Turning point: Asylum, Rudd’s realpolitik & the Left

by · July 20, 2013

Because all aspiring boat people have the Fairfax newspapers home-delivered

Because all aspiring boat people have Australian newspapers home-delivered

Some moments have “turning point” written all over them. So it was when Liz and I started Left Flank three years and two weeks ago, when we highlighted a speech by Julia Gillard justifying her “lurch to the Right” on border security, and compared her language with that of John Howard — defending Hansonism — from 1996. Over the next three years Gillard’s active participation in the race to the bottom on asylum would come to be the one aspect of her record that not even her most enthusiastic supporters on the Left could fully justify (although many tried, usually portraying her as the victim of an all-powerful Abbott).

We set up this blog because we felt a responsibility to analyse, in concrete terms, the crisis of political representation that underpinned the rightward drift of the political elite on such issues. Our starting point was that any serious alternative that could transcend the degeneration of official politics would have to be based on an honest assessment of it, including how it involved the Left more broadly, in particular the Greens.

The turning point of 19 July 2013, the brutal piece of realpolitik delivered by Kevin Rudd with his ministers and the PNG prime minister flanking him, will also unleash a chain of events that we can only begin to understand the outlines of today. Nevertheless it demands from the Left a response qualitatively different to the one that has dominated the last six years.

The callousness of Rudd’s decision that all future boat arriving asylum seekers will be denied Australian residence is matched by the insistence that no exceptions will be made for women, children, unaccompanied minors or those with health problems, but combined with improvement in the conditions in which asylum seekers are assessed. This mix of instruments is intended for maximum neutralisation of Abbott and to cut against the idea that the Australian government is treating people poorly — it’s merely resettling them in “an emerging economy with a strong future; a robust democracy which is also a signatory to the United Nations Refugees Convention”. The talk of regional and international engagement dismisses as fantasy the idea that border security issues can be resolved unilaterally. And the plan to raise the annual refugee intake is meant to convince many of Rudd’s fundamental benevolence. In many ways the plan is much less immediately barbaric than the limbo of the “Malaysia Solution”.

What we can say is that the last three years of the Left in government, with the Greens closely aligned with Gillard for most of that time, has ended with Rudd able to decisively impose a policy that successfully outflanks Abbott to the Right and simultaneously recasts the entire debate in a way the Left is ill-prepared for. Unlike Abbott (with Gillard tailing him), Rudd makes no promise of quick fixes, and neither does he claim that other governments (i.e. Indonesia’s) will come to the party if Australia simply moves to “stop the boats”. Instead, he delivers an approach that demonstrates Australia’s regional imperialist power, and effectively confers most favoured colony status on PNG as reward.

At the Sydney protest. [Photo: Peter Boyle]

At the Sydney protest. [Photo: Peter Boyle]

Of course there will be some cost on Labor’s Left flank. Supporters of refugee rights have protested across the country this weekend. The new policy has driven many ALP supporters to apoplexies of outrage. I cannot recall the last time such vitriol was arrayed against the ALP by Labor supporters, with resignations being declared on social media. Certainly there was no such reaction when Gillard joined with Abbott to reintroduce Howard’s Pