Smoke and mirrors: Domestic politics and refugee policy in the neoliberal era

by · December 29, 2010

ABC’s The Drum Unleashed has published my analysis of refugee policy today. I take on Robert Manne’s recent surrender to the inevitability of coercive state policy towards asylum seekers as a fact of political life:

Recognising that refugee and immigration policies are a function of domestic politics and not a technical attempt to deal with the realities of people movements helps free us from many of the interminable debates that have clouded the issue. It helps cut through the contradictions and hypocrisies of politicians when they claim to be securing our wellbeing with their harsh actions against others. It also exposes the elephant in the room, the social and economic insecurity that leaves people open to seeking scapegoats for their problems. The invocation of worries about borders, ethnic tensions, terrorism and economic competition are so powerful because they have long been the stock-in-trade of political and economic elites seeking to define and enforce a common national identity and thereby pacify social divisions caused by inequalities of wealth and power. White Australia, for example, was a key plank of convincing militant trade unions to worry more about the potential threat of foreign workers than the reality of avaricious local employers.

It is in this context that we can see the dangers of the advice proferred by Robert Manne. Firstly it accepts at face value the idea that refugee-bashing is still as effective a political tool as it was in 2001. Yet the election of Kevin Rudd despite Howard’s continued use of dog-whistle politics was a clear sign that things have moved on. Here Manne is giving in to the same brilliant strategy that saw Julia Gillard legitimate every anti-migrant slogan Tony Abbott could conjure up — and almost lose the election in the process. Secondly, Manne misses how the coercive actions of the state reinforce ill feeling towards refugees. By treating them as “illegal” (even if formally they may not be), the government creates the perception that they must be doing something wrong and that they deserve cruel and unusual treatment. Manne’s preferred strategy will only entrench the very “irrational” ideas he opposes by having them legitimated through state practice.

IN ADDITION: @oz_f has kindly brought my attention to Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young’s latest intervention, which happened just after I’d filed the article. She has called for a higher but fixed cap on refugee intake, playing directly into the debate over numbers. This can only be a setback for all those opposed to mistreatment of asylum seekers, but not surprising from a politician who referred to cutting business migration as “trimming fat”.

Discussion8 Comments

  1. Project_SafeCom says:

    Thanks VERY much for this, Tad (you sound Dutch – I am – and Friesian…), especially for the critique of Robert Manne's piece in the Monthly on this issue. There's another element I would think needs considerable attention though, and it goes a long way in explaining the vehement hostility around "boats" (which brought 795 people on 16 vessels on average since 1976) – the chosen 'racism' in national policy from the earliest days of white settlement. In this context Howard can be seen as a throwback to the White Australia policy, and the higher finances spent on the few maritime arrivals than ANY other country, and the fact that we were the first with people smuggling laws (and the harshest, even till today) can be better explained. We're a racist country, not only because we're pretty average, but also because it was a government design.

  2. wrong+arithmetic says:

    I thought two things about this post. One is the failure to think the state. This is one of the great lacunaes in politics; in fact you do not involve the state in your thinking, you are not thinking politics, as politics is only ever thinking against the state. Jacques Ranciere refers to think with the state as policing rather than politics. Manne's comments – and we saw this already in his recent book on on the GFC – are entirely with the state. He justifies the sick discourse on refugees with reference to elections. However, we ought to concede that while refugees remains a figure of the state it will remain a sick discourse.The other point was to do with politics, or what is political in Tad's piece on the Drum. It is not politcal to simply describe the space of a problem. I think the interesting thing about Tad's post is that he is debasing the space of any debate about refugee policy through the description of the question. That makes the post political. Ideology establishes an imaginary space of rationality where there is an objective solution to the refugee question, and as Tad notes 'refugee and immigration policies are a function of domestic politics and not a technical attempt to deal with the realities of people movements'. There is no objective technical space where this question might be resolved. One can quote the UNHCR as much as they like, but they are not (necessarily)touching the refugee question as political problem. To do this means recognising it as an overdetermined displacement of class power, and as Marx has noted between the equal rights of classes force (not reason) decides. It is also telling that he makes this famous comment in the same chapter that he refers to the 8 hour day as a modest Magna Carta, modesty here being counterposed to the immodesty of utopian abstraction.

  3. Dr_Tad says:

    Project_SafeCom, thanks and I agree that the racialisation of the state has been a conscious project from above. I do think the particular form taken by the last 20 years of boat people bashing (started by the ALP, it is important to note) has been tied up with the White Australia tradition. Of course that is not enough in itself to explain how racism (and nationalism) mutate over time with changing circumstances.wrong+arithmetic, I pretty much concur. One thing I would add is that if I had more space I may have spent more time on the international (c.f. domestic) role of these politics — one tied to Australia's position within the state system and its especially belligerent role in Asia and the Pacific. The "East Timor Solution" has exposed both Australia's imperial pretensions in the region but also its weakened hegemony in recent times, a weakness tied in part to diminished US power.That external function is completely tied up with domestic factors of course, and I don't mean to artificially separate the two.

  4. still need a revolution says:

    Refreshing as usual thanks Tad and commenters. I had a vicious ignorant outburst from my mild-mannered parents over dinner just before Xmas. They are bellwether types and provide anecdotal evidence Gillard has legitimated "every anti-migrant slogan Tony Abbott could conjure up". This is from people who have met an Iranian refugee and know some of his brave and astonishing story of escape, travel, capture, escape, travel, capture, eventual release and residency. Wilkie's revelation of Abbott's promise of a higher refugee quota shows the gamesmanship of their whole exercise. What's your advice for the left (i.e. non-state focussed activists) of the refugee rights movement? I had felt the scapegoating had been weakened by the persistent activities of activists under Howard/Ruddock, but Rudd and Gillard have largely destroyed that advance among the public. Your thoughts?

  5. wrong+arithmetic says:

    I think that you need to draw out the consequences of saying that there is no technical question and only a political question. What are the consequences for thinking and acting of saying that the base is politics? What do we mean by politics when we say it is the base?

  6. Dr_Tad says:

    still need a revolution, I actually think the electoral usefulness of migrant-bashing has receded because it simply hasn't made people's lives feel more secure/less fearful. The refugee rights movement's considerable successes have been central to this shift.That's not to say that nationalism and race don't still exert a big influence on people's ideas. The way that these appeals to fear worked in 2010 was in a weird reverse, however: the Liberals had little traction with them until Rudd and moreso Gillard "lurched to the Right", thereby undermining the ALP's claims to have an alternative, and so making Abbott seem plausible rather than a crackpot.The odd thing about the refugee rights movement has been its reluctance (even of its Left wing) to start to raise debates around the issues I address in the article, except as a propaganda point for individual organisations. It has left much of the public debate in the grip of small-l liberal arguments around "compassion", "international obligations", and "genuine" refugees. None of these are necessarily wrong factually, but they attempt to "get around" politics rather than be political. I'm sick to death of people on the soft Left bemoaning that the issue has been "politicised". It is nothing but a political issue.Finally, I think the one major area of weakness within the wider Left (especially the Greens) has been the capitulation around populationist arguments. Thank goodness for leading Greens like Andrew Bartlett for trying to carve out a better position. See:

  7. drjohn says:

    What happened to this post on Unleashed? It seems to have disappeared !!

  8. Dr_Tad says:

    drjohn, link above seems to be working now.