanic Viking in preparation for their detention in the Australian-financed camp, Tanjung Pinang. Both attempts ended in tears. In October 2009, following the Oceanic Viking’s failed attempt to unload its human cargo, Newspoll discovered that Labor’s primary vote had dropped by 7% in the space of a fortnight. With this poll, the longest honeymoon in Australian political history had come, rather abruptly, to an end. The Oceanic Viking was Tampa in reverse. Tampa convinced the Australian people that John Howard was strong; the Oceanic Viking that Kevin Rudd was weak.

At the time of the Oceanic Viking, Rudd faced a Liberal Party moderate, Malcolm Turnbull. Turnbull’s asylum seeker policy did not go beyond a return of temporary protection visas. By 2010 he faced a completely ruthless opponent, Tony Abbott. Abbott captured his argument with the prime minister’s asylum seeker policy in a witty aphorism: Labor had inherited a solution and created from it a problem. He advocated far more than a mere return to temporary protection visas. Boats should be turned round by military force. Nauru should be immediately reopened. Turnbull’s asylum seeker policy had been no more popular than Rudd’s. That was the price of decency. Abbott’s hit the spot. In the first six months of this year every opinion poll taken on the question of asylum seekers strongly favoured the Abbott policy. By now, the asylum seeker issue had clearly weakened the Rudd prime ministership. At the time of the Gillard challenge, Rudd spoke of his refusal to conduct “a race to the bottom” over the question of asylum seekers. His unwillingness to participate in this race was one of the reasons he lost the Labor leadership on 24 June.

Julia Gillard did not refuse such participation. The game was on. At the Lowy Institute, she argued that it was wrong to characterise those who were fearful of the return of the asylum seeker boats as “rednecks”, or to try to smother legitimate debate under a blanket of “political correctness”. (Pauline Hanson was delighted. As she pointed out, that was precisely what she had argued in her 1996 maiden speech.) Even her own migrant parents, Gillard told us, were appalled at the thought of special privileges for refugees. Although she was opposed to moving backwards to the Pacific Solution, she advocated moving forwards to the establishment of a regional offshore processing centre on the territory either of East Timor or some other country that had signed the Refugee Convention. The evil people smugglers had to be deprived of a product to sell; asylum seekers needed to learn that a successful boat trip to Australia merely bought them an air ticket to an undesirable offshore processing centre. This was the Pacific Solution with a human face. When Gillard travelled to Darwin, she boarded a coastal patrol vessel in the presence of the member for Lindsay, David Bradbury, to reassure the voters of western Sydney that they now were safe. Like Abbott, Gillard was now committed to stopping the boats. All that distinguished her asylum seeker policy from his was an unwillingness to restore temporary protection visas and stop the boats by reopening the detention centre on Nauru. An overwhelming majority of both Labor and Coalition voters welcomed Gillard’s tough new stance. Labor knew, in the words of the immigration minister, Senator Chris Evans, that the asylum seeker issue was “killing the government”. Following Gillard’s policy reversal, the danger had at least been significantly reduced.

The central puzzle in this story is why Australians are overwhelmingly hostile to asylum seekers who reach our shores by boat. There are probably too many plausible explanations rather than too few.

It is difficult to believe that the deepest patterns of the political culture play no role. For a century or more Australian immigration policy was dominated by fears about a small white population being overwhelmed by the hordes of Asians to our north. If the majority of the asylum seekers had been white Zimbabwean farmers and their families fleeing from the regime of Robert Mugabe, rather than Hazaras fleeing from the Taliban or Iraqis fleeing from Saddam Hussein or Tamils fleeing from the Sri Lankan Civil War, it is improbable, or so it seems to me, that public opinion would have tolerated their detention behind razor wire or their transportation to the hellhole on Nauru. It is revealing that, in many suburbs of Australia, African immigrants are thought to be asylum seekers.

Yet there is more to the hostility towards asylum seekers than ancient anxieties of race. For many Australians the spontaneous arrival of asylum seeker boats offends the central political virtue of the nation – the idea of the ‘fair go’. Lacking a history that makes it easy to imagine the kind of desperation borne of political oppression and fear, many Australians are genuinely disturbed by the disorderly nature of the refugee scramble for safety and receptive to the idea that those who reach Australia have done so at the expense of others by jumping the queue. On fair go grounds, even recent immigrants are unlikely to be more sympathetic to asylum seekers than Australians who have been settled here for generations. Many have struggled unsuccessfully to bring family members to Australia. Why should asylum seekers be allowed to enter Australia, they argue, when their own family members are not?

Nor should ordinary selfishness be ruled out as a reason for mainstream asylum seeker resentment. It seems to me no accident that the voters most hostile to the asylum seekers are those that John Howard called the battlers and those that Kevin Rudd christened working families: that is to say, those who believe they are doing it tough and who bitterly resent the supposed privileges given to outsiders. Downward envy is a potent force in all western societies. Nor is it an accident that entirely fanciful urban myths about asylum seekers being treated more generously by the state than ordinary citizens continue to circulate persistently and widely. In 2009, in addition, the asylum seeker issue became a surrogate for battlers’ hostility to Rudd’s enthusiasm for a Big Australia. Even though the population impact of successful asylum seeker claims is zero – for every successful onshore refugee claim one fewer refugee is accepted from abroad – as a result of this frightful muddle, voters seething in traffic jams in western Sydney are able to point the finger at asylum seekers.

Even more deeply, we live in an era where western societies are barricading themselves against the claims made upon them by perceived outsiders. European politics is increasingly dominated by fear of being swamped by Muslims; the politics of the United States is presently being shaped by hostility directed towards the millions of illegal immigrants from Mexico; and Australian politics is being moulded by resentment of the tiny handful of asylum seekers who arrive uninvited on our shores. Australia’s borders are more or less impenetrable. It would seem that no single asylum seeker boat has ever arrived unobserved. Yet in this atmosphere, as the drawbridge is raised, fantasies about the breakdown of border security seem to exercise an extraordinary and altogether irrational power.

In recent times friends of asylum seekers in Australia have described those who are hostile to asylum seekers, or who support a return to the Pacific Solution, as “rednecks”. In my opinion, this involves a serious category mistake. Every recent opinion poll makes it clear that hostility to unauthorised asylum seekers represents the opinion not of a small racist minority but of the overwhelming majority of the Australian mainstream. Neither ‘education’ nor ‘leadership’ seem likely in the near future to make Australians open their hearts to asylum seekers or to challenge the mood of the conservative populist political culture that crystallised at the time of Tampa. As recent political events have rather painfully revealed, no party that wishes to govern Australia can afford to ignore the meaning of what occurred in the spring of 2001.

Bertolt Brecht was responsible for one of the twentieth century’s best political jokes. After an incident in which East German troops fired on their own people, he composed what he thought to be the appropriate official announcement. “The government has lost confidence in the people. It has therefore decided to elect a new people.” A new people cannot however be elected. This is the situation that Australian friends of asylum seekers must now honestly confront.

– 18 August

Robert Manne

Robert Manne is emeritus professor of politics and vice-chancellor’s fellow at La Trobe University. His most recent books are The Mind of the Islamic State and On Borrowed Time.

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