12 April 2010

Asylum seekers: “leaders” following the opinion polls

Today’s edition of Crikey has some fascinating data, extracted from Morgan Polls (see here), concerning attitudes to asylum seekers according to political affiliation.

The percentages of voters who believe that all asylum seekers should be returned to their place of origin and made to apply through “normal” channels are:

-  Greens: 27%
-  ALP: 67%
-  Coalition: 77%
-  Family First: 100%

The percentages of voters who believe that asylum seekers should continue to be treated as they are now are:

-  Greens: 66%
-  ALP: 27%
-  Coalition: 14%
-  Family First: 0%

Crikey concludes, “The people have spoken”.

I don’t doubt that the data above are an accurate reflection of contemporary community attitudes.  The larger question is why the community responds as it does on this issue.

My answer is that there has been a conspicuous failure of leadership on this issue since the days of Malcolm Fraser.  Fraser did not have a problem with boat people (a very new experience for Australia in those days) because he led the debate, starting with leading his own Cabinet (does anyone think that Treasurer Howard was enthusiastic about this?). The message Fraser conveyed to the public at large was, in effect, “We are a big, generous country, we can do this”. The public accepted this and it was not a political problem for the Fraser Government.

The Hawke and Keating Governments chose followership on the issue, and introduced mandatory detention, in response to the arrival of some hapless Cambodians on the North West coast. Imagine anyone wanting to leave 1980s Cambodia, or a camp in Malaysia.

John Howard exploited racist and xenophobic sentiment for all it was worth, and the community which had accepted Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s cheered him on in the 1990s.  Like the Hawke Government before it, only more so, the Howard Government communicated that arrival by boat was a big problem, and the community absorbed the message.  No-one gave a damn about the much more numerous arrivals by air, or the very large number of visa overstayers – people who, unlike applicants for refugee status, have simply broken our laws and have no claims on our sympathy.

Kim Beazley’s Labor Opposition meekly followed, supporting for example the disgraceful behaviour of the Howard Government, in the vain hope of gaining political benefit by doing so.

The Rudd Government tried to introduce more humane policies, but was somewhat apologetic about doing so, and/or tried to pretend that there was no real change. They tried to change the policies without changing community attitudes.  This was a sure fire recipe for policy catastrophe, and now they have fallen on their face.

Now that the community attitudes are what they are, what is needed is political leadership, not meek acquiescence.

Alternatively, if we really want to regard the community attitudes reflected in these data as sacred and inviolable, we should withdraw from the UN Refugee Convention.  We cannot respect both our obligations under the Refugee Convention and the will of the people as expressed in this survey.

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