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Can we talk about the grey?

While the Labor Party debates their asylum seeker policy at their national conference this weekend, grappling with the task of finding a tenable position, a challenge that has plagued Labor Prime Ministers for the last 20 years, I would like to ask a question: can progressive voters debate this position without bitter accusations and name calling? I hope we can.

To try to encourage civil discussions, I’ve come up with an analogy for Labor’s situation which might help us to look at what I have previously described as a ‘wicked problem’, a phrase I note Labor’s Immigration spokesperson, Richard Marles also used to defend his argument at the conference.

Imagine you are the government, and Australia is your home. Your home is large, comfortable and well-resourced with plenty of food, air conditioning, many bedrooms and a communal kitchen with a huge dining table, perfect for dinner parties. The catch is, your home is on Kangaroo Island so the only way to visit is to either take a ferry from the mainland, or fly in a small plane. Nevertheless, since you have many friends and family on the mainland, you decide you would like to host a huge dinner party where guests are welcome to stay for the weekend. Planning this dinner party and weekend getaway is, however, fraught with problems.

Unlike the actual ferry to Kangaroo Island, which is expensive to catch, the ferry in this analogy is not only expensive but also dangerous. As far as people can tell, because not all accidents are recorded, at least one in ten ferry passengers fall off the ferry in stormy weather and drown. No matter how hard the authorities work to inform passengers of these risks, the ferry owner selling the tickets has a vested interest in hiding the dangers from his customers and therefore many people pay the expensive fare without realising the game of Russian roulette they are entering into. Would they really pay all that money to come if they knew? Would they risk the lives of their families too? But you know all about these risks, having lived on Kangaroo Island your whole life, so when you invite people to come and visit, you hate the thought of endangering their lives. Some residents on the island are more blasé about the risks, saying ‘let them come by ferry if they really want to’. But you couldn’t live with yourself if you encouraged people to take the ferry ride and you waited for them at the dock and they never arrived. Luckily, there is another option; a small plane. So you make sure that all your guests are going to be advised that the ferry is not a safe option, and instead you insist on them flying to visit you.

Once you have travel plans sorted, you need to have a serious think about how many people you can accommodate for the weekend. In a perfect world, you would put an open invite out on Facebook and anyone who felt like turning up would be welcome. But you know that’s not practical; you have over 500 friends on Facebook and there’s no way you can accommodate all of them. If you told them all to turn up if they feel like it, making no effort to find out who is coming in advance, you would run out of space on a first come, best dressed basis and would have to turn everyone else away. But how do you turn people away when they’ve made all the effort to get to Kangaroo Island? You’ve already put bunk beds in three of your bedrooms to sleep as many guests as you possibly can, and you’ll seat as many as you can afford around the huge dining table even if they have to sit on stools to fit. But there is a practicable limit, so you settle on a maximum number of 30 friends and family, 6 more than you were able to welcome last year.

Most of your friends can afford the cost of a flight, which is not only safer, but also cheaper than the ferry. However, some of your family aren’t well off and, although they too would love to come and stay, can’t afford the cost of a flight. But you really want to make sure these people aren’t left out of your dinner party plans, so just for those who can’t afford it, you offer to pay for their flights. It’s worth it to make sure they come safely and aren’t disadvantaged by their financial position.

When the weekend arrives, you welcome your 30 guests with open arms. Everyone sleeps comfortably and are well fed and entertained during their stay. By the end of Sunday afternoon, a discussion has started amongst a group of your guests who have decided they love Kangaroo Island so much that they too would like to live there. There is plenty of land on the island to build new homes and the local businesses would love the extra business from the growing population. One of your guests is a primary school teacher, and the island has a shortage of teachers, so her move is extra advantageous for everyone. You’re also thrilled to know you will have more friends living on the island, because it means next year, you will be able to invite 30 friends and family from the mainland for another weekend away, or maybe even more if you build another two bedrooms on the back of your house. And everyone lives happily ever after.

Yes, this is a simplistic appraisal of some of the wicked problems faced by governments designing a workable asylum seeker policy. But I hope it’s made you think a bit harder about the reality of these issues, rather than jumping to either the ‘let them come’ or ‘don’t let them come’ black and white ends of a very grey situation. I hope Labor can find a way to design an asylum seeker policy that it is both humane and workable, and as I wrote previously, doesn’t preclude Labor from winning government. Because we all know Abbott’s home might be just as large and comfortable as Labor’s, but since he’s banned house-guests and enjoys the support of many voters encouraging him to keep the door locked forever, it’s not the Australia we, as progressives, should feel proud to call home.


