I recently wrote a piece in response to Kevin Rudd’s return as prime minister of Australia, in which I endorsed him as someone with the potential to be a good prime minister. Over the course of the past few weeks, however, my disillusionment with Rudd has reached such a point that I can’t now express the same sentiments. Let me be clear that this has absolutely nothing to do with any preference for the conservative opposition, a bunch of loathsome worms, but with a sense of moral repugnance at what Labor has ostensibly come to represent in recent times. It is in their handling of the issue of asylum seekers that I have felt most moral outrage, but also in their lack of spine on certain matters of policy.
An old friend and long time Labor supporter recently published a piece in which he stated that the Labor party deserved to be repudiated at this election on account of their inhumane policies on this front, and I wholeheartedly agree. That the opposition policy is no less deserving of repudiation changes nothing – it simply means that both parties, or rather all three, including the Nationals of the opposition coalition – deserve repudiation. In a nutshell, no one should be rewarded for taking a heartless and hardline approach with the issue of refugees and asylum seekers.
It’s a complex question. Should we attempt to deter asylum seekers who have a right to seek asylum? If so, how do we establish an effective deterrent, whilst at the same time maintaining international obligations to which we are bound under the refugee convention? The problem is that in approaching this question both parties have focussed solely on the question of deterrent, factoring their “humanitarian concerns” only with regard to “stopping the boats” on account of the number of drownings at sea. This in itself is a worthwhile goal – no one wants to see people drown and nor does anyone think it is appropriate for people smugglers to put refugees into boats that are not seaworthy. From this point of view the idea of “stopping the boats” might seem almost admirable, yet the sad truth is that it is all about keeping the bloody wogs out.
When Rudd returned as Prime Minister, it was perhaps inevitable that, with such a short time frame until the election, his priority would be to “neutralise” the issues that were crippling Labor. First of those was Gillard herself, through no fault of her own, the victim of an increasingly hostile press who never had a chance to establish a positive narrative of good governance, despite an impressive record of legislation.
Second for Rudd was neutralising the “Carbon Tax,” another embarrassing failure for the government. The very fact that the government itself began referring to it as the “Carbon Tax” is indicative of how much they were overwhelmed by the negative narrative surrounding it. Julia Gillard had already tarnished the issue with her fatally stupid promise that there would be no carbon tax, turning a moral high ground positive into a broken promise nightmare. Within a few days of returning to office, Rudd effectively quashed the tax by switching a year early to the floating carbon price – a wholly ineffectual licence to pollute. Now, in another pathetic backdown, Rudd has said that Labor never had a mandate for the carbon pricing scheme. Yet, in effect, Labor already had a mandate for carbon pricing as it was on the cards in the 2007 election, which they won handsomely. It’s just that Rudd chickened out once he failed to get his policy through the senate in 2010. A government’s job is to govern – they must make decisions that best suit the public interest, short or long term, and not all of those decisions can be popular. Are we supposed to believe that any decision they make in the course of their term that was not flagged during the election campaign requires a mandate? Labor should own their policies if they have any merit and stop apologising. That is leadership. And yet, in the sorry and apologetic way in which they went about constructing the carbon pricing scheme and the mining tax, they came up with policies not worth owning.
Not quite last, and certainly not least, was Rudd’s attempt to neutralise asylum policy – “stopping the boats”. He was quick out of the blocks in promoting his hardline PNG Solution, denying anyone who comes by boat to Australia the right to seek asylum in Australia – instead being re-settled in Papua New Guinea. This might seem to some like a coup for handwashing pragmatism – keeping the problem entirely offshore and denying asylum seekers any incentive to come here. Other things aside, this policy smacks of a mix of colonial superiority – the idea that no one could possibly want to be re-settled in PNG and would thus abandon their plans to cross the sea smacks of grotesque arrogance – and gross irresponsibility in refusing to accept legitimate refugees into our wealthy, safe country, and instead fobbing them off to a developing country with one of the highest rates of rape, murder and violence in the world and drastic levels of social inequality and dysfunction. If this isn’t bad enough, the refugees are, in the meantime, to be housed in crowded tent camps on poorly serviced tropical islands like Nauru, waiting potentially years to be processed and suffering all manner of anguish and indignity in the meantime.
Yes there’s an argument that allowing onshore processing or settlement in the community might encourage more asylum seekers to risk their lives in boats. There are also pragmatic and economic questions to consider. Can Australia support any further intake of refugees? Outer suburban Australia, in contrast to inner city electorates, has largely been suspicious of and hostile to the influx of refugees into Australia. Much of this reflects some degree of neglect by state governments in providing services and infrastructure in places such as western Sydney, where hostility to asylum seekers is strongest. There is a misguided and incorrect perception in the community that asylum seekers get a better deal than locals and that the government favours these groups. The numbers themselves are not significant. Despite arguments by the government that Australia takes its fair share of refugees, on a per capita basis, we are actually ranked 69th in the world and 49th when considering the total number of refugees on a yearly basis. This rather belies the idea that we are drowning in refugees. Jordan, with 73 refugees per thousand people, is drowning in refugees. Australia averages 1 refugee per thousand people.
Yet of course, it’s not really a practical or an economic question. It is a moral question. How do we treat people in need and what do we do to protect the vulnerable? Sending them offshore to a tent-camp hell-hole is utterly un-Australian in my books. Whatever happened to our generosity and hospitality? And yes, many refugees might well turn out to be economic migrants, but why not take them at their word and allow them to live and work in the community until proven otherwise? Or are we afraid that they might take our jobs and fuck all our women?
Irrespective of their pissweak attitude in certain policy areas, and equally irrespective of their policies which I strongly support – the Gonski education reforms, the National Disability Insurance Scheme, the National Broadband network and Denticare to name a few, this wilful demonising of asylum seekers is not something I can support, and I can’t support a government that expresses these attitudes and implements such a ghastly deterrent. This is not good enough from Labor and nor is it in line with my understanding of their core beliefs and principles. As Tom Clark recently wrote:
If you believe the policy of deterrence is immoral – clearly, not everybody does – then you simply cannot give your vote or your money to federal candidates of the ALP. You can argue they are victims of history, naively caught in another prohibition folly; you can argue their approach is less appalling than the Liberals, although this is now a very hard claim to sustain; but I don’t see how you can admit Phillip Adams’ case that it is worth tolerating because Labor is doing good work in other areas. Unconscionable wrong is unconscionable wrong — or else it is not a moral question after all.
For a while there I was flirting with the idea of voting Labor, as I once used to do with regularity – anything to stop the conservatives getting back in – but not now. Only the Greens have shown sufficient humanity in this ugly, quite frankly, disgusting debate and it is they who will be getting my vote. Of course, in our two-party preferred system a vote for the Greens is usually a tacit vote for Labor, and a Labor victory is still my preferred outcome, over the wholly inappropriately named “Liberals”. Yet, as I said above, anyone who pushes this kind of dog-whistle politics is not eligible for my vote.
I conclude with a song by Waiting for Guinness, which pretty much sums up the irony of Australia’s present stance in relation to refugees. Written during the Howard era, it is perhaps even more relevant now than ever – because, don’t kid yourselves otherwise, this is really all about “keeping out the riff raff.”
Keeping out the Riff Raff – Waiting for Guinness
I’ll tell you a tale,
about the history of an old floating gaol
about a fact that’s well reported,
the place where riff-raff were transported.
And so they all swam ashore,
murdering thieves and the poor,
a nation made of riff raff,
a nation made of strangers from afar.
So in order to last
we wrote a story and extinguished the past
and then we made a few decisions
and put the locals into missions
and then the governing few
set up an orderly queue
to filter out the riff raff
to filter out the strangers from afar
That’s why we’re keeping out the riff raff
locking them all away
sending them into darkness
back around the bay
you’ll be re-elected
it’s as clear as day
just keep the whingers in the gutter
and the riff raff away.
We’re waiting in line
We wait here while they count our numbers
And keep our eyes out for queue jumpers
Wait for instructions from the bunkers
Keeping our big eyes wide
Keeping the pigs by our side
Keeping out the riff raff
Keeping out the strangers from afar
And we’re all keeping out the riff raff
locking them all away
sending them into darkness
back around the bay
you’ll be re-elected
it’s as clear as day,
cos if they sew their lips together,
you can’t hear what they say.
Because they’re taking our jobs and fucking our women
and they’re taking our jobs and rooting all our women
and they’re taking our jobs and fucking our women
taking our jobs and rooting all our women
repeat (increasingly hysterically).