I’ve written a lot on asylum seeker policy. A lot. We can — without any hyperbole or rhetorical flourish — state that asylum seeker policy has deteriorated significantly over the past two decades.
One aspect that I emphasise is the remarkable disconnect between public rhetoric about asylum seeker policy and public engagement with asylum seeker policy. Of the former, we have an abundance — every goddamn person has an opinion fashioned on little more than gut instinct, anecdote, and prejudice — while of the latter, we have vanishingly little. This makes working in asylum seeker policy quite a fractured experience: you can make significant progress on issues up until the public takes notice, at which point the politics become so toxic that it’s impossible to do anything much.
The dynamics of this toxicity are well demonstrated by Richard Cooke’s recent opinion piece in The Saturday Paper: a piece which is quick to jump to ‘solutions’ without ever really grappling with the problems of asylum seeker policy.
Cooke’s piece (consistent with the vast majority of public writing on the subject) starts at the end: the tragedy of Manus Island and Nauru demonstrates that there is a fundamental failure of asylum seeker policy. This is true. Nobody who is intellectually serious can say that Manus Island and Nauru are success stories. If you get to the conclusion that the situations that have unfolded there are necessary for a good asylum seeker policy, there has been an error in reasoning.
But — and it’s a big one — that starting point does not entail what most writers on the subject think it does: that we should abandon offshore processing of asylum seekers. Nobody who is intellectually serious about asylum seeker policy gets to that conclusion because it’s manifestly wrong. Everybody serious — including the UNHCR — has been pushing for regional cooperation models that necessitate offshore processing. The disagreement is in how offshore processing is managed. Australia has too eagerly pursued its own needs at the expense of the needs of regional partners and individual asylum seekers, resulting in problems that were foreseeable and avoidable.
We should note here that Australian asylum seeker advocacy groups are not intellectually serious. They’re not. Not even close. Julian Burnside — the only person presented as an ‘expert’ commentator in Cooke’s article — is famous for promoting wildly stupid ideas about telling Indonesia how to manage migration flows to Australia. The guy has literally no idea what he’s talking about, so it really shouldn’t surprise us that he gave a limp ‘I have never noticed anything wrong about Kon Karapanagiotidis’ behaviour’ response to allegations of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre being a toxic environment for women. I was part of a discussion on BBC radio with Pamela Curr, the now former campaign director for the ASRC, whose entire approach was based on slogans that evaporated quickly when confronted with real policy questions. (‘Mark is not typical of most people who support offshore processing’ is the quote that will keep my heart warm forever)
These are groups that rely solely on outrage and will never, ever be part of a serious policy solution.
But this outrage gets us to the core political problem. Because the Greens are never going to be responsible for administering asylum seeker policy, they have no interest in steering the outrage into sensible policy waters. Why would they? During the Gillard years, whenever the Greens compromised on non-key issues around asylum seeker processing, they faced a backlash from their supporters.
This leaves the ALP and the Coalition trying to breathe both hot and cold on asylum seeker policy. The Coalition rejected expert advice when it came to office, pushing for policies that spoke to an image of being tough. Senior public servants who had given advice at Senate Estimates that contradicted the Coalition’s policies were moved out of the Department. The Coalition burnt through senior advisers on asylum seeker policy, few of whom had any real experience with the area. The most high profile of these was Jim Molan who was appointed ‘special envoy’ for Operation Sovereign Borders, lasted less than a year and carved through more than half a million dollars in salary and travel. The guy had absolutely no clue and openly rejected expert opinion.
It seems bizarre then to claim, as Cooke does, that the Coalition has dutifully been implementing the ALP’s policy. Australia has completely stalled on implementing the recommendations of the Expert Report and resources have been allocated to new activities that are entirely at odds with the Expert Report.
The ALP learnt its lesson the last time it was in opposition. At the 2007 election, the ALP presented a suite of policies — including dismantling the Pacific Solution. At the time, there was incredible tension between its policies and its rhetoric. Although it wanted to move to onshore processing, Rudd was emphasising his policy of turning back boats. When he came to power, he found there was no evidence in support of turning back boats and so abandoned that policy. Although he dismantled offshore processing, by the end of the Rudd-Gillard period, it was back.
It is both politically cowardly and politically necessary for the ALP to avoid public debate about asylum seeker policy. It’s never going to win. No matter what it says, the Coalition will always try to look tougher and meaner, claiming that the ALP is ‘soft’ on asylum seekers. This is the only explanation for the change to the ALP’s policy suite which again includes turning boats around.
When public opinion both in favour and against offshore processing is entirely divorced from reality, what options are available? I think that the ALP should invest more time in trying to lead public debate back into intellectually serious waters. It should articulate what the goals of asylum seeker policy are and what we should do to prevent situations like that seen in Manus Island and Nauru. But claiming that we should ‘punish’ the ALP for not caving to ignorant and misguided intuitions about asylum seeker policy isn’t helpful. The media has consistently lacked the skills and knowledge to help the public understand the policy issues, and Cooke’s piece is another example of this.