The Politics    Thursday, July 23, 2015

Turnback backflip

By Sean Kelly

What Labor is thinking

I have been sitting at my desk for a little while now trying to write something on just how much I hate the asylum seeker debate in Australia.

I hate it because it’s dishonest – on all sides. I hate it because it is built, shakily, on xenophobic foundations that our major parties are reluctant to challenge. I hate it because none of our parties are willing to be brutally honest about the moral calculus their policies rely on. I’ve written a little about this before and I will return to it someday, but a genuine appraisal would require more length than I have today.

I want to restrict myself to a much simpler task. Last night Bill Shorten indicated he wants Labor to have the option of turning asylum seeker boats back (“turnbacks”) if Labor forms government. I think it’s worth explaining what Shorten and his allies are probably thinking at this point.

Don’t mistake this for an apologia for Shorten. I think it is always worth trying to understand what our political leaders are thinking. If you’re somebody who wants to change Labor’s mind on this, starting in ignorance of Labor’s considerations won’t get you very far. (I also recommend this superb piece on the topic from Katharine Murphy.)

The first thing to recognise is that asylum-seeker policy is seen by many political professionals as something that has ceased to be about asylum seekers at all. That isn’t to say they don’t care at all about refugees – many do, and we’ll get to that. But at a purely political level, by which I mean “what wins votes”, many operatives will tell you that for voters it’s not really about boats, or the people on them.

Instead, asylum-seeker policy has become a proxy for good management. Voters like it when politics is not on the front page – especially after the obliterating noise festival of the last few years. When boats are arriving every week, and ending up on newspaper front pages and television broadcasts, these men and women will tell you, voters very quickly form a picture of a government that doesn’t know what it’s doing.

The major objection that is often made to this is that politicians, and especially politicians of the left (though really there is no reason the welfare of displaced human beings should provoke an ideological schism), should take it upon themselves to change the parameters of debate in Australia.

That might well be true. That kind of shift might be achievable for a politician with serious political capital, which neither major party leader currently has. (Of course you can have a chicken-and-egg argument here about brave arguments and leadership approval.) Perhaps Kevin Rudd could have managed it in 2008. I can guarantee you no political leader with the woeful approval ratings of Abbott and Shorten is going to attempt it.

The reason political leaders are loath to try is because of the widespread belief that asylum seeker policies change Australian election results, built largely on John Howard’s 2001 “Tampa” election victory. Peter Brent has repeatedly argued against this, and his case is worth reading. But the belief of many political professionals is that, while Brent might be right that boats are not, in and of themselves, an election-winning issue, their status as a proxy for good government means that in effect they are.

Some people, I know, are wondering how on earth Labor thinks it can get away with the hypocrisy of having argued against turnbacks for years, before embracing them now. The answer to that is as cynical as it is simple. The conventional wisdom is that backflips and broken promises matter – if the policy you’re introducing is unpopular, like the carbon tax, or GP fees. But a backflip to get to a policy you think most voters want – like scrapping petrol excise indexation (Howard again) or “stopping the boats” – won’t hurt you in the same way.

Finally, there is the fact that many on the Labor side are genuine in their desire to stop drownings, and in their decision to make that their priority in asylum seeker policy. But of course MPs, like all human beings, are complicated: where the line lies between sincere justification for decisions that work pragmatically and self-justification for decisions actually taken on pragmatic grounds is difficult to judge.

That, of course, is one of the awful things about the asylum seeker debate in Australia: “concern for drownings” has slowly morphed from a genuine motivation to a catch-all argument for “whatever it takes to stop the boats, no matter how cruel”. Within the large group of people using the argument, some are sincere, and some are not.

That is why, if Labor chooses to leave turnbacks on the table at its national conference this weekend – and I suspect it will – it must explain to Australians where exactly its line is: what is it not prepared to tolerate? The “by hook or by crook” approach of the prime minister is reprehensible. It implies that any cruelty is justified as long as boats do not come.

If the ALP intends to argue that it is different – and it would be absurd if this nation’s largest progressive party did not – then it must explain what cruelties it will stop. More asylum seekers have died on Manus Island than have been resettled. Revelations about the appalling healthcare provided in detention centres continue. Vague criticisms are not enough. If Labor is now for turnbacks, it must tell us what it is against.


Today’s links

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.


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