People often say that we get the politicians we deserve, but I am not sure that even the Australians who voted no at the recent referendum deserve what passed for political leadership and quality representation that has been on recent display.
The conduct of the Albanese government in succumbing to Peter Dutton-inspired panic about hardened criminal foreigners suddenly at large in the community invited questions about whether its ministers, strategists and tacticians had the moral and intellectual fibre to be fit for the offices entrusted to them 18 months ago.
Their triumph was represented by a headline in the Liberal party organ, The Australian, under the headline “Humbled ALP backs in Peter’s principles.” Deputy prime minister Richard Marles presided over the series of humiliating surrenders, as no doubt he will if he succeeds in provoking a Chinese attack.
An observer might even have received an impression that the instant crisis described by The Australian as one of its biggest political challenges yet, was the result of some Labor policy decision, rather than a perfectly justifiable High Court decision that one cannot confine people forever if there is no country to deport them to. It was somehow or other mixed with Labor’s less than uncritical support of Israel over its atrocities in Gaza, which, apparently represented antisemitism, and the well-known fact that Labor was always soft on crime, on criminals, on civil liberties, and on the rights of the terrorists, paedophiles and diseases secretly concealed among asylum seeker on boats. The line of attack from Peter Dutton and colleagues was shameful enough. But equally disgusting – indeed perhaps more so – was Labor’s headlong retreat, fright and pre-emptive surrender over a wedge issue invented and sustained to keep Labor out of power. No one responds to the dog whistles with more commotion and panic than Labor. A party that will do that, even from government, hardly deserves to be given the reins.
Albanese, and his home affairs minister and immigration minister, were presented with an opportunity by the High Court decision. Indefinite detention in prison-like conditions is far from the worst evil of the current refugee processing system, but the High Court’s decision creates a safe space for a calm reconsideration of questions it invited. There is no refugee invasion occurring at the moment, nor, at least until Dutton whipped up the fervour, any great evidence that it currently figures in the top 100 issues of pressing concern to voters.
The fact that about 100 people, a small proportion of whom had fully served their prison sentences, and then further durance vile at the whim of Morrison government ministers, did not create a significant risk for the wider community, even if it were to be assumed that some might re-offend. Australian jails regularly release violent people, and sex offenders after they have completed (usually long) sentences without inspiring widespread panic about dangerous criminals being at large. In any event, only a small proportion had been convicted of sex crimes, let alone ones on children, a fact soon elided (after the impression was created that all were) by rehearsed use of the phrase “hardened criminals.”
Bernard Keane, in Crikey.com.au wrote compellingly, in words more cutting but pithier than I could manage, about the problem on Thursday. “In the 9/11 mindset, there’s always an existential crisis and a need for action that overrides projections … In what we might call the 9/11 worldview – the mindset that drove politicians, the media and policymakers through the long years of the failed war on terrorism – extremism isn’t just an enemy, it’s a way of thinking.
The eternal, urgent crisis demanding a drastic response.
“In that worldview, there’s always a crisis. The threat is always existential. The stakes are always very high, the danger is always imminent, the demand for action urgent and overdue, existing laws are always inadequate (no matter how rigorously strengthened in the past), any pause for thought is fatal, any impediment to the most aggressive action possible must be overridden – and anyone who disagrees is at best soft on terrorism, or perhaps an enabler of terrorism through weak-kneed liberalism and self-hatred.”
It might be nice to think that politicians inadequate to the task are confined to Australia, where the harm they might do is limited. Alas it has become an international disease.
Britain, which has become a fourth-rate power over the past five years almost before our eyes had its own High Court moment last week. The British Supreme Court found that its Rwanda solution – consciously based on Australia’s Pacific solution – was illegal. Britain’s plan was to drop unauthorised arrivals – its own boat people – into Rwanda. There their refugee applications would be processed by Rwandan officials, funded by some British aid. Under various agreements between the British and the Rwandans, the Rwandans promised that it would not return asylum seekers to their own countries if there was a reasonable prospect of their facing punishment, or discrimination, nor to other third countries which violated human rights.
