I take too long to answer telephones… facts, opinions, and conspiracies in the #asylumseekers debate #auspol

It was an oft-heard lament from the left during the carbon tax debate: ‘The right keeps ignoring evidence and experts!’

As if to prove that no side has a monopoly on ignoring the evidence, up comes the asylum seeker debate in Australia.  Here is a debate which is thoroughly swamped by people who really can’t distinguish between facts, opinions, and conspiracies.  Worse, here is a debate which is swamped by people who can’t understand how two morally excellent people could  possibly disagree about the issue.

First, there’s the people who declare that the problem is just far too hard.  In New Matilda, Ben Eltham took the line that the processing of asylum seekers is a wicked problem:

It would be wonderful if someone — perhaps Andrew Metcalfe — could come up with a solution to the problem of seaborne asylum seekers. But that is unlikely, because there is no single solution to the problem. There may be no solution at all. [Source: Eltham ‘Asylum Seekers a Wicked Problem’]

Really?  Why isn’t there a single solution to the problem?

Put simply, there is no simple way to stop people getting on boats. We ought to know this already, because all the simple and easy ways have already been tried: mandatory detention, temporary protection visas, offshore processing in Nauru, turning boats around, burning boats, paying the Indonesians — even the SAS.  [Source: ibid]

Which seems like an odd thing to say.  All the simple and easy ways have been tried?  How do we know this?  We had eleven years of a government with a particular set of policy goals (‘Appear tough!’).  But, apart from the processing freeze during the Rudd years, we haven’t seen any mechanisms relating to new policy goals (‘Regional cooperation models’).  Why?  Because the Greens and the Coalition have blocked the government and refuse to negotiate.

Imagine that we are trying to play a video game.  I have a crack at defeating the dragon and try lots of different ways but fail because I am a total n00b.  You offer to have a go because you’ve got some ideas.  It would be pants-on-head-crazy for me to scream: ‘NO!  THERE’S NO EASY WAY TO DEFEAT THE DRAGON BECAUSE I’VE TRIED EVERYTHING ALREADY!  ALSO, YOU’RE A TERRIBLE HUMAN BEING!’

And yet that’s what we do in the asylum seeker debate.  And now that it’s all become too hard, we call it a wicked problem, even though wicked problems don’t exist.

But the debate is also swamped by megaphones.  The Asylum Seeker Resource Centre and the Refugee Action Collective are lobby groups which are funded based on how outraged the community is.  There is literally no fact on this planet that could change their opinions.  If there’s a negative interpretation to be put on anything to do with asylum seeker policy, these guys will find it.

Their toxicity infects the rest of the debate.  Take Sunili Govinnage’s article in The Drum on the issue:

In this context, Rob Oakeshott’s “compromise” position needs to be seen for what it is: a cynical attempt to outsource Australia’s obligations under international law. Rather than keeping asylum seekers from drowning, this approach is about trying to force them to stop bothering to get here. That’s why it’s about “deterrence”, and why the only thing we’re seeking to protect here are our borders.  [Source: Sunili Govinnage ‘Saving lives and the asylum seeker debate’]

How do you know this?  Why do you think this?  What would convince you that this wasn’t the case?

It is difficult to take many people in the commentariat seriously when they do whatever they can to dismiss expertise.  Govinnage’s article cites… journalists…?  So she accuses ‘opponents’ of having sinister motives based on bellyfeel, and then bases everything else on what she’s read in a newspaper.  This isn’t a debate; this is a slinging match.

Take, for example, her claim that regionalisation under Oakeshott’s bill is ‘a cynical attempt to outsource Australia’s obligations under international law’.  If it were such a cynical dodge of international law, why is the UNHCR a party to it?

It also renders her assumptions about our obligations invisible.  When the Refugees Convention was signed (and, later, the Optional Protocol), Australia voluntarily undertook a raft of obligations.  Over time, the interpretation of those obligations has changed markedly (even to the point where people now argue that there is a right under international law to cross national borders in order to make protection claims, which is a contested point).  To what extent did Australia undertake those obligations?  To what extent should Australia be held to those changed standards?  In the ‘International Law v State Sovereignty’ issue, why have we made international law the default rational position?

Govinnage also assumes that asylum seekers themselves are the only relevant decision-maker in the process.  There are good reasons to believe that asylum seekers are opportunistic: if they’re presented with an option, they’ll take it (which is entirely fair enough and anybody in the same situation would do the same).  The opportunities are presented by people smugglers.  So while Govinnage might well be correct that our policies don’t affect the beliefs of asylum seekers themselves, she hasn’t said anything about whether our policies affect the behaviour of the people smugglers who provide the opportunities.  Consider a policy to make people buy free range eggs.  One option is to make caged eggs less attractive to the consumer.  Another is to make it more difficult for the supplier to offer caged eggs.  It would be unreasonable for somebody to say: ‘Putting restrictions on suppliers did nothing to change the opinions of consumers.  Therefore, this was a policy failure.’  Yet this is exactly the reasoning pattern we see in the asylum seeker debate.

Australia protection of people with refugee status is better than nearly anywhere else in the world.  Our intake is, by volume, low (although high in ratio per capita terms).  We think, as Australians, that people with refugee status should be given healthcare access, housing support, language support, cultural support, trauma counselling, &c., &c.  We can only do that if we have control over the system.  But Govinnage appears not to believe that we should have any control over the system: whoever makes it here gets a visa.  Put bluntly, her position appears to be: those who can find the resources to pay for a smuggler and who have the good fortune to survive the trip are more entitled to a place in our humanitarian intake than people in refugee camps.  It’s like survival of the fittest for protection visas.  Imagine if we did this for university courses: those who can pay for a position and who have the good fortune to be selected by lottery are more entitled to a position at university than everybody else.  There would be a riot.  Yet here we are dealing with people’s lives in exactly the same way.

The asylum seeker debate desperately needs some critical thinking and a willingness of the commentariat to distinguish between facts, opinions, and conspiracy.  What policy goals do we think we should pursue?  That’s a matter of opinion.  What mechanisms will work in order to obtain those policy goals?  That’s a matter of fact.  Are departments letting refugees rot, are politicians cynically trying to dodge responsibility, are there mind control drugs in vaccinations?  That’s a conspiracy theory.

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Author: Mark Fletcher

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based blogger and policy wonk who writes about conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. Read his blog at OnlyTheSangfroid. He tweets at @ClothedVillainy

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