When it comes to asylum seekers and refugee policy, I just don’t know.
On the one hand, it is difficult to imagine a more vulnerable group of people than asylum seekers. On the other hand, are those who arrive by boat more entitled to have their protection claims assessed than those who are waiting in refugee camps? On the other other hand, are those in competition? Why do we subtract those who come by boat from those we take from overseas?
I just don’t know.
What I do know is that we are still not having a rational debate about asylum seeker policy. We have two sides of this ‘debate’ who are flatly disinterested in recognising the merest possibility that any disagreement could be the product of rational thought.
On the one hand, we have hate-mongers. We have people who live in utter flood of Muslims descending into Australia, like a giant red arrow in a Liberal Party advert. We have people who just worry about losing control of their privileged state.
On the other hand, we have people who will never be satisfied whatever the government does. We have groups who exist for the sole purpose of complaining that the government is evil and inhumane towards the vulnerable. We have people who cynically play on the word ‘detention‘, causing confused debates about children being in detention centres.
On yet another hand, we have people who think temporary protection visas and offshore detention centres deter people fleeing for their safety, because push factors don’t exist. On a different hand entirely, we have people who think that if you can make it to Australia, you should be automatically granted a visa after fourteen days (unless you admit to being a security or health risk), because pull factors don’t exist.
In short, we have a lot of hands all of which are clutching at the same scarce fact-straws.
Nearly every week, Q&A discusses asylum seekers. For the eleventy dozen weeks the show has been on air, nobody’s really said anything significant to change the debate. Why? Because people are far too interested in the sound of their own opinions in the air and aren’t at all interested in what anybody else has to say.
It’s not even a problem unique the the asylum seeker debate. From carbon taxes to water management, people are only interested in voicing their own opinions rather than engaging in serious, critical, analytical discussion of another person. To do so would be to admit that they were capable of stringing a coherent thought together.
It’s why nobody’s asked: ‘Hey, if Howard’s asylum seeker policy stopped the boats and he thought his policies were working, why did he blow millions of dollars constructing the Christmas Island Detention Centre?’
It’s why nobody’s asked: ‘Hey, why do so many people accept the views of activists uncritically? Don’t activists have an interest in keeping the public outraged at all times?’
It’s why nobody’s asked: ‘Hey, why do so many asylum seekers need to resort to people smugglers in order to get refugee status? Shouldn’t the international community be emptying the refugee camps as quickly as possible?’
It’s why nobody’s asked: ‘Hey, why should people smugglers determine Australia’s humanitarian intake? Shouldn’t Australia be able to determine its own humanitarian intake?’
There’s nothing flatly irrational about any of the above questions. Nobody asks them because they acknowledge a fabled Middle Ground where complex policy issues aren’t all black and white, where there aren’t goodies and baddies, where positions can’t be summed up in three-word slogans or in slacktivist e-mail campaigns.
For those who want to have a serious debate about these things, read the Centre for Policy Development’s A New Approach. I don’t agree with everything that they say (and I worry that there’s very little input from a conservative perspective), but at least I have to think about why I disagree. It’s nuanced positions like the CPD’s — and not the clanging of the ideologues — that will eventually put these issues to rest. People should either engage in serious debate and discussion, or pipe down.