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  1. Lee

    Victoria, have you ever conversed with an asylum seeker who arrived by boat? They know the risks of the voyage before they embark. They consider it to be worthwhile compared to what they are facing in their homeland.

  2. Harquebus

    I don’t get the analogy on this one. I think you are trying too hard Victoria.

    I have an idea. How ’bout we go and dong those oppressors and tyrants that cause people to flee in boats on the head.

  3. mark delmege

    Harquebus you would have to start with the British French and American states and all those vassals who go along for the ride … like Australia. In a large part they are the problem. They still run a global chess board and terrorism is policy – if necessary – to get what they want. It’s an old ploy – of which I am sure you are well aware. Not only of course there are also some pretty awful home grown tyrants but so long as they are ‘our’ bastards they seem to have protection.

  4. sandrasearle

    Lee, that is not the point that Victoria was trying to make. The article says that perhaps we can talk about the grey area of the problem associated with the Asylum Seeker problem.
    We all know that getting on a leaky boat is terribly hazardous for those desperate people who just want to reach a safe haven in which to settle. What Shorten proposes (please read Trish Corey’s TAIM article) isn’t anything like what the Abbott govt. is doing.
    What Victoria was trying to do is to get people to open their minds to a deeper level of understanding the complexity of the problem & offer the analogy of how to fix it. By using the Kangaroo Island scenario shows us how some of the problem can be looked at without without pressing the ‘fear’ factor.
    We do not live in a world where things have black & white solutions, we need to dig a lot deeper to see those many complex shades of grey that life is made up of. Then it is up to us to talk about them & listen to those who have a differing solution to problems so that good compromises can be obtained for the benefit of the majority.
    Victoria must have got a bit of a backlash from the last article she wrote. She has now written an excellent article describing what could be accomplished if we turn down the emotions & look for the solutions.
    Thanks Victoria.

  5. Lee

    Sandra, please explain how turning back boats saves lives at sea. Because that is what the ALP wants to do.

  6. Brad

    The sad fact is that the majority of Australians want, or have been convinced we need, boats turned back. The next election could well be decided on this issue alone and so the choices for Shorten were a bit hamstrung. When it comes down to it I’d MUCH prefer a Labor turn back policy with more compassion than a hard line tony/murdoch/bolt et al policy with little or no compassion – not to mention the rest of their antediluvian policies.
    Well summed up, Victoria.

  7. Harquebus

    mark delmege
    Yes. There is something in what you say.

  8. diannaart

    I have to concur with Lee. I want Bill Shorten to explain why he believes turning back boats saves lives – with evidence – because way more evidence exists to suggest that leaky boats tend to say leaky no matter what direction they are going in, nor do orange life-boats guarantee refugees a safe secure future.

  9. sandrasearle

    I’m interested to read what Shortens policy is on the problem Lee. I think he has said that he will keep the ‘ option ‘ of turning back the boats where it is safe to do so & it will apply only to those coming from Indonesia. The rest of his policy sounds pretty fair.
    This will negate Bill Shorten from being wedged by Abbott because the ALP policy goes to the heart of the problem which is getting proper processing done in Indonesia & those other areas where camps hold refugees waiting to be processed.
    Still waiting on the Guardians reporting of the up to date goings on with the Refugees.
    Interesting times indeed.

  10. mark delmege

    Shortie could say anything and people would find a justification

  11. Lee

    Ah…. the rest of the policy sounds fair?

    To quote Trish Corry’s article –

    “A Labor Govt will keep more people safe in a more humane way
    Safe from persecution by dictatorial regimes
    Safe from the exploitation of criminal people smugglers who prey upon the vulnerable.
    Safe from abuse in facilities which even fail to meet the basic standard of decency
    Safe from losing people they love from having families torn apart from drownings at sea”

    Considering Australia has played a part in the rise of Al Qaeda and ISIS, do you really think they can keep people safe from persecution by dictatorial regimes? Do you think they can stop the boats from setting out in the first place? Because that’s the only way to prevent drownings at sea.

    If you believe all this, I have a block of land in Antarctica I’d like to sell to you.

