Asylum seeker policy in Australia
di Robert Hiini *
The belief that Islam is incompatible with mainstream Australian culture is widespread and surely contributes to anti-asylum seeker attitudes. The most important current factor driving public opinion is absence of boats arriving. The government kept faith with the Australian people. They said they would stop the boats and they did.
When it comes to its treatment of asylum seekers the moral landscape of Australia is a strange and more than occasionally forbidding place.
On 14 December news rang out across the country that Saad Al-Kassab, a 19-year-old refugee from Syria who could neither speak, much less write in English when he arrived in Australia two years ago, had been announced “dux” (the highest performing student) of his school, beating out hundreds of his homegrown peers.
It was welcomed everywhere as unambiguously good, an affirmation of Australia's much vaunted self-understanding - at least in urbane, metropolitan circles - of being an inclusive and multicultural nation, one that would support a “young bloke” trying to do his best.
But only a few months earlier the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, and his Minister for Immigration and Border Protection, Peter Dutton, had once again sought out the cameras of the nation’s media, spruiking news that they would further tighten restrictions on “illegal maritime arrivals” (the treatment of whom was so ably depicted in a recent New York Times expose).
Turnbull goaded the Opposition to match him in the ‘toughness’ stakes, reiterating to an already-agreeing public that the “people smugglers” facilitating the passage of boat people “are the worst criminals imaginable”.
“(Australians) should not underestimate the scale of the threat,” Prime Minister Turnbull said.
“They have a multibillion-dollar business. It is a battle of will. We have to be very determined to say no to their criminal plans.”
“Border protection” remains a rare calling card of competency for a Federal Government that was re-elected with a new leader on 2 July, this year, but precious little else to recommend it.
Keeping the boats at bay has been a bulwark of conservative credibility ever since the Tampa Incident in 2001, when a Norwegian vessel sought passage for people it had rescued from one of those floating vessels of human misery which had sunk into the sea.
The then-Prime Minister John Howard skillfully reframed the event - broadcast in dramatic detail to living rooms throughout the country - as a matter of national security, border integrity and moral searching.
It was Howard who inverted the notion of a ‘fair go’, Australia’s long-cherished myth of nationhood, one that disdains the kinds of class distinctions which its settlers had left behind them, brashly maligning the oppressor in favour of the oppressed.
Boat people were jumping the putative “queue”. They were depriving other “legitimate” asylum seekers of ever being resettled in Australia. It was 'unfair’; they were looking for an unfair advantage.
Turnbull's predecessor, Tony Abbott (Prime Minister from 2013-2015), had promised in the lead up to the 2010 and 2013 elections that a Coalition government would "stop the boats": the influx of more than 800 "illegal" boat arrivals since the Rudd Labor Government had reversed Howard’s policies.
The Rudd Government ended the so-called Pacific Solution of offshore settlement after its landslide victory in 2007. The result, ‘push factors’ notwithstanding, was that the boats, which had all but dried up during the Howard years, were coming once again.
Whereas ‘border integrity’ and moral imputations about “queue jumpers” might have been used to justify the harsh but popular policies of the re-elected Howard Government in 2001, another moral justification was about to take on an even greater role in the years of the successive Labor Governments of Rudd-(Julia) Gillard-Rudd (2007 - 2013).
The “optics”, as members of the media like to say, changed when asylum seekers began drowning at sea.
A failed ‘Indonesian Solution’ was followed by a failed ‘Malaysian Solution,’ an asylum seeker swap with that country which might have worked had it not been struck down as unconstitutional by the High Court. A return to Howard-like policies was in the offing.
Explaining Labor’s total about-face and the necessity of a harsh deterrent, Australia’s socially progressive Prime Minister Rudd said in 2013: “Australians have had enough of seeing people drowning in the waters to our north. Our country has had enough of people smugglers exploiting asylum seekers and seeing them drown on the high seas”.
Labor parliamentarians, who had previously opposed the cruelty of immigration detention and offshore processing, largely followed suit, most sighting an urgent desire to prevent further deaths at sea.
(That may have been a motivating factor for some members - who can see into a person’s soul? - but it was also the case that Labor’s boat arrival “failure” was costing them dearly with voters in marginal seats, particularly in the west of Sydney).
Recent polls funded by refugee and child advocacy organisations have shown that current support for Australia’s migration policy settings is on the wane, but some have raised questions about their veracity.
A poll funded by the left-leaning Australia Institute found that 63 per cent of respondents opposed the bipartisan policy that refugees who arrived in Australia by boat should never be allowed to settle in the country.
A Save The Children poll conducted by the respected polling organisation, Galaxy, found that 66 per cent of people believe the Prime Minister should act urgently to resettle refugees held in offshore detention by the end of the year.
Writing for the progressive online journal, Crikey, in September, Henry Sherrell, a one-time immigration department staffer, said that those numbers were difficult to believe.
“The results simply do not accord with what we know about public opinion and asylum policy in Australia over the last 15+ years,” Sherrell wrote.
“The most important current factor driving public opinion is absence of boats arriving (noting there are still boats leaving and being turned back).”
Doubt has also been cast on the prima facie result of a September poll showing 46 per cent support for a ban on Muslim immigration, the result of an ‘either-or’ question.
Research over time has shown that at least some hostility to asylum seekers can be attributed to negative attitudes towards Muslims, and the widespread perception that most asylum seekers are Muslims.
The belief that Islam is incompatible with mainstream Australian culture is also widespread and surely contributes to anti-asylum seeker attitudes.
A January study by the University of South Australia found one in 10 Australians were ‘highly Isamaphobic’ in their attitudes; a grave number, but not one which could explain popular support for the government’s migration regime.
Islamist attacks in Sydney in 2014 and 2015, the Lindt Cafe siege and the murder of police administration officer Curtis Cheng, have no doubt also contributed to hostility, but their effect on recent feelings towards asylum seeker policies remains unknown.
Given the cessation of boats, it perhaps remains to ask why the government continues to ratchet up pressure on a languishing group of ill-treated and traumatised detainees on Manus Island and Nauru, notwithstanding a mooted resettlement deal with the US?
A major part of the explanation might not be as idiosyncratically Australian as some, domestically and internationally, like to suggest.
Unlike the global flows of capital or the fluctuating prices of mineral resources, the flow of people is something that the government of a modern, geographically isolated island nation can actually hope to affect.
It has the all important characteristics of being measurable and achievable in an age that has no need history, which has replaced the common good with jingoistic epithets and absurd managerial slogans.
The government kept faith with the Australian people. They said they would stop the boats and they did.
Whether they are keeping faith with God, who demands reverence of the inherent dignity of all men and women, is another question entirely.
* nota sull'autore
Journalist, The Catholic Weekly (Sydney)