There is a scene in The West Wing where a Democratic presidential candidate says: ‘Social security is the third rail of American politics. Touch it and you die.’ (The third rail supplies direct electrical current to trains: hence the metaphor.) Asylum seeker policy is the third rail of Australian politics as far as the Labor Party is concerned. Whatever they’ve done has been electorally unacceptable, whether it’s accepting more refugees, letting them drown or sending them off shore for processing. It’s not currently death to the LNP; their embrace of asylum seeker politics seems, vampire-like, to be invigorating them. But it can’t go on. In the name of Labor values, the Labor leadership has to grasp the rail – and not die.
It will be hard. There is no doubt that asylum seekers create political difficulties that fall into the ‘wicked problem’ category, as Vic Rollison pointed out last year. A wicked problem is one that is ‘difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize. Moreover … the effort to solve one aspect of a wicked problem may reveal or create other problems’. The term ‘wicked’ in this context means hard to solve rather than evil, but the way it is being solved by the current government is wicked in both senses of the word. We must find another way. Here’s some suggestions. Electorally impossible? I’ll get to that later.
1. Recognise that the problem isn’t going away, and will likely get worse. The cruel and internationally unacceptable measures of the current government may slow the stream of people getting to Australia, but while we have persecution and wars, we will have refugees in fear of their lives seeking asylum. For example, the Western pullout from Afghanistan will inevitably be followed by the return of the Taliban, and anyone who has helped the fight against them – military or civil – will flee. Shrinking resources of arable land and water in sub-Saharan Africa will result in violence, bloodshed and refugees. Then we have Syria, Egypt, Libya – need I go on? Then there’s the separate category of climate change refugees fleeing the rising waters that are engulfing their islands and low lying deltas. We need to be very clear to the electorate that this is an ongoing world-wide problem, far worse for many other countries than it is for Australia.
2. Recognise that the problem must be tackled on a regional basis, if not more widely. There are a number of things we can do here.
- We need to co-operate with countries in our region, not piss them off. Unilateral action that pushes the problem back onto poorer countries will not solve it.
- We need to restore foreign aid, both because it is a gesture of good will, and also because it helps create stable societies that don’t generate refugees.
- We could initiate an international effort to persuade the Sri Lankans against persecuting the Tamils, which might reduce the number of Tamil refugees. This is as opposed to giving the Sri Lankan government a gunship to further persecute Tamils when they do flee.
- We could help countries like Indonesia and Malaysia to build proper refugee camps. They are much more likely to subscribe to the International Convention on Refugees if rich countries in their region put their money where their mouth is.
- We could pay the UNHCR to speed up processing of refugee claims for asylum.
- We could join international efforts to slow down climate change so that there will be fewer climate refugees.
- We could join international efforts to plan for the inevitable disruption that rising sea levels, drought and flooding due to climate change will bring.
3. Processing asylum seekers. This is the wickedest of problems. If we let them come, and process them onshore, many will drown on the way. This is not acceptable. And there is a limit to how many we can take. Even Green policy at the last election had a ceiling of 30,000. What if more than that arrive? How many is too many, given rising unemployment in Australia? The current policy of trying to scare off asylum seekers by inhumane treatment in offshore processing centres and restrictions within Australia may temporarily slow the tide, but is repugnant to anyone with a conscience. So what to do?
The best I can come up with here is a mixture of on and off shore processing. If there are properly funded refugee camps – or whatever the UNHCR recommends – in transit countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, where asylum seekers can be quickly processed, then fewer will want to take the risk of drowning. Those who do come by boat should not be returned, but could be placed at the end of the queue created by proper processing off shore. They could live in the community, because detention is cruel and destructive, but only on temporary visas. This sounds unfair, but if there is no disincentive to arriving by boat, more people will do it, and more will drown. And those refugees who have waited years in refugee camps all around the world will miss out, because other asylum seekers can afford to pay people smugglers.
4. ACCEPT MORE REFUGEES
5. Start a long term campaign to re-educate Australians about refugees and their experiences. Always call the government and the media out when they label asylum seekers illegal. It is not illegal to seek asylum – which the government must know. Remind the public often that over 90% of people seeking asylum seeker status are found by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection to be genuine refugees. Forge an alliance with every organisation that seeks a better deal for asylum seekers. Use this alliance to get the message out to community groups, churches, trade unions, business groups, sporting clubs – anywhere people can come to see asylum seekers as fellow human beings. Produce publicity material, using social media naturally, showing asylum seekers in a positive light. There are many people you won’t ever get onside, but that’s OK: you just need more people of good will who will support decent policies.
6. HAVE THE GUTS TO STAND BY LABOR PRINCIPLES. This in itself is important in establishing the party’s credibility. It’s not enough to look the other way and hope it will all vanish. It’s not enough to ask for an inquiry into violence on Manus Island. Give up publicly on the New Guinea solution. Say it didn’t work. We can’t put refugees into a society that doesn’t accept the rule of law. This doesn’t mean renouncing off shore processing altogether, but it must be properly resourced and in cooperation with the UNHCR. We cannot continue this race to the bottom. Labor must enunciate a responsible and compassionate policy now – not a slogan, not an excuse, but a properly argued position. I believe that Labor members will accept short term pain from the media – who are likely to deride any change in Labor policy – in return for the restoration of Labor’s integrity on this issue among people of good conscience. And it is the only way that we can expand the number of people who understand the problem and care about Australia doing the right thing. Bill Shorten, Richard Marles, Tanya Plibersek – please listen, and act now. As it is, the party is losing votes to both the left and the right on this issue. And you may find that humanity may cost less than inhumanity. Be brave. This third rail won’t kill you.