Quick post: The Baffling Rhetoric of Asylum Seeker Debates #auspol

Soon, I’ll have some breathing time!  In the interim:

I often get exasperated at the inanity of the asylum seeker conversation in Australia.  It’s vicious and irrational — from both ‘sides’ of the political divide.  Every time I think the conversation couldn’t get worse, it does.

A Sri Lankan asylum seeker living in ‘community detention’ has been charged with the sexual assault of a university student.  In response, the Coalition called for communities and the police to be informed about asylum seekers living in the community and the imposition of ‘behaviour protocols’ (whatever they might be).

In response to the Coalition, the Left went generally nuts.  ‘Dog-whistling’ was mentioned.  ‘Xenophobia’ was also uttered.

But for all the shouting in unison, nobody has engaged with the substantive policy questions lurking patiently beneath the surface (like Elder Gods in the Cthulhu mythos).

Why don’t people know that asylum seekers are living in their community?  The position assumed by both the sides of the shouting match is that people would be outraged to learn that asylum seekers are living next door.  In the case of the Coalition, the community needs to be informed because they would be outraged at this infiltration.  In the case of the Left, the community shouldn’t be informed because the asylum seekers need to be protected from a community that would be outraged.

There is a very weird hypocrisy here.  The Coalition — when in power — didn’t want the media anywhere near detention centres (and for good reason, but that’s a longer discussion).  The Left has continued to argue that information, like spice, must flow and that the government shouldn’t hide information from the community.  Now, we have the opposite assertions.  The Coalition wants public accountability; the Left wants secrecy.

This was the perfect opportunity for the Left to take some leadership on the issue: Yes, the community and the police should be informed that asylum seekers are living in the community because this is a good thing which ought to be celebrated.  Instead, they let the narrative of ‘evil, spooky, threatening boat people’ take more ground.

Instead, we have the situation where the Greens look unnervingly like they’re not on the side of the community.  The community should be expected to accommodate asylum seekers without their knowledge and whether they want to or not, they say.

Although the expression from the radio clowns and the usual illiterates has been poor, it has expressed a real problem which we need to examine: what is the balance between communities consenting (even vetoing) about its constitution and the desire of asylum seekers to be housed in the community?  Humanitarian ‘obligations’ are something we as a community have undertaken voluntarily, but the rhetoric is increasingly shifting away from that understanding.  This rhetoric doesn’t see the problem as a competition of different ‘rights’ where the needs of various groups have to be balanced; it instead views it as declaring one group the unimpeachable winner where that group gets its way and everybody else can get stuffed.

On one final point: why are we putting asylum seekers in communities where they will face hostility from the community?  Cynically, I wonder if this is because wealthier areas (that is, areas with higher property prices) are more likely to be supportive of asylum seekers.  Thus, an affordable community detention program means placing them next door to the people who are less likely to be supportive.

More importantly, this fear of community hostility must surely be a tacit admission that the Left’s message on asylum seekers is not persuasive.  The community wasn’t exactly jumping over itself to respond: ‘Wait!  We want to know if asylum seekers are living in the community because it makes us feel good to do a good thing for the most vulnerable people in the global community!’

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