Bill Shorten has had some kind of brain snap. After years of accurately standing by the position that turning back asylum seeker boats is an ineffective policy, he has announced that the ALP will go to the next election with a ‘turn back policy’.
Because everything in politics has an equal and opposite reaction, the Broekns on the Left have been going apeshit. Nothing new to see here: the asylum seeker advocates have long been trolling the public discussion with half-truths and misleading slogans. If we’re going to be serious about asylum seeker policy, we’re going to need sharper analysis of Shorten’s error.
The fundamental mistake is that Shorten is ‘solving’ the wrong problem. While the Broekns have identified that the position panders to the ignorant voters who are whipped into xenophobic frenzy, they haven’t really nailed what the underlying dynamic is and how they feed into (and encourage) the toxic debate.
What is the point of asylum seeker policy? The serious people generally agree on this point: there is a huge number of asylum seekers around the world and Australia has to play its role in resolving the situation. Difference of opinion emerges shortly thereafter. Is the best way for Australia to play its role reactive or proactive? Should responses be left to individual nations, or coordinated regionally, or globally? To what extent should the response to a global crisis be dealt with at arms length from domestic politics?
No serious person thinks that the point of asylum seeker policy is to avoid deaths at sea. This is a classic example of rhetoric shifting the way the public views a problem and it’s not the first time that the ALP has fallen victim to this. Julia Gillard accurately stated that each ‘irregular/illegal maritime arrival’ was a policy failure, but this shifted the conversation to ‘how do we stop them from arriving?’ rather than ‘how do we deal with the causes of arrivals?’ By way of analogy: a hospital might feel that having hospital waiting times in excess of five hours is a policy failure, but would be mad to think that they solution is to ask people to leave the hospital after four hours in the waiting room.
Turning boats back to Indonesia undermines our attempt to resolve the asylum seeker situation. Instead of joining regular migration pathways, they’re forced back into irregular migration flows. This is not a good outcome.
On the other hand, what choice has Bill Shorten got? It is currently impossible to get regional processing to work when the Broekns want a model that undermines regional processing (onshore processing means that the better option for asylum seekers is irregular migration rather than to join regular migration pathways). So he has three options:
1. He can appeal to the xenophobic anti-asylum seeker crowd and annoy the Broekns.
2. He can appeal to the Broekns and face electoral obliteration when the model they want results in vastly more boat arrivals.
3. He can advocate sensible policies, which means annoying both the Broekns and the xenophobic anti-asylum seeker crowd, and face electoral obliteration.
As a professional politician, he’s really only got one option and that’s to advocate a stupid policy using garbage rhetoric.