Chris Kenny, in The Australian, 18 August 2012, with title “The onus on moral posturers is to say why they persist with their disingenuous myths“
THE report of the expert panel on asylum-seekers has exposed some long-denied realities, not only demolishing arguments used against tough border control measures but dispelling myths that have been patronising to mainstream Australians. This week’s policy reversal might slow the boats – given time and a resolve not seen to this point – but because of the about-face on what has been framed as a moral stand, it is impossible to envisage Labor escaping a political reckoning.
Paris Aristotle, left, Angus Houston and Michael L’Estrange face the media after the release of their report. Picture: Ray Strange Source: The Australian
Ineptitude, leading to needless trauma, tragedy and expense, will play a role in public assessments, but so will the way the progressive political class has insulted voters over this for more than a decade. One of the myths exploded by the expert panel is the fanciful notion that there is no queue. The commonsense claim that asylum-seekers arriving by boat win residency ahead of those applying through orderly processes has been haughtily rejected by the moral progressives. “Political leaders used arguments against asylum-seekers which were mean, petty and false,” former Liberal prime minister Malcolm Fraser said. “How can you join a queue when there is no queue?”
Yet the panel’s report recognises the preference for orderly processes over irregular arrivals and it recommends measures to stop the flow of boats: “They are needed to reinforce a basic principle of fairness – that those who continue to choose irregular maritime voyages to Australia to claim asylum should not be advantaged for doing so over those who pursue regular mechanisms.”
In other words, we must remove the advantage for queue jumpers. This has been obvious for years and has appealed to Australians’ innate sense of a fair go. None of us could blame the asylum-seekers for wanting to come here but their good fortune forces others, who don’t have the money or chance to pay a people-smuggler, to wait even longer.
Another truth, plain to the mainstream but persistently denied by activists and Labor, is that Nauru worked as a deterrent. It is one thing to decry Nauru as unfair or expensive, but the government has used blatant spin to argue it was ineffective. When the Rudd government abandoned Nauru, it was empty – a clue to its success. Instead of quietly leaving well enough alone, Labor trumpeted the end of the Pacific Solution and foolishly trashed the outcomes. The immigration minister at the time, Chris Evans, released and misused statistics to claim Nauru had failed as a deterrent. It became a mantra and was accepted without question by many commentators.
“Over 90 per cent of the people regarded as refugees on Nauru last time were resettled in Australia or New Zealand,” Immigration Minister Chris Bowen said last year. “Now the people-smugglers know that, the asylum-seekers know that.” Julia Gillard repeated the line: “I will maintain my objection to Nauru, it’s costly and it won’t work.” But given the main reason for offshore processing is to assess refugee claims away from domestic appeals and court processes – to remove the certainty of gaining residency – the relevant number must be how many of all the arrivals were resettled in Australia. It was less than half. About 30 per cent of the asylum-seekers failed in their refugee applications and were sent home, another 30 per cent were resettled in other countries, including New Zealand. So with just more than 40 per cent making it to our shores, there was a stark disincentive, amplified by the time taken for processing.
So like it or abhor it, Nauru worked. The public has understood this because boat arrivals fell away dramatically after the Pacific Solution was implemented. In 1999, 3721 people arrived on 86 boats, the following year 2939 arrived on 51 boats, and in 2001 there were 5516 people crammed on to 43 vessels. Then, with Nauru operational, no boats arrived in 2002, one with 53 passengers in 2003 and none again in 2004. The numbers didn’t pick up substantially until Labor’s softening of the border regime in late 2008.
These facts have always spoken for themselves but the Left and the elites have argued in the face of them. They have attempted to play mainstream voters for fools. Clearly it didn’t work. Remarkably, however, their spin seemed to convince or provide cover for many in the press gallery and commentariat. Surely the jig is up now that the expert panel wants Nauru reopened immediately.
The argument over push and pull factors has a similar history. After Labor abandoned the Pacific Solution and temporary protection visas, the boat arrivals increased. Washing its hands of the surge, it blamed push factors, that is, the number of displaced international people, factors beyond its control. Repeatedly it denied domestic policies were having an impact. “We believe there are push factors around the world,” said the Prime Minister, “things that get people on the move.”
This flew in the face of the nation’s recent experience and it was even decried by Indonesian and Sri Lankan calls for Australia to “take the sugar off the table”. Again, the public seems to have understood this. The government argued against common sense until it suddenly changed its mind, without explanation, in 2010 and started talking about an East Timor solution, a regional solution and then the Malaysia Solution.
The expert panel again provides clarity on this point. “Australian policy settings do influence the flows of irregular migration to Australia,” it declares. “Those settings need to address the factors ‘pushing’ as well as ‘pulling’ the trend toward greater numbers of dangerous irregular maritime ventures to Australia.” It recommends our domestic policy “needs to implement more effective disincentives to irregular and dangerous maritime voyages”.
To be fair to Gillard, Bowen and others (despite previous warnings and tragedies) the horror of Christmas Island on December 15, 2010, finally pushed them to a firm response. But the public was on to this long before their government. And now they must wonder why cabinet needed an expert panel to be honest about the self-evident.
Most insulting of all has been the constant presumption from the Left and the elites that support for strong borders is based on xenophobia or racism. Barrister and human rights activist Julian Burnside often speaks on these issues. “I think there are some Australians that are racist, but I would put them in a small minority,” he said in 2010. “On the other hand, xenophobia, which is a fear of outsiders, a fear of unknowns, I think that is a very, very common streak in the Australian psyche.” Asked if he thought Australians understood human rights, he said: “No, I do not. I think our attitude to human rights is very primitive.”
Former prime minister Paul Keating has highlighted what he says is the role of racism in the border protection issue. “Racism is a form of sickness and when a country starts building policies on race, or racial undertones, then you know you don’t have much of a future,” he said in March – exhibiting considerable chutzpah for the man who oversaw the introduction of mandatory detention.
Across the past decade Labor has been bitterly divided on these issues. Back in 2001, then union leader (now senator) Doug Cameron slammed Kim Beazley’s tacit support for the Pacific Solution, saying it betrayed the party’s principles and “pandered to racism, populism and xenophobia”. Remember, every reference to dog-whistle politics has repeated this slur – the idea of a dog-whistle is predicated on evil manipulators and a racist, gullible public.
Fair-minded Australians, immigrants and refugees among them, have bristled at the suggestion their concerns about queue-jumping, people-smuggling, maritime safety and the gaming of our immigration system by self-selection have been maliciously miscast as racist. This moral condescension has come from Labor, the Greens and some Liberal dissenters, as well as many activists.
Perhaps now some will see that not only is this wrong but counter-productive. Because this moral grandstanding only hardens attitudes and deepens the political disconnect. Some, predictably, will continue this procession, making it more difficult for the government to show the necessary strength. The reinstated policies will not work without tough and uncompromising enforcement.
After years of ineptitude and posturing, Labor is adopting central elements of the Pacific Solution. Most assuredly this is not to whip up racist sentiment but to save lives, protect our immigration system, control our borders and preserve fairness. On that basis many MPs owe their opponents and their constituents an apology.
Now the onus must be on the remaining moral posturers to explain why their preference is for an open borders arrangement that will see overseas refugees dudded out of humanitarian places, our intake selected by people-smugglers and countless more lives lost at sea.