One of the nasty little dog-whistle messages that is in the air at the moment is the notion that “border protection” (code for institutionalised inhumanity towards asylum seekers) has some connection with the current debate about the appropriate growth trajectory for Australia’s population growth. It doesn’t, as the following statistics demonstrate:
- The outcome for the 2008-09 Migration Program was 171,318 places, an 8 per cent increase on the 2007-08 figure of 158,630 places.
- The planning level for 2009-10 was reduced to 168,700 places, a 1.9 per cent decrease.
- The number of boat arrivals in 2008-09 was 1,033, and the financial year to date figure for the current financial year was 4,916 as of 19 May 2010.
- In calendar year 2009 the total number of asylum applications was 6,170 – more than double the 2,750 boat arrivals for the calendar year. As everyone knows, most asylum seekers arrive by plane.
What these statistics show is that boat arrivals really amount to little more than rounding error on the formal migration program. If we accepted every single boat arrival as a permanent resident, the effect on the size of our population would be barely discernable.
This evening on the ABC Radio National program Australia Talks, conservative commentator Tom Switzer opined, in response to a question from program host Paul Barclay, that Opposition Leader Tony Abbott would make the question of asylum seekers a centre-piece of the forthcoming election campaign. I am sure he is right. The Coalition’s excitable spokesman on immigration matters, Scott Morrison, never tires of telling us that the country is being overrun by boat people, and that the government must somehow “stop the boats”. Tony Abbott himself nominated stopping the boats as the first of the three policy issues by which in his view Prime Minister Gillard must be judged.
We need a reality check here. At a time when the Global Financial Crisis is just starting to show us what it can really do, when the public transport systems of our two largest cities are collapsing around our ears, when the state of the nation’s infrastructure generally is a disgrace, when no political party has anything useful to say about climate change, when the Murray Darling Basin is in a state of collapse, and the war in Afghanistan is deteriorating day by day, we are asked to believe that the number one issue facing Australia is the annual arrival of a few thousand asylum seekers.
The reason why Tony Abbott gives the issue such prominence is not because of its inherent importance. I suspect it is because he understands the “push” factors that are driving the increase in boat arrivals, and is delighted to highlight an issue over which he knows the government can have little control – politics at its basest.
Through the prominence which they give to the issue, our news media are complicit in making it politically difficult for governments to adopt the humane approach required by our international obligations to asylum seekers.