The Politics    Monday, June 29, 2015

Black and white

By Sean Kelly

Public debate is becoming dangerously simplified

I wrote last week about the way that governments reshape what is normal. Sometimes this is done by proposing an extreme option that then drags the centre ground in its direction.

Other times it’s achieved by simply implementing policy. If the policy is given long enough, and is seen to work, despite fierce arguments against it, it will often seep into the woodwork, become part of the furniture.

On the weekend, senior Labor MP Joel Fitzgibbon said that he supported boat turnbacks, saying he believed they would be adopted as policy at Labor’s national conference in July.

Last year, when shadow immigration minister Richard Marles suggested he might be open to turnbacks, he met sharp resistance, including from his leader Bill Shorten. Fitzgibbon’s intervention is less high profile – he’s not the responsible shadow minister – but the fact that neither Shorten nor Marles have sought to hose things down yet is probably significant.

It seems likely that turnbacks have played a role in the dramatic decrease of boats carrying asylum seekers to Australia under the Abbott government. This is the primary aim of both the Liberal and Labor parties, though they might employ different language to talk about it. It’s therefore not surprising that Labor is considering accepting the policy.

Objections should be noted. Both major parties offer as moral justification for their approaches the desire to prevent drowning. But turning a boat around, sending it back out to sea, pretty obviously increases the likelihood of those particular asylum seekers drowning. Perhaps it will decrease the overall likelihood of deaths at sea, but it’s not a simple equation.

Secondly, the fact that boats are being turned around gives the lie to the government’s claim that it has stopped the boats. It has stopped them arriving in Australia – it has not stopped their human cargo from attempting the journey. The numbers have certainly fallen, though we don’t know how much because the government won’t tell us.

Despite those objections, it seems very likely that the Abbott government has succeeded in shifting the policy needle on this issue. I suspect turnbacks are here to stay.

The broader problem is the way in which the asylum seeker debate has become entirely flattened. It is a policy area of enormous complexity, involving competing moral arguments, fickle diplomatic wrangling, and an abundance of factors, many of them outside the control of the Australian government. But in recent times (arguably beginning in 2001, but exacerbated in the past few years) it has become a polarised issue: you are either for stopping boats or you want them to come.

That flattening in turn has reshaped the debate into barbaric simplicities: any act of cruelty, of indifference, means you are for stopping the boats; any act of kindness, of human softness, means you are a bleeding heart.

This in turn is part of the same trend that has seen the prime minister ask the ABC whose side it is on. Or the Coalition’s willingness to argue that Opposition questioning of proposed terrorism laws is tantamount to not caring about national security. Suddenly every issue can be boiled down into two stark sides.

This is the truly frightening thing, I think. Political debate is always simplified to some extent – that is the nature of mass communication. But public debate right now, under the firm guiding hand of the prime minister, is being sucked dry of all nuance. Asking questions is fast becoming equated with treasonous indifference to the national interest. We are entering a dark place.



Today’s links

  • Greece may exit the euro. Its banks shut on Monday. The Australian stock market dived. (Side note: the stock market will tomorrow add its first leap second during trading hours since markets went electronic.)
  • Parliamentary secretary to the prime minister, Alan Tudge, pulled out of appearing on tonight’s Q&A, citing the government’s review into the program. Malcolm Turnbull also declined an invitation but said it was not a boycott. Tudge made his case here.
  • Turnbull’s interview yesterday with Barrie Cassidy was fiery. Well worth a watch, not least because, whatever side you’re on, you’ll think your side came out on top. And which side are you on, anyway?
  • Business organisations and lobby groups are calling on politicians to pursue action on climate change. The goals of the new alliance seem broad, presumably to encourage political parties not to switch off immediately. The danger with broad goals is always, of course, that they are set so broad as to end up meaningless. It will be interesting to see if this new group has an impact. It would be great if it did. 
  • Troy Bramston at the Australian reckons Bill Shorten’s in trouble, while his colleague Phil Hudson says October elections blow ill winds for Labor leaders.
  • Labor MP Andrew Leigh explains why we should care about inequality. Or for a longer read, he wrote this for the Monthly last year.
  • Social media is giving Tony Abbott the rainbow treatment. And when is it appropriate to remove your rainbow profile picture from Facebook?
  • 83 children died in domestic violence incidents in NSW in the past decade.
  • A civil trial against former Health Services Union national secretary Kathy Jackson has been confused by the news that she has declared bankruptcy.
  • 60 Minutes vs Belle Gibson.
  • California will make vaccinations for kids mandatory – only medical exemptions allowed

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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