Why Labor has to turn back the boats

The First Fleet in 1788 continue in a long tradition of "illegal immigration" by boat to Australia
The First Fleet in 1788 continue in a long tradition of “illegal immigration” by boat to Australia

A left-wing friend talking about Shorten’s boat turnback policy said Labor was making the same mistake when they rolled Kevin Rudd in 2010: not explaining to a bewildered electorate what they were doing and why they were doing it. What is it they feared and why, the person asked rhetorically, suspecting it would never be explained by those who voted with Shorten for the boat turnback policy. Shorten did explain yesterday why Labor was bringing in the policy though he didn’t explain his deepest fear. Were I a delegate it would have been a tough decision – but in the end I would have voted yes too, despite boat turnbacks being part of a vile and inhuman system.

What Shorten and Labor fear most in 2016 is defeat, despite leading the polls for most of the electoral cycle and despite Tony Abbott being our worst prime minister since the shambolic Gorton/MacMahon era. Abbott believes he can win again next year by talking up security and borders and playing to our worst fears. Most Australians believe the current draconian border policy is either fine or not strong enough. The media hysteria of the real or imagined threat of terrorism is giving Australians nightmares while the issue of being “swamped” by Asians is as old as settler Australia itself.

The fear is unconscious and atavistic, and not helped by Australia’s failure to be honest about its own violent history. The country was settled by boat people at least 40,000 years ago and they dominated the continent until more “illegal immigrants” arrived in 1788 to start a new wave of conquest. The unspoken fear is that a third wave of conquest is imminent and “white” Australia will be subsumed in an Asiatic and/or Islamic culture.

The government of the day has played up mightily to those fears as have the Murdoch media. “Turning back the boats” (seeing that even the Abbott government admitted they can’t be stopped) is an acceptable slogan to keep the desperate at bay. Indeed most Australian people see it as necessary regardless of the human consequences. The wars Australia fought in the Middle East have created much of the tide of refugees but as long as they are hidden away overseas and cannot be humanised, they will always be suspects not victims.

The Coalition has won the information war by ending the flow of information. The ludicrous cliché “operational matters” covers a multitude of sins and allows the government to get away with any behaviour to meet its ends. Labor and the Greens are left screeching to an empty gallery. But while the Greens can afford to retain its policy purity, Labor cannot if it hopes to win government.

They need to change the conversation entirely and this policy decision yesterday allows them to do that. The coalition will continue to run hard on borders and generate fear saying to the electorate that Labor can’t be trusted to protect the borders but they will now find it harder to argue on specifics. Abbott will be reduced to touting suspicions not facts. His best hope is that the Labor left sabotages Shorten’s policy.

But Abbott knows this weekend’s debate means it is Labor who can now argue on specifics when it comes to immigration policy. They are in the game, but with points of difference. Oversight of the detention centres, increasing the immigration intake, removing Temporary Protection Visas and releasing children from detention all play to Labor’s “human” side while still allowing them to join the Liberals on the demonisation of “people smugglers”.

They will still be no-go areas of discussion and many ways in which the policy obscures rather than illuminates. What will happen to the people currently rotting away in Nauru and Manus Island? Labor does not say, but crucially neither do the Liberals. So it is not in their interest to open that discussion.

So while the left will appalled by Labor’s decision, it is realpolitik. If you want a coherent and humanitarian policy on immigration then vote for the Greens, however they will not form government in 2016. Labor has potentially neutralised this most damaging of matters and crucially, they did it in an open forum. The issue was far more toxic to them than climate change, despite Abbott’s past victories in that space. Abbott destroyed Rudd and Gillard’s environmental policy by labelling it a tax, but the electorate is slowly aware of a bigger problem coming if carbon emissions are not addressed. It is a problem the government does not wish to acknowledge. Meanwhile, Abbott’s war against the obvious benefits of solar and wind power is looking mean and vindictive.

Labor is looking to fill the space left by Abbott, making another commitment yesterday to move to 50% renewable energy by 2050. Much more needs to be done, including a tangible plan on how to get to that target. Labor should win the next election with the current government looking out of touch, arrogant and untrustworthy. Abbott remains a deeply unpopular prime minister, though Shorten is not much better. The left will dislike him even more on the border backflip. Yet he showed in his carefully crafted borders speech yesterday he is more than just a straw man. He remains the best hope of dragging Australia back to the middle ground, so carelessly voided by his opponent.

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