Thursday, April 28, 2016

Today by Sean Kelly

A tragic stalemate
The PNG “bombshell” will change nothing for asylum seekers


An old piece of political wisdom suggests that you shouldn’t worry about whether you’re winning a particular debate – your main concern should be ensuring you’ve picked the right debate to have. Or to put it another way: as long as everybody’s talking about an issue that favours you, you’re winning.

For example, the clearest indication the Coalition has decided negative gearing is a vote-winner is the fact it deliberately made it the story on Sunday, and continued to talk about it for several days afterwards. The PM didn’t do a great job of spruiking his message, but he talked on nonetheless.

In fact, after a couple of days of prime ministerial missteps I began to think he was on his way to turning it into a positive for Labor. But I was wrong, and the reason I know I was wrong is that Labor decided to change the topic and talk about climate change.

This was interesting, too. It might be that the ALP wanted to get the subject of emissions trading schemes over and done with – but it may also be the case that carbon prices are no longer the political danger they once were.

This week, the Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea delivered a potential doozy to the Turnbull government, in the form of a ruling that the detention of asylum seekers and refugees on Manus Island is illegal. Yesterday the PNG government announced the Manus detention centre would be shut down.

It’s an example of the campaign truism that unexpected events will always dictate more than you expect.

As several commentators have pointed out, it also shifts the battleground onto traditionally favourable terrain for the Coalition: asylum seeker policy. Even if things are going badly, goes the theory, it’s the right topic to be talking about, because voters trust the Liberal party to deal with it more than the ALP.

Sydney shock-jock Ray Hadley told Immigration Minister Peter Dutton that people had been contacting him “a bit concerned the prime minister doesn’t have the stomach for what you’re talking about and it’s a real battle to keep these people out of our country”. Dutton reassured Hadley that the PM was “rock solid”. And he was, too, today tossing out words like “strong” and “secure” [paywall] and assuring Australians that none of the detainees would be coming to Australia.

I tend to agree with the political analysis that all of this is good for the Coalition – right now. But Turnbull needs to do something he has not done often in his brief prime ministership, which is to back up strong words with strong actions. If the situation descends into unmanaged chaos then it will simply reflect what voters have begun to suspect: that the PM is, ultimately, a bit of a ditherer.

That’s the politics. At a substantive level – also known as the level in which asylum seekers’ actual experiences are taken into account – it is a great pity this is happening in the days before an election campaign begins in earnest.

It is now clear that the situations on Nauru and on Manus Island are inhumane. It is equally clear that they will not be fixed, not by anyone. If they have not improved by now, they never will. A 23-year-old man on Nauru set himself alight this week, such was his despair. Despite previous assurances from Dutton of health care better than in some parts of regional Australia, it took 24 hours for the man to be airlifted to somewhere capable of treating his injuries adequately.

Both major parties must share the blame for the current situation.

But of course neither the government nor the Labor party will take a backwards step, not with all the political risk that would entail weeks from polling day. Not even with some Labor MPs splitting from party policy. That will be viewed within senior levels of the ALP only as a political problem to be managed, and within the Coalition as an early Christmas.

If the court’s decision had happened after the election, there may have been a small – perhaps miniscule – chance that these events would prompt a genuine reconsideration of current policies. But right now that chance is zero. On either side.

I looked back today at what the PM had said early on in his prime ministership. The quote is worth reading in full:

I have the same concerns about the situation of people on Manus and Nauru as you do, and as I would think almost all, all, Australians do. As the minister, Mr Dutton, does. But what I am not going to do is make changes to our border protection policy sitting here with you. Our policies will change, all policies change. But when we do make changes we will do so in a considered way and they will be made by the ministers, the minister, myself, the cabinet.

The PM indicated concerns, and the potential for change. There has been no change, and today the PM said “We cannot be misty-eyed about this.” It has been a rapid transformation for Turnbull, and a microcosm of the story of his leadership to date. A leader for whom anything seemed possible has become a man clinging to political orthodoxies in the face of political mortality. It is impossible not to wonder: is this really the prime minister Turnbull wanted so desperately to become?


Today’s links

  • You can watch a video of Turnbull 2015 vs Turnbull 2016 here. Peter Dutton struggles under questioning from Karl Stefanovic. Madeline Gleeson says the men on Manus must be brought to Australia. Waleed Aly says this is Labor’s fault as much as the government’s.
  • The PM predicts that a same-sex marriage plebiscite will result in a “yes” vote, and says the debate will be civil.
  • Arthur Sinodinos is refusing to appear before a Senate committee.
  • Niki Savva has some good advice for Bill Shorten: Labor needs to talk about jobs [paywall]. Paul Kelly [paywall] on the fundamental equations in this election. Dennis Shanahan points out that Turnbull and Morrison are not exactly on message [paywall].
  • Christopher Pyne wrongly claimed that Defence made the decision to build the new submarines entirely in Australia.
  • More executions in Indonesia?
  • One last Beyoncé piece, this one from Hilton Als, and including Octavia Butler, Cecil Taylor, and Prince.
  • Donald Trump will put “America First”

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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