  12. randalstella

    You just do not get it.
    If refugees die off the coast of Indonesia,how is that our problem? I mean, be fair. Who cares what Indonesia might call the ‘Stop the Boats’ policy?
    ‘Stop the reports’ is working like a treat. Labor really, truly admires it. ‘Stop ICAC’ has the same sense of publicly spirited principle. Why would we want to know these troublemaking things called facts?
    Now that the ALP have bashed the refugees, and bashed the informants in any of the concentration camps, and bashed the RET… they can get onto some real policy areas… like bashing Gonski to oblivion perhaps; and of course bashing the Greens.
    Lee, if you refuse to understand, I don’t know how we can help you. You seem like you might be one of those extremists who still supports the policies of that ultra-radical Julia Gillard. How much practical sense do you have?

  13. Lee

    Bwahahahaha! Randalstella, put a coffee alert on that. i nearly ruined a keyboard. 🙂

  14. mark delmege

    extremists who still supports the policies of that ultra-radical Julia Gillard… double Bwahahahaha!

  15. Maureen Walton

    Brad you have just wrote the Truth. I know people who vote Labor, but are really Happy with Abbotts way of turning back the boats. We have heard of to many bad things that are happening in Australia now and people are scared. Abbott has frightened them Badly..They only want people to come to Australia when it is their turn. If Labor allows boats to come, Labor will lose Votes and I for one much Prefer Labors new Policies than Abbotts Disgusting treatment of Asylum Seekers..

  16. kerri

    I will still only believe turnbacks to be a success when there is some concrete evidence that refugees are NOT getting on boats rather than simply we are NOT seeing them? At this point in time the higher moral ground is occupied by Indonesia who are doing way more than their fair share where asylum seekers are concerned. Indonesia have refused our live cattle. How long will it be before they refuse much much more? Yes it is a very grey area. But to reduce asylum seeker policy to simply asylum seekers makes even lighter of sensitive international relationships! Turnbacks are simplistic and riddled with lies. Shorten is a fool to swallow the success of turnbacks. When international pressure means Australia will no longer get any co-operation from it’s neighbours because of turnbacks and climate policy the LNP will conveniently lose an election and leave Labor to clean up the mess. Their mismanagement is always handed over to Labor in times of difficulty and then claimed to be Labors fault. Why buy into their plan?

  17. Neil of Sydney

    Victoria, have you ever conversed with an asylum seeker who arrived by boat? They know the risks of the voyage before they embark. They consider it to be worthwhile compared to what they are facing in their homeland

    Not entirely true. Reza Barati, the guy who was killed on Manus Island, risked his life on a boat because he could not get a job in his chosen profession in Iran. He was an economic refugee.

    Mr Barati had graduated as an architect, but like more than 20 per cent of his countrymen, he had been unable to find work in Iran’s sanction-strapped economy, the brother-in-law said. He had set out for Australia hoping to further his architectural studies. An uncle, the father of the cousin who had witnessed Mr Barati’s death, said that his son had told him Mr Barati had volunteered to teach other detainees how to use computers.

  18. mark delmege

    I don’t get why people feel the need to justify policies they don’t believe in (now or two weeks ago when the policy was different). You can still vote Labor and be opposed to certain policies. You are never going to believe in everything they want to do – ever. Blind obedience is what makes tyrants – not that I’m saying Shortie is a tyrant but keep your moral compass no matter what certain ‘leaders’ say. Besides if you knew what legislation they recently supported I can’t imagine you could possibly agree with what they did. Explain it away anyway you want but you don’t have to justify it. Our history is littered with wrong directions, bad policies and inhumane, racist and anti democratic policies and legislation. Please stand up for justice not political opportunism.

  19. silkworm

    The turn-back-the-boats policy is nothing more than Howard’s “we will decide who comes to Australia and the manner in which they come” policy, with a thin moral veneer of stopping the drownings thrown on top.

    The Kangaroo Island analogy doesn’t work, because it leaves out the fact that the boat interceptions, under the Law of the Sea, require the Australian navy to assist those at risk of drowning with proper support and escort to the nearest safe harbour, which is usually in Australian waters. Escorting them to an Australian harbour is still technically stopping the boats, so why the bother of turning them around and forcing them back to Indonesia? Because that plays to the racist, redneck voters who populate the western suburbs of Sydney, whose roads are apparently choking with refugee traffic.

  20. clarelhdm

    I think you’ve been drinking the Labor Kool Aid Victoria. Seeking asylum is not akin to an upper class party on some desirable island location. It’s more like finding yourself in a burning building and having to get out however you can. No time for a ticket, or an invitation or even a choice of destination. In fact your analogy smacks of privilege, of a world where people have choices, where holiday arrangements dominate our consciousness, and where an inner group of friends and family get the goodies. Stop trying to justify Labor’s asylum seeker policy. There is no justification. It is wrong, it will not save lives and it further isolates Australia from its international responsibilities. When Labor decides to shoot them then and there, rather than letting them die at sea, will you support that too?

