Crocodile tears

Having been away for several weeks far from the nearest internet station or telegraph pole, it was ferociously depressing to return to reality and spend a week freebasing Australia’s news media in an effort to recalibrate.

Funnily enough though, it really only took about three seconds. On one of the last days of my trip, I stumbled across a TV in Perth showing ABC News Breakfast, on which the story was of the Prime Minister’s recent bump in Newspoll. This just happened to be effectively the same news story as the day I LEFT for my holiday three weeks prior, only shifting ‘bump’ for ‘dip’. The same talking heads, basically the same stock footage, the same politicians spouting the same lines about polls not mattering, and so on.

It was deeply depressing. Depressing to realise that my news fetishism is utterly redundant, that Australia’s news landscape is effectively the same as a US daytime soap, in which one can tune out for three to four months, only to find the same two characters in the same jacuzzi having the same conversation about the same infidelity.

But something more depressing occurred with the handing down of the Houston Report into asylum seekers and the official response to it.

Honestly, we may as well just take the ALP out back and whack it with a shovel for all the moral authority it retains. Time and again, this party that has for decades campaigned as one of the progressive-centre fails on questions of conscience.

There are so many impractical, expedient, callous and contradictory positions in this debate now that it’s hard to know where to start, but here goes.

First and foremost, it’s truly difficult to believe that members of the ALP who are voting for these law changes are doing so for any reason other than fear of electoral punishment, having been comprehensively cornered for a decade by their opponents. Julia Gillard has spoken, several times, about the immoral nature of Howard’s ‘Pacific Solution’, yet now stands astride a policy that happily detains the world’s most disenfranchised individuals for an indefinite period without having committed a crime.

Sinking migrant ship. In the Mediterranean.

ALP MPs who attempt to stay on their moral high horse, claiming that their decision has been a hard one, but they feel they must act to resolve the problem, overlooks the key question: no one can adequately describe what the problem is.

For all the frankly unbelievable displays of tearful compassion on display, it is evident to me that the ‘problem’ is not that people are dying at sea, but that the broad national consensus is that we simply don’t want these poor, needy brown people in our country.

The idea that all of  sudden our politicians are motivated by compassion for people ‘dying at sea’ is beyond belief. People have been dying on crappy boats since before SIEV X in 2001. Ben Pobjie has already said this best. This drastic shift in approach by Labor under the guise of ‘compassion’ simply shows that when events conspire to keep the issue of asylum seekers in the public mind, even Labor’s ‘left’ feel compelled to ditch their morals for fear of electoral reprisals.

The real question of what the ‘problem’ of asylum seekers is, is the debate that actually needs having, yet is one that our politicians studiously avoid, knowing that they simply lack the ability to solve it in an electorally expedient manner.

Presently, the problem is people ‘dying at sea’. The sudden change in rhetoric to compassion does little to shield its true meaning – that we simply don’t want these people. The ‘problem’ is ‘foreigners coming unbidden’. The solution, therefore, becomes, stopping their arrival, hence Stopping The Boats.

But going back to first principles, let us reconsider the problem. It is in no way a practical problem for us to accept more migrants. We have a labour shortage, and long-term capacity constraints that are best solved by a vibrant migration program. The ‘problem’, as it stands, is that we have regions in Asia, Africa and the Middle East with enormous numbers of displaced people and refugees. These people have few places to go that have effective resettlement programs. In the Australian instance, Afghans and Sri Lankans cannot seek asylum in Indonesia or Malaysia.

They cannot get work, or educate their children. They can only wait for an indefinite period of time in camps, in the hope that they will be accepted by another country like us. If you’re in Jakarta somewhere facing this, and the prospect of constant harrassment by police and locals, the prospect of a detention centre on Christmas Island (or Nauru for that matter) seems appealing. Indefinite detention in a camp with food and support is better than the threat of having your tent burned down by corrupt local police.

In other words, there’s no real guarantee that this new plan will do much to deter anyone. If the prospect of death at sea won’t deter you, why on Earth would imprisonment? So, even in the face of this new regime, the answer remains a no-brainer. You get on the boat. And even if we manage to stifle the approach of the boats to our shores, the ‘problem’ doesn’t go away. Asylum seekers don’t just vanish because we don’t accept them. If they did, then perhaps the ‘compassion’ argument will carry weight. Instead, these asylum seekers can simply die elsewhere. Out of sight, out of mind.

One final thought: the fact that we routinely, and thoughtlessly, use the word ‘processed’ to discuss the manner in which we treat these people speaks volumes. Would it be too much to ask to stop using the word ‘processed’ to discuss human beings?

It’s a measure of Australia’s collective conscience that we measure the success of our refugee program by how many people we can keep away. Irrespective of how well the ALP have ‘managed’ the ‘economy’ since their election, their complete forfeiture of any claim to moral authority is a sad indictment of a once proud political establishment that occasionally, just occasionally, would do the right thing because it’s the right thing.

At least Gillard’s ‘problem’ of having to deal with the asylum seekers issue is solved. I hope that helps her sleep at night.

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