The Greater of Two Evils

When I’m angry, I’m prone to write too much. When I’m crossing over to the dark side and talking politics, I tend to load up with evidence, since haters abound. But no one’s going to thank me for 5000 words of sandbagged armour-plated essay, so watch me attempt to cut to the chase here.

[… edits bulging dissertation about post-WWII European refugees and migrants, 80s Vietnamese refugees, contributions to society of same despite challenges, plus notes on the 2001 Tampa election, queues and the alleged jumping thereof, and the financial costs/benefits of various asylum-seeker options …]

In fact, I’ll pare it back to just two questions to the major parties.

1. If your policies concerning unauthorised maritime arrivals are still to any extent about protecting us from terrorism in the guise of ‘tough border protection’, why are they so contrary to the evidence?

The recent history of developed nations shows that terrorists are either locally born or arrive on commercial airliners.

Frankly, there could hardly be a dumber way for a terrorist to try to get here than by a leaky boat from Indonesia. Why risk death when you can fly here and risk nothing worse than crappy airline food? Why come the most detectable way possible, when you can be one of the anonymous millions coming in through airports?

Clearly terrorists don’t choose the leaky boat. If the navy was pulling terrorists out of the water, we’d be hearing all about it. Given time and a process with even a shred of fairness, the great majority of boat arrivals turn out to be legitimate refugees – the kind of people we are morally and by treaty obliged to assist. And the rest don’t seem to be terrorists either – they just don’t tick enough of the right boxes to be refugees.

You have had 12 year since the Tampa to show us we are being attacked by sea and you have failed. Because we are not being attacked by sea.

2. If your policies concerning unauthorised maritime arrivals are driven by compassion and saving people from drowning, as you have sometimes told us, was a solution reliant on inflicting visible cruelty on those people seriously the best you could do?

Because that’s what it is, this whole ‘breaking the people smugglers’ business model’ thing. The people smugglers have a business model as long as asylum seekers have hope. Your answer has been to shred that hope and set your own hopes on the possibility that what you’re offering them can be more off-putting than tyranny or limbo.

Will the latest policies work? Despite the way our political discourse skews it, push factors have always been a bigger influence than pull factors, so far.

The urge to, for example, get the hell out of Afghanistan or Iran in order to escape persecution has counted for more than ‘Hey, Sydney looks nice this time of year.’ Variations in arrival numbers since the 90s have reflected changes in other countries far more than policy changes here.

Tens of thousands of people have not been deterred by the risk of death at sea, let alone our policy settings. Exactly how ‘tough’ do we have to be to top death at sea as a deterrent?

Recent reports suggest 50 Iranian asylum seekers are choosing to go back to Iran, rather than roll the dice and get on a boat to test the new policy.

Before we hail that as a policy triumph, let’s take in a few highlights from the government’s own June 2013 Country Guidance Note on Iran (I owe it to John Birmingham for bringing this material to light – his Fairfax blog has more, and footnotes it precisely):

  • “[t]he government disproportionately targeted minority groups, including Kurds, Arabs, Azeris, and Baluchis, for arbitrary arrest, prolonged detention, and physical abuse
  • apostasy is punishable by death or lifetime imprisonment

  • detainees arrested in connection with the post-election protests were held in harsh conditions, with many being subjected to torture

  • In its May 2013 report covering events of 2012, Amnesty International noted that “government critics and opponents were arbitrarily arrested and detained by security forces. [.. ] Many were tortured or otherwise ill-treated.”

So, what both Labor and the Coalition are saying is that, rather than focusing on a regional upstream anti-people-smuggling initiative, or better resourcing refugee facilities along the way, or accepting that we have a humanitarian duty and honouring it, or (allow me a moment’s lapse into crazy cock-eyed optimism) trying to fix some of the issues that turn people into refugees in the first place, the best that they, our major parties, can do is to manufacture a prospect less desirable than the circumstances refugees are fleeing.

Are we seriously driving people back to Iran by making it the lesser of two evils?
How bereft of ideas and heart and leadership are we that it has come to this? How depressing is it that our major parties might see it as a vote-winner? How disheartening is it if they’re right in thinking that way?
We could do far better, and we have no good reason not to. We have done better before – after WWII, after the Vietnam War, with far more new arrivals in each case than now – and ended up better as a nation for it.
One day, we will look back on this with shame. I had hoped that day would come long before now. In 2001, we were talked into politicising desperate people, and talked out of understanding them.
I can’t say which major party won the race to the bottom on this issue, but I’m pretty sure that, from where they stand now, to see the bottom they both need to look up.
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11 Responses to The Greater of Two Evils

  1. Stacey Donnelly says:

    well said Anne-Maree Britton Date: Mon, 26 Aug 2013 07:43:35 +0000 To:

  2. Pat Bourke says:

    After tha war in Vietnam the boat people came! We did not ask them for proof that they were not communists that is the ‘enemy’! We took them into our communities, and provided them with houses! What has happened to Australia?

  3. Steve says:

    What happened to Australia?
    Howard’s nationalism. He generated fear (assisted by the rabid media who’ll jump onto anything that might generate some ad revenue) as a tool to get re-elected.

    It stuck.

  4. AnnaM says:

    Thank you for this Nick. Clearly articulated, well put and I totally agree with you. We have lost compassion and understanding. We seem fearful of sharing this huge land and resources. Yes, our children will look back at this time with disbelief and shame.

  5. Pingback: They’re On A Boat | Myperbole

  6. courtknees1 says:

    The Holocaust museum in Washington DC has a display summarising other countries’ responses to the desperate people trying to flee Nazi Europe. The Australian government’s was something along the lines of, “Australia does not have a racial problem and does not wish to import one”. That was pretty sickening to read, and surely everyone today would agree that was an appalling and callous response. Yet I don’t really see how this situation is any different. Disbelief and shame all the way.

  7. Pingback: Still Missing The Boat | Myperbole

  8. Joan says:

    Thank you Nick, for expressing so well what so many feel!

  9. Joan says:

    By the way Nick – re you earlier comment of what you would do if you became P.M.
    Limiting media interviews to maybe once, twice weekly to cut out the trivia would give everyone more time to deal with essentials and give us a break from the offensive attitudes .. that mainly feed the newspapers. Dare we hope that once the shouting subsides after the elections, the victorious P.M. will give this a try?

  10. Thank you, Nick, you have no argument from me on any of this. Really well said, hope you do not mind if I quote you and pass these perspectives on.

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