  21. xiaoecho

    Abbott, the Liberals Murdoch, Bolt and the shock jocks over the last 15 years have conditioned the public to fear and loath refugees arriving by boat. They have been CONDITIONED. They have LEARNED to hate and fear by unrelenting continuous propaganda and reinforcement. No opposition can fight that and Shorten and the ALP would be on a hiding to nothing if they tried to win government with a pro boat arrival(via people smuggler) refugee policy. The public have to learn all over again not to fear refugees. A good start would be to treat them humanely in detention and re-humanise them in the eyes of the public. This dynamic (dehumanising refugees) has been in force since Howards Tampa/ children overboard fraud perpetrated on the public. As for turning the boats back – Shorten and Labor have no option – they have been well and truly wedged. The public will not accept anything less. They have been brainwashed (talking about the politically disengaged majority of voters here, not the aware minority.)
    It is worth noting that the refugee crisis is going to get much much worse as sea levels rise. It is the dressing up of the policy as humane that sticks in the craw.

  22. Douglas Evans

    Don’t often agree with Victoria but despite the torturous analogy she uses to underpin this piece I think she raises a valid point here. This is a wicked problem. Off shore processing does not accord with our international responsibilities, is horrendously expensive and as practiced by both the Abbott government and the previous Labor governments is cruel and morally repugnant. However any move towards the EU model with much faster processing and support for new arrivals will certainly result in far greater numbers of arrivals and the sort of racist social and political reaction that we now see steadily growing all over Europe as the flood of people from the south and the east is rapidly growing. I can’t see an answer. Both Labor and Liberal lie about their motives but I reckon that all Australian governments of either persuasion could do is seriously pursue the various other issues raised by Shorten – so far neither Labor nor Coalition governments have done more than pay lip service to these issues. They might well lessen the pressure to get on boats if they did so. If Labor get back into power and actually do what Shorten says he wants to do about all these other aspects of the problem well they might start to gain a little control over the problem. But both Labor and the Coalition have form for saying one thing before elections and doing something else entirely should they win power. So much so that I find it hard to take Shorten’s presentation seriously even as an honest statement of aspiration. I hope for the best but expect something less. I completely agree with Xiaoecho’s comment above. Labor has no alternative but to talk turn-backs. I hope that John Kelly’s observation on another thread – that a Shorten government would not take up the option of turning boats back – is what would eventuate. The only thing I think is certain is that whatever governments do this problem will not go away but will only get worse, much worse. As the various environmental crises sharpen more and more resource will be devoted to this issue.

  23. Douglas Evans

    As Victoria has sought reasoned discussion rather than partisan shouting I think these figures are helpful.


    In the first half of 2015 a record 137,000 refugees have crossed the Mediterranean to Europe, most of them fleeing war, conflict and persecution, the United Nations said on Wednesday. Better summer weather is expected to allow people smugglers to increase the flow. The number of people making the crossing swelled 83 percent in the first six months of 2015 compared to a year earlier.

    Most of those attempting the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean are not economic migrants. A third of those who have arrived by sea in Italy or Greece this year came from war-ravaged Syria, while people fleeing violence in Afghanistan and Eritrea’s repressive regime each made up 12 percent of arrivals. Other top countries of origin include conflict-wracked Somalia, Nigeria, Iraq and Sudan, the report said.

    The UN also noted a shift in migration patterns, with the number of people travelling the eastern Mediterranean route from Turkey to Greece now surpassing the route from north Africa to Italy. This has resulted in more than 60,000 refugees crossing the land border from Serbia to tiny Hungary (an EU nation) annually.

    Italy, which last year had 170,000 people land on its shores — more than three quarters of all maritime arrivals in Europe — saw that slump in the first half of 2015 to 67,500. In Greece, however, arrivals have more than doubled to 68,000 so far this year compared to 43,500 in all of 2014, the report said.


    2012 figures were the most recent I could easily get but they are probably close to current reality. It is relevant that they must be very close to the situation the Abbott government inherited from Rudd-Gillard Labor.

