With the carbon tax about to shadow the all but terminally darkened reign of Julia Gillard, we have been subjected to a tumultuous and plangent debate on asylum-seekers that has left nobody laughing, least of all the refugees.
No one can doubt the sorrow and the pity of the deaths of the boat people, but is it a sane or compassionate response to this tragedy to think that a bipartisan policy of more Draconian offshore processing will somehow cure our dismay and understandable guilt?
Gillard put the weight of all the vehement urgency she could muster behind the independent Rob Oakeshott’s bill under which the House of Representatives could circumvent the High Court’s outlawing of offshore processing and allow asylum-seekers to be put on Nauru according to Coalition preference, as well as the Gillard government’s even worse scheme for sending the asylum-seekers to Malaysia (which is not a signatory to the United Nations convention on refugees and offers no prospect whatsoever of eventual settlement in Australia no matter how just the need for refuge is proven to be).
It is astonishing that a bill allowing this duality of iniquities should seriously have been contemplated by the Parliament in the name of compassion.
No wonder Sarah Hanson-Young, the Greens’ spokesman on the issue, wept in the Senate which, by the grace of God, voted down the Oakeshott bill by ten votes thanks to a rare alliance between the Coalition and the Greens.
Yes, it was moving when Joe Hockey said in the House, his voice choked with emotion, that no unaccompanied 13-year-old would ever be exiled to Malaysia: ‘over my dead body’, he said, as if speaking for us all. And, yes, who can doubt the sincerity of those stalwarts of liberalism, Andrew Wilkie in the Lower House and Nick Xenophon in the Upper, who reversed their principled objections to offshore processing in the hope of preventing terrible deaths.
Of course it was plangent, of course the deaths of the boat people are terrible, but the reaction of the Parliament has been one of hysteria. And it was a hysteria fanned by a Prime Minister about to introduce a carbon tax which nobody believes she believes in, and it represented an extraordinary and opportunistic bid for moral parity with Tony Abbott’s Opposition which everybody is convinced will beat her at the next election, as no Labor party has ever been beaten.
If it works then she will have effected a compounding of the compassion and the fear which the asylum-seekers provoke in the community. The fact that the Prime Minister dragged with her some fraction of bleeding hearts in the parliament (and the Fairfax press) simply testifies to how muddleheaded the Australian wombat gets.
And we should be careful when the wombat cries because that doesn’t stop the little children drowning in the seas.
But Gillard is well-placed to play on Australian ambivalence about boat people. Remember that dumbfounding speech she gave, only a few weeks into her premiership and before the election campaign proper, in which she claimed to have a sympathetic understanding of everything Julian Burnside said on the refugee question, but also understood those working people of Australia (she meant Westies) who didn’t want them flooding in. OK, she’s not a Nazi but it was like someone saying in the Weimar Republic with National Socialism rising, ‘We honour the contribution of the Jewish people to the culture of Germany but we also understand those people who think they are a problem.’
You can’t have it both ways. You either accept that the boat people are desperate human beings in fear of their lives who have a right to asylum under an international law to which we are a signatory, or you think of them as parasites who threaten the livelihoods of Australian folk.
Gillard’s unusually lively apprehension of the split in national consciousness doesn’t make her position any more defensible. There is no evidence that a maximally punitive policy of deterrence will in fact result in fewer deaths by sea. Push predominates over pull. Howard’s policy of turning back the boats was a response to changing conditions in the countries from which the people flee. If the government wants to prevent more deaths it should massively deploy the navy to locate and assist endangered boats.
The compassion for the drowning asylum-seekers is a mask on the fact that both Labor and the Coalition believe there are votes in pandering to the xenophobia of the electorate.
Everyone in fact knows this. And it is as understandable in hard times to feel resentment for aliens as it is for a prosperous country with a small population to have a high tolerance of and a natural kindliness towards strangers.
We should not exploit the lowest common denominator. The political class cackled when the Chaser boys at the last election asked people in Western Sydney if the politicians ‘had allayed their irrational fears’. More particularly when they said yes.
But if Gillard wants a defensible tough policy she should endorse Nauru. If Abbott wants justice and mercy he should accept onshore processing. Everything else is stubborn pride smeared over with sentimentality to hide heartlessness.
In fact, what Gillard wants is to put Abbott on the back foot by making him seem both less compassionate than her and unwilling to make the really tough deterrent choice.
The only solution is the compassionate one, as Clive Palmer knows. Process the boat people here, on shore. Process them rapidly and put them into the community while you examine the case for their being refugees. If they are refugees in the name of God — or of whatever mercy and compassion you believe in — welcome them.
Don’t shriek about people-smugglers. It was Jill Singer who summed that one up: Q. Who is the most famous people-smuggler? A. Oskar Schindler. And don’t in the name of whatever dignity we command as Australians bleat about the deaths.
Take them: it’s cheaper, it’s kinder, it’s manageable. And there are not very many of them flocking here. As Gillard herself says, the lot of them would fit in the MCG. They die because of their desperation. Take them or we’ll weep forever out of a guilt we can’t admit.