CARMEN LAWRENCE. When in doubt, rewind to the politics of fear.

May 19, 2016

Peter Dutton now makes no distinction between asylum seekers and refugees who come through regular or irregular channels. He now demonises all refugees. John Menadue.

It has been an article of faith for the Coalition that “real” refugees from UNHCR camps dotted around the globe deserve our compassionate support while the “illegal” asylum seekers who try to arrive by boat are little more than cashed up opportunists who deserve to be exiled in remote camps; object lessons to other would-be intruders. From Howard onward, we have been told that every person who tries to claim asylum directly at our borders (although the airports don’t seem to count) is stealing a place from refugees who wait patiently for resettlement. In fact, Howard arranged the refugee intake numbers – placing a cap on the combined total of refugees – so that this became true by definition. Using this distinction, Howard and his successors sought to portray themselves – and all of us – as “one of the most generous countries” in the world in settling refugees, a claim that Turnbull repeated this week. It’s a claim, although inaccurate, that’s supposed to make us feel better about the way we treat asylum seekers and to assuage guilty feelings about the conspicuous harm being done to the people we’re holding in indefinite detention on Manus and Nauru. We can continue to sleep comfortably in our beds as long as we take a few more refugees from Syria.

It’s a distinction that is now reflected regularly in Australians’ responses to opinion polls and surveys. The Scanlon – Monash surveys show, for example, that we “draw a sharp distinction between refugees assessed overseas and admitted for resettlement under the Humanitarian program – and those arriving by boat” (p 38)[1], with respondents generally positive towards humanitarian resettlement and negative toward asylum seekers arriving by boat.

Dutton has now blown this distinction apart – deliberately, I believe, however clumsy he might have seemed. In his now notorious interview with Murray on Sky News this week, attacking the Greens’ and Labor’s plans for increases in the intake of humanitarian refugees, Dutton conflated the two groups of refugees, describing them collectively as an onerous burden for our country – labelling them illiterate, innumerate, dole bludgers, soaking up Medicare and other welfare payments – at least when they’re not out there stealing our jobs. He fulminated about the risks of hundreds of thousands of refugees trekking from the Middle East to Malaysia and washing up on our shores if Labor were to be elected (he should have looked at a globe to see how likely that is).

While Turnbull sought to soften the cruder elements of Dutton’s presentation he did little to repudiate the message, particularly as it related to the threat to jobs – something that the government knows is likely to amplify fears that some people already have about immigrants more generally. When people are worried about their jobs, as some are now, they are likely to be more hostile to newcomers. If you’ve managed to undermine your own economic credentials, as Turnbull has done so quickly and comprehensively, then it makes sense to deflect attention away from your failures and toward your perceived strengths – numerous polls have shown that while refugees and asylum seeker issues don’t rank highly as problems facing the nation, people believe that the Coalition are better at handling them than Labor or the Greens. Play to your strengths.

And fear sells. While many voters hoped that Turnbull would rise above playing politics with fear, clearly he has not. In running the “invasion by millions of job thieves” line, using fear as a tool for ensuring compliance, Dutton and Turnbull hope that they will be seen as the strong leaders we need to deliver us from insecurity. I’m pretty confident that they both think of governments as operating like a strict father, which “sees the world as a dangerous and difficult place, where evil lurks”. It seems clear that in this election we will not be spared another round of attempts to manipulate fear for political advantage.

Carmen Lawrence was Premier of WA from 1990-93 and Minister for Human Services and Health in the Keating government from 1994-96. She also assisted Prime Minister Keating on the status of women.




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