I am a flower and I hurt your hands… Why asylum seeker policy discussion suck


The fine folk at OurSay organised a community forum to engage with candidates in the upcoming election.  Even putting aside other problems, I’m still finding that the creativity expressed in connecting people with politicians is still unmatched by the creativity in the actual political content.

Nowhere did this seem to be more true than when the topic of asylum seekers came up.  The question itself was quite original: to what extent do our policies about asylum seekers, climate change, &c., reflect an ‘Australia first; everybody else second’ attitude towards policy development.  Only one of the candidates — Andrew Leigh (I feel bad for not voting for him, I really do; great guy) — engaged with the deeper philosophical point, even if only for a brief moment.  All the candidates went back to the stock standard talking points.  ‘If you don’t agree with me, you’re cruel.  He’s cruel, she’s cruel, all of them are cruel.’

In the media, asylum seeker issues are discussed with similar lack of creativity and insight.  I sort of wondered if media organisations had an interest in stultifying policy discussions.  When I’ve discussed asylum seeker policy with people and gone through various issues, they become less angry about it.  Outrage sells papers and provides linkbait, so perhaps setting out asylum seeker policy in a coherent, logical way would depress sales in an already threatened sector.

But, tonight, a different thought dawned upon me: what if the major megaphones aren’t even having the same discussion?

Earlier today, Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison fronted the media to release a plan that had been in the making for four years, for which the details would be released after the election.  Perhaps the most absurd part about this policy is this:

a capped boat buy-back scheme that will provide an incentive for owners of decrepit and dangerously unsafe boats to sell their boats to government officials rather than people smugglers [Source]

One feature of the Boo!/Hooray! political atmosphere is the tribal reaction to anything said by people who disagree with us.  No matter the policy, the ‘chatterati’ scoff and mock.  But despite my attempt to read this policy in the most charitable possible light, I don’t get it.  It’s part of a $20m community engagement initiative, but it doesn’t seem to focus on any particular policy outcome.  Are they trying to reduce the number of boats in Indonesia?  Do they know how many boats there are?  How many boats do they expect to purchase under this scheme?  It has to be sufficiently high in order to be attractive, but not so high that it skews the local market for boats (the policy would increase the demand for new boats, potentially making fishing livelihood unaffordable if implemented incorrectly).

I was so distracted by the weirdness of this policy, that I failed to notice what the policy was called: Regional Deterrence Framework for Combating People Smuggling.

We think you have to focus on deterrence. [Source]

This focus on deterrence — which, by the way, is a word you won’t find in the Houston Report — makes some sense of the craziness in the policy.  ‘What can we do to stop people from getting on boats?  Buy the boats!  Treat it like a military operation!  Pay people a stipend to report potential asylum seeker endeavours!’  For the Liberal Party, stopping boats by preventing them from arriving is the number one target.

The ALP, on the other hand, has been all over the shop in its communication of the issue to the extent that I’m not entirely sure what it wants from its policy.  It’s position at the Bali Process was that they wanted a scheme where people would be treated the same regardless of where they were in the region.  If you’re an asylum seeker in Malaysia, you’d get the same consideration as if you’d been intercepted off the north of Australia.  This was the original ‘no advantage’ proposal that the media quickly lampooned.

It causes difficulties, of course.  If you have people arrive in Australia and give them working rights, &c., &c., then you need to make sure they have the same working rights throughout the rest of the region.  Conversely, if they don’t have working rights in the rest of the region, they can’t have working rights here.  No matter where you are in the region, you’re treated the same.  This also explains the ‘excising the mainland’ policy in which the mainland was not excised from the migration zone.  Everywhere is

What has been perplexing about the ALP’s current strategy is that, if you are intercepted by boat, you are treated differently to other people in the region.  The ‘no advantage’ principle because the ‘disadvantage’ principle.

The Greens, on the other hand, have an entirely different framework.  People landing in Australia are in our immediate moral awareness and therefore need to be treated in a particular way regardless of the bigger picture.  Thus, a person standing in Indonesia and a person standing in Broome should be treated differently.

Part of this is a rejection of the idea that there’s a ‘problem’ to ‘solve’, and a resignation to the inevitability of people trying to reach Australia by boat.  Despite the evidence that this position isn’t true, it’s what appeals to their supporters.

As a result, we not only have three different policies, we have three different policies to solve three entirely different problems (with one of the ‘solutions’ being a ‘non-solution’).  No wonder the debate is so rubbish.  How do you have an exchange of ideas on policies when the policies in question aren’t even designed to achieve the same thing?

While it might be true that certain groups are advantaged by not explaining policies coherently, perhaps more blame should fall on politicians who can’t put forward a coherent policy discussion.  When the three candidates got up at this function to speak, each spoke to an entirely different intuition about what the problem was.

This is a policy area fuelled by rival intuitions.  Until there’s some sort of agreement about what an asylum seeker policy should achieve, we’re going to have this Groundhog Day debate over and over again.




Author: Mark Fletcher

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

2 thoughts on “I am a flower and I hurt your hands… Why asylum seeker policy discussion suck”

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