Asylum and refugee politics torment Australian Labor

by David Hetherington

Asylum and refugee politics drives a wedge through the left’s core constituencies, opening the floor for a debate driven by fear and xenophobia. It’s the issue that never goes away, one which bedevils 21st century social democratic parties around the world. The treatment of asylum seekers is a minefield for progressive politics, splitting the twin bases on which social democrat electoral success has historically been constructed.

That’s because refugee politics pits affluent, tertiary educated defenders of refugee rights against suburban and regional workers for whom asylum seekers symbolise the economic insecurity that is the downside of globalisation.  In doing so, it provides the ultimate wedge issue to political opportunists on the right, particularly those willing to engage in populist xenophobia.

In Australia, the tyranny of distance makes the asylum seeker debate a lightning rod of unparalleled potency.  Australia’s isolation from its cultural, economic and military anchor points in Europe and North America has left the country with an ill-founded fear of invasion by sea, which the tabloid media all too easily engineers into anxiety over refugees.

This anxiety is completely at odds with the reality of the problem. In the first quarter of this year, for example, 771 asylum seekers arrived by boat in Australia, a country that annually absorbs over 200,000 net long-term and permanent migrants.  By contrast, the Italian island of Lampedusa received 15,000 refugees in just ten weeks earlier in the year.  The result is that rational policy analysis is almost entirely useless, and therefore absent. Instead the debate is driven by the pure politics of emotion.

Following a toxic confluence of events, the fervour of this debate in Australia has been building since late-2009. First, conflict in Afghanistan and Sri Lanka has created greater refugee numbers across South-East Asia, many of whom target Australia as final destination. Secondly, the conservative Opposition has embraced the issue far more aggressively since Scott Morrison assumed the responsible Shadow role, invoking greater arrival numbers as evidence of failed domestic policy. Finally, the Labor government have responded by attempting to revive offshore processing of asylum seekers, a practice the conservative Howard Government had undertaken in Nauru – the so-called ‘Pacific Solution’ – which Labor earlier junked. This has enraged Labor’s base of middle-class progressives who want an end to both offshore processing and mandatory detention, particularly of children.

But politicians of both sides have been more concerned to be perceived as in tune with popular disquiet over boat people. In the 2010 election campaign, both major parties retreated from a longstanding consensus over population growth in an attempt to tap into fears about refugees. Since then, the situation has deteriorated with riots in detention centres, Labor clumsily seeking processing deals with East Timor and Malaysia, and the Opposition showing no sign of moderating its inflammatory rhetoric.

Beyond the politicians, the public debate on both sides remains as heated as ever. Greg Sheridan, Foreign Editor of Rupert Murdoch’s Australian newspaper, says he will continue to describe asylum seekers as “illegal immigrants” despite that fact the UN Convention on Refugees permits anyone to seek asylum in a signatory country such as Australia.  As the leading refugee advocate, Julian Burnside QC, has noted, it’s inevitable that people who have arrived here legally but are detained indefinitely will begin to riot in detention centres.

For social democrats in Australia, as in so many other Western countries, the question of refugees remains a vexed one with no easy solution in sight.

David Hetherington is executive director at Per Capita, a progressive thinktank based in Sydney.

Policy Network