The Supreme Court upheld a Court of Appeal judgment that the agreement could not stand because there were serious risks that Rwanda could not, or might not, live up to its promises and obligations under the refugee convention. It had a bad record, including of refoulment, with a similar agreement it had made a decade ago with Israel. Even allowing that Rwanda might have good intentions, the practical difference between fine words and what happened in practice, particularly given Rwandan political conditions, and intimation of judges and public officials suggested that there was a real risk that adherence to the convention would be piecemeal.
Britain’s problem with the arrangement went beyond those predicted by politicians. Some had been saying that if the court rejected the legislation, Britain would withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights, and its European Court of Human Rights, to which Britain adheres even after Brexit. Getting out of the ECHR might suit some of the increasingly authoritarian Tory ministers, who have long thought that human rights law is a part of the woke nonsense that getting out of Brexit is all about. Alas for this simplistic view, the Supreme Court saw the Rwandan agreement as invalid under the European conventions, but also under Britain’s own domestic laws.
Britain’s latest prime minister, Rishi Sunak, seems to think that Britain can get around the court’s decision by elevating its agreement to treaty status (prediction, that won’t work). Even though he has recently rid himself of his own minister for home affairs, Suella Braverman, he also cannot see the opportunity for a complete rethink of abandonment of Britain’s international obligations.
It is not to be doubted that there is, in Britain as much as in Australia, a significant and loud minority deeply opposed to taking in refugees, or increasingly any immigrants other than the well-heeled. Although mere opposition to more immigration is not, of itself racist, the public dialogue about refugees is increasingly so. Some politicians, including Sunak and Braverman, as well as the Brexit apostles, have championed it, and, partly inspired by Australia’s Tony Abbott seized on the Rwandan “solution”. Braverman manoeuvred herself into a position of defiance of her prime minister so that he was forced to sack her, a result probably satisfactory for Braverman who has leadership hopes after the Tories almost inevitably lose power in a landslide in a year’s time. But Sunak apparently judges that he must adhere to her hardline lest Braverman use any backdown to extend her influence beyond a very right-wing rump of the party.
UK Labour is led by people more timid than Albanese and Marles.
The British Labor Party is led by Sir Keir Starmer, who has about as much moral fortitude on refugee or human rights issues as Anthony Albanese or Richard Marles. Although the polls suggest that he should win the next election easily, he is, like Albanese, leaving nothing to chance and has been very cautious about anything other than vague promises, and more concentration on poor Tory performance than on different policies or approaches. He is currently facing revolt from some of his backbench over his demand for uncritical support for Israel and has little appetite for a Scott Morrison- Mike Pezzullo style campaign predicting refugee chaos and loss of control over borders by a “weak” or any policy that can be slandered as being “open doors” or “sending a message.”
Of course, Sunak and Starmer point to the fact that other European countries, such as Germany and Italy, are investigating Rwandan-style solutions, if not quite as cynically. They want “safe” third countries where asylum seekers can be assessed and processed before their fate is determined, and orderly systems are used to arrange settlement. Some Europeans countries, including Britain, argue that obligations to refugees arise not in destination countries, but in the first safe “haven” reached. This is akin to Australian efforts, before the so-called Pacific solution and appalling promises by Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott that no one who came by boat would ever be allowed to settle in Australia.
As with Australia, there are, of course, refugees and refugees. The war in Ukraine has produced more than six million refugees scattered mostly across Europe but also in Australia, Canada and the US. Peter Dutton, likewise, appears to have a special place in his heart for any potential white South African refugees.
The more friendly reception accorded Ukrainians is in contrast with increasing hostility to waves of refugees from Iraq, Syria, and Northern Africa, even if religion and skin colour is not always mentioned. Given the virulence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, it can be anticipated that resettlement options in Europe will be resisted by significant parts of the population. Yet, as ever, many of the wars, famine and local persecution generating the supply of the displaced arise from military and political decisions made in Europe, the US and English-speaking countries. This has included interventions focused on causing regime change – which have rarely worked but displaced, impoverished and led to persecution of millions.
In time, refugee numbers will be further swelled by climate change, particularly in Africa, Southeast Asia and the Pacific. It is already having murderous impact in a struggle for land and resources in nations now facing increased droughts and natural disasters, as well as the impact in neighbouring countries of dealing with displaced populations. By far the greatest proportion of refugees want to go home, if to a safe environment. They are mostly not in any sense “economic refugees”, do not want to uproot themselves to live in faraway countries facing major problems in assimilating and integrating migrants. That said, many are desperate, not least for the safety of members of their family.
Politicians, on either side of the political sense, are right to appreciate that absorbing significant refugee populations, arriving in an uncontrolled manner (if more usually by air than by boat), is stressing local resources and alienating voters. They must respond to the political pressure and unrest that results. Even Joe Biden, who was once deriding Donald Trump’s plans for a great wall between the US and Mexico, has become increasingly intolerant of people seeking shelter and safety.
But the statesman or woman does not pander to such hostilities by stirring up more trouble for them, including incidents where they are bullied and brutalised by hostile crowds and demagogues, or repelled by force to miserable conditions without access to food, shelter, or protection of families from exploitation and discrimination.
Drastic solutions don’t work. They make problems worse.
If statesmen are determined to limit the intakes of refugees, or immigrants generally, they will focus on programs that make flight less urgent, and conflict less likely. Foreign aid, peacekeeping and cross-border opportunities for work with dignity can make peace more likely and help deal with the consequences of disaster and oppression. Money spent on the provision of health, education, and welfare in orderly camps adjacent to nations generating refugees can prove to be a fraction of the cost of coping with desperate people at a nation’s front door. Involvement with international organisations dealing with refugee groups assists developing organised programs for more local solutions – solutions most refugees want more fervently than resettlement far away.
Some of the more shameful Australia politicians dealing with asylum seekers have resisted attempts to “humanise” their plight and problems, if only because the natural sympathies and hospitality of many Australians may compromise their efforts to treat them as an amorphous, irritating and demanding mass. A former minister for immigration, Phillip Ruddock, a self-proclaimed proud member of Amnesty, once mocked refugees from the old Yugoslavia for demanding soap at temporary shelter at the Singleton army camp. He was pandering to the idea that asylum seekers must be starving and entirely without resources, indigent and ignorant, as well as abjectly grateful. Yet many modern refugees have been well-educated professionals, or people immediately able, with assistance, to play important roles in our economy and society. They deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, as well as empathy.
For some politicians, however, it is much more rewarding, in the short term at least, to deny any welcome, to admit only grudgingly and conditionally, and to demonise them as groups as the other, the alien, the troublemakers, the potential danger. The risk of terrorism. Or crime. Or disease. Or domination by “foreign” creeds or ideologies. Or child sex abuse.
Peter Dutton has been a long-term grandstander on child sex abuse, becoming ever more inventive in establishing schemes to deal with the importation of pornography by Australian paedophiles. But he has never lifted a finger as an Australian politician on child sex abuse in family or neighbourhood settings (where about 80 per cent of the incidence is) or in schools and institutions (where about 20 per cent is.) Matters like that don’t yield to slogans, or quick solutions, but involve constituents and are best skirted around.
A good many Labor politicians and public policy makers are well informed about the issues, and, in private, scathing about the way the issues are exploited by demagogues and populists. But they lack the courage for a fully committed fight with those who are exploiting hatred and a sense of crisis for political gain. It’s not, they judge, politically safe. Indeed, they may not even win. Perhaps the population is too invincibly prejudiced or susceptible to manipulation. Look, after all, at the Voice debate where most of the population rejected a harmless measure they had been told was good for them. Politicians do not, in short, trust the common sense of the public. Or its decency if they are brought in on the argument rather than told what to think.
The public does not deserve the suits and party hacks being served up by the professional political parties. It deserves people of passion. Of courage. Of experience and common sense. With independent minds. Leaders who won’t lead do not attract followers.