    Australia’s World Ranking 2012 (Refugees)

    By Total number of Refugees – 49th
    Compared to our Population size (per capita) – 62nd
    Compared to our National Wealth (GDP per capita) – 87th
    Total refugees living in Australia 35,983

    Australia’s World Ranking 2012 (Asylum Seekers)

    By total Number of Asylum Claims – 20th
    Compared to our population size (per capita) – 29th
    Compared to our national wealth (GDP per capita) – 57th

    Asylum Applications received in 2012 – 29610
    (This was 1.47% of total world claims received that year ranking us as 20th for 2012).
    Asylum seekers recognized as refugees in 2012 – 8367
    (This was 0.61% of the total for that year ranking us as 28th for 2012.)

    By any objective measure the scale of the refugee-asylum seeker influx into Australia in 2012 was miniscule. It remains so. I think this makes our cruel callous treatment of these unfortunate people by both major political parties shameful.

  24. Douglas Evans

    A correction to the figures above. I think ‘Total refugees living in Australia – 35,983’ should read ‘Total refugees accepted into Australia in 2012 – 35,983. I’m not sure. I found the source a bit ambiguous.

  25. Douglas Evans

    A late addition to the 2012 figures above. In that year with the Labor government scrambling to deal with the Abbott scaremongering and its amplification via the Murdoch Press there were 17,000 boat arrivals. This was the ‘out of control flood’ of ‘illegal queue jumpers’ that tough Tony had to address. Compare that to the (probable) 250,000 that will cross the Mediterranean to Europe this year or the more than 60,000 flooding into tiny Hungary via Greece and Serbia this year. The more you look the more pathetic our bipartisan cruelty looks.

  26. townsvilleblog

    Victoria for as long as the ALP is dominated by the rabid right wing of the party it will continue to be brow beaten by the tiny minds of the rabid right wing. The right wing supposed union have garnered control of the party following the fall of Gough Whitlam, and unless a lot more young lefties join the party and make is that party of humanist philosophers that it used to be instead of the party of lawyers thay it has become the battle for real social change will not take place.

  27. Neil of Sydney

    A late addition to the 2012 figures above. In that year with the Labor government scrambling to deal with the Abbott scaremongering and its amplification via the Murdoch Press there were 17,000 boat arrivals.

    But they were rapidly increasing. There were 4,000 boat people in July 2013. That equates to 50,000/year. It could easily increase to 100,000/year.

    I wonder what Labor would do if we were getting 8,000 boat people/month”

  28. Ann

    We really need to pull the finger out and set up a proper working processing centre in Indonesia. If they pass the health and security checks they get a number and that is the order they come to Australia in. If they know they will get here safely by plane, if they are patient, they will arrive in Australia by air safe and sound. The health and security needs to be streamlined to work more efficently and in a timely manner. You cannot have people waiting for many months. We need to get some of our kindness back. Hopefully this is what Labor is on about.

  29. Douglas Evans

    Ah yes Neil of Sydney what if? what if?

  30. mark delmege

    Harquebus along the same vein this from Moon Of Alabama on the latest chess board maneuvers

    No doubt we will get some propaganda tomorrow morning from the ABC on news that is fit for publication here in Oz giving quite a different slant… When really what we have is the moves of Empire against Syria butting up against the regional aspirations of Turkey – two sides who have aided and abetted the worst recent terrorist outfits in the Middle East while at home we get stung with terra tarra terra and boatloads on leaky boats and endless lies about the state of the world.

  31. mark delmege

    Funny that …over the years I have noticed that the ABC am news programs to be the most right wing offering of the day. Boatloads of bullshit. As if somehow they set the agenda for the day. So who is on the staff – guiding the ship rightwards ever right wrongly. Is this the hidden deep state … intelligence … foreign Affairs … or some other body at work. It can’t possibly be independent honest intelligent diligent well trained professional journalists at work – there is a pattern of behaviour and they get it wrong way too often for it to be mere coincidence.

  32. mquartly

    What about the other residents of Kangaroo Island who are not so blessed with rich friends and huge dining tables, who want to keep their refuge unchanged by newcomers buying up land and overcrowding the facilities? Do they get a say in this conversation?

  33. mark delmege

    This isn’t about the grey but the black and white of propaganda. On how they hide the truth on why there are so many refugees. The cause and consequences of what ‘our side’ is doing. I didn’t hear anything useful this am today about Turkey (as I predicted above – though something just as useless later) or its attacks on its own people ( The Kurds) but a little on how al-Assad had said that he had to make choices about what his government could defend in his own country. An interesting spin on the totality of what he actually said … in blaming the West for the support they have given to terrorists in that country. But then you wouldn’t expect our media to acknowledge it’s role in the death of so many people or the 4 million refugees…would you? So long as our political parties don’t recognise the reality of what is happening in the world they deserve no ideological cover in their refugee policies.

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