The Politics    Monday, October 31, 2016

The psychological moment

By Sean Kelly

The psychological moment
Peter Dutton with UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi Source
Decoding the latest asylum-seeker announcement, and the slow abandonment of principle

One measure of the dishonesty of our political debate is the extent to which political commentators are reduced (or, probably, elevated) to the role of the reader of a Hercule Poirot mystery. Ah, we say, that character says this. I’ve read this type of book before – he can’t possibly be telling the truth! Let me inspect the other things he has said; the way he has behaved in the past; the contradictions in his behaviour. Now I see what is actually going on! This is the real story: let me explain.

So it is with the government’s announcement yesterday that it will legislate to stop anybody who tries to come to Australia by boat – or has tried since late 2013 – from ever coming here. No matter if they are resettled elsewhere, they will never set foot on Australian land, not as a worker, not as a tourist, and certainly not as a citizen.

This time what kicked in was not merely the reflex cynicism one applies to politicians of all stripes, or to conservative politicians making announcements about immigration. The government’s story didn’t add up. Its main explanation was that it needed to send a message to people smugglers. Given we’ve all endured an infinity of press conferences telling us the boats have stopped, this was a little confusing.

Let me try to tell you what I think is going on, why I think the government isn’t telling us, and finally what is most awful about all of this.

Michelle Grattan did some excellent deductive work last night, ruling out various possibilities before concluding that the government must be aiming at the resettlement in third countries of asylum seekers and refugees from Nauru and Manus Island.

Peter Dutton has said some gratuitously awful things about asylum seekers, and so you can see why some people suspect him of acting out of pure malice. But I don’t buy it. This is actual legislation, not rhetoric, and I err on the side of believing the government is still trying to govern. If that turns out not to be the case, then this is a more awful moment for our country than it already seems.

The logic is behind Grattan’s conclusion. In September, Dutton started backing away from previous strong language against the possibility of accepting New Zealand’s offer to take refugees off Australia’s hands. There have been suggestions of a deal with the United States. Pressed today, Dutton would not rule out any of the above.

I suspect Dutton is genuine, too, in believing that this will remove any skerrick of doubt among those in our hellish offshore detention centres that they will ever get to Australia, which, he believes, will increase the likelihood they will accept other resettlement options, even if they don’t end up being as desirable as New Zealand or America.

This is all guesswork – which is an absurd situation. There are obvious dangers in speculation. But this is what we are forced to by a government that refuses to level with its citizens about its real intentions.

Why, then, is the government refusing to just tell us what is going on?

I reckon there are two reasons.

The first is that it is concerned that the right message is sent to people smugglers. Announcing this on the same day as a third-country resettlement deal would ensure that was the main story, and today’s “tough” action would be overlooked. The government wants people smugglers and their prospective clients to hear the bad news first.

The second is far more cynical. There are many people out there today talking about the government wanting to “wedge” Labor, and to drag attention away from its other troubles. I very much doubt this is the government’s first priority. But I am also certain the government sees those outcomes as an added bonus. By announcing the legislation without the resettlement context the Coalition makes it more difficult for Labor to jump on board. And if Labor does not accept the legislation, stripped of its context, then the government gets to loudly bellow, in a few days’ time, that Labor are stopping those poor souls on island hellholes from going free.

And here’s where we get to what is terrible about this legislation.

There have been a number of attempts today to explain in practical terms why stopping people ever coming to Australia – even if they are resettled in another country – is awful. People should be able to visit family members, or attend a funeral, or even just visit on a holiday in 20 years. All are fair, but ultimately unconvincing, because we are talking about a handful of people. Will any of them really want to visit a nation that has treated them so badly, anyway?

This is one of those occasions in politics when principles matter, and when they are the only persuasive argument.

The principle here is simple: somebody should not be punished for seeking asylum. In this case we are punishing people with a denial of free movement around the globe, and a refusal of any chance of citizenship.

Those might not seem like significant rights to deny someone, but that is partly because we have, as a nation, already become utterly relaxed about punishing people for seeking asylum by removing a much more significant right, namely freedom.

A nation which subjects people to the horror of indefinite detention as punishment for the non-crime of fleeing for their life is hardly going to get worked up about simply stopping people visiting Australia.

This is the worst part of all. That after watching the torture of asylum seekers on Nauru and Manus Island – that is Amnesty International’s word – the spectrum of behaviour we are prepared to accept from our government has slid so far.

In fact, it is easy to imagine the sigh of relief from asylum seeker advocates everywhere when resettlement is finally announced. At least, they will say, this era of island gulags is over. I have said similar today.

But this is only because, as a nation, we are in the process of giving up believing that means matter as much as ends. We have all been worn down by the despair we have seen unfold. The government will be able to say: These people are free! That’s what you wanted, right? The rights they don’t have any more are not such a big price to pay.

And this, in turn, is the same logic that got us here in the first place. People are drowning, we were told. Therefore anything that stops them getting on boats is justifiable, right? This is the end we all want. So any means are justified.

It is the same argument that is rolled out every time our civil liberties are threatened by new laws to “protect us from terrorism”. Anything goes, as long as it keeps us safe.

When a nation truly believes that anything can be justified, and that principles can always be jettisoned, provided the goal is sufficiently important, then it has reached a dangerous place. It is a place at which we stop asking “What type of a country do we want to be?” We are not there yet, but perhaps we are not as far away as we would like.


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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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