I failed to mention in this Blog my contribution to The Brisbane Line last November:


Amongst leading liberal democratic nations, the US and Australia are now swimming against the electoral tide which has seen conservative governments assume or about to assume power. A majority of voters in both countries wanted change in their national politics. They chose a more liberal, compassionate government after having to contend with 8 and more than 11 years respectively, of two of the most hard-nosed conservative governments since World War 2. The newly elected leaders, Barack Obama and Kevin Rudd promptly obliged with commitments on the environment and social justice. The relief and euphoria was such that it led their more ardent supporters to hope that what they regarded as the extreme and uncaring politics of George W Bush and John Howard had become history. However, as with the flagged and hoped for measures to curb excessive corporate pay in the grimmest days of the global financial crisis, it did not take long for the old ways to reappear because in the minds of the perpetrators, mere moral outrage was never going to stop business as usual.  Thus it is, that health care in the US and boat people in Australia have encountered the kind of response which I suspect many of those who  elected Obama and Rudd as the antidote to Bush and Howard, hoped would no longer be on the political agenda.

That it is, is a cruel slap in the face to everyone who dared wish otherwise and confirmation that an ugly force is reasserting itself.  In the case of Obama’s health care legislation, it has only taken a few months for malign conservatism to emerge from Republican electoral defeat and, seemingly unchallenged, shout Obama down. In Australia, Howard’s malign conservatism, having come up with the Pacific solution, Temporary Protection Visas and locking up children in detention centres, has reasserted itself in making boat people the top political issue.

After the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to President Obama, I received an email from a global, grass roots campaigning organization, seeking a million people to support him by signing a congratulatory email, (which I did) urging him to push ahead with his pledges on nuclear weapons reduction, global warming, Middle East peace and measures to relieve world poverty. Obama’s election campaign was regarded as a triumph in the way it mobilised support from previously untapped voters in their millions. Where were his supporters when Obama needed them to send the opponents of his health care reforms packing? It is as if, having elected him, they felt they had done their duty and had nothing more to do. If that was the case, how wrong they were. On this defining issue Obama also needs the support of millions, not from around the world, but within the USA.

The truly shameful and sad thing about the current boat people debate is that it is framed in John Howard’s populist terms of fear and loathing and is souring the nation’s mood. Howard’s arguments are being recycled by an opportunistic opposition in its attacks on the government’s policy changes, which in turn not only dictate the government’s response, but also the way in which the media discuss the question. The policy changes have been widely welcomed and are to be applauded. But because of the government’s regrettable failure to go further on the issue by knocking John Howard’s core argument for six (that boat people are  a burgeoning horde of queue jumpers and thus a threat to national stability), it finds itself mired in a sordid political contest.

If I speak from my resentment to yours we will get on like a house on fire. It is the negative side of the coin of which the positive side is sharing one’s enthusiasms. It  is a formula which can be devastatingly successful in politics as John Howard demonstrated when he was Prime Minister, particularly regarding boat people. Speaking to the electorate’s resentment on populist issues is not the sign of good leadership. On the contrary, political leadership lies in carrying people on an issue by appealing to their better nature. Had Howard, at the time of Tampa sought to appeal to the side of the Australian character which reaches out to help those in desperate need, and succeeded, instead of demonizing asylum seekers as a threat to national security and turning them into a popular target for resentment fuelled by latent racism,  there might well be no debate now. It is as easy to exaggerate as to downplay the numbers of boat people seeking passage to Australia. As to the security threat they pose, I am not aware that any of those who have been tried for a terrorist offence in Australia were boat people. Over the years the threatened hordes have not materialized on our shores and I doubt that is about to change, even with the latest increase in traffic.

Were it not for the significant rise in boat people numbers entering Australian waters in 2009, the coalition would not be attacking the government on an issue it blatantly and cynically exploited to boost its credibility on security matters when it was in power, at the expense of the then Labour opposition. After all, only 148 boat people were picked up by the Australian authorities in 2007 and 163 in 2008.  It would be asking too much of the media to condemn the opposition on moral grounds for resurrecting the refugee debate and thereby poisoning the national mood. On the contrary, the media have been willing partners in needlessly making boat people the country’s number one topic for discussion. Little wonder that a compromised government entered the fray on the coalition’s machismo terms, hoping to come out on top by paying Indonesia to thwart the people smugglers and prevent asylum seekers from leaving her territorial waters. Fortunately, amidst the generally alarmist tenor of the debate, the Immigration Minister Chris Evans, unlike the often strident Kevin Rudd, has maintained a calming presence, making a clear distinction between border protection and the routine processing of asylum seekers and listing the additional accommodation available to his department, if needed.

I do not condone people smugglers and would like to see a reduction in the number of their boats reaching Australian waters. But countless thousands of people fleeing from a life-threatening situation under a murderous regime or from persecution because of their political or religious beliefs, will surely thank god that people smugglers exist and risk the dangers of the journey to a safe haven, wherever in the world it might be. Currently two areas of conflict, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka account for most of the extra number of people on the move. Australia is not alone in having to deal with this increase. However, in the context of the 158,021 migrants Australia received in the last financial year, the number of boat people presently seeking asylum is truly modest. Underpinning the entire debate is perhaps its most unedifying aspect – the downright complacency and hypocrisy of those who leap to condemn people in a desperate plight, (which, as inhabitants of one of the most blessed countries on the planet, is quite beyond their knowing),  by branding them as illegal immigrants and queue-jumpers. What if the tables were turned and they had to flee Australia. Would they spurn the people smugglers? I think not. If they could afford the fare they would consider themselves genuine refugees and rush to board the boat.

Families of officials apart, I cannot conceive of any way in which the presence of some 1,000 boat people on Christmas Island is having an adverse impact on the daily lives of mainland Australians except as a result of stirring by politicians and the media.  Nor can I imagine that accepting 1000 or 1500 boat people  a year, is beyond the financial resources of one of the wealthiest countries on earth, even at this time of reduced economic activity, or the emotional and psychological resources of its citizens. Based on past experience, the refugees allowed to settle in Australia will, given the opportunity, fully contribute to its national life. Applicants who don’t pass muster will not be permitted to stay. In my view, the boat people are not a threat to Australia and do not deserve to be treated as if they are. The people who make them out to be a threat, the scare-mongering politicians, journalists and programme presenters who irresponsibly unleash fear and loathing in their fellow Australians, should hang their heads in shame.

Peter Kuttner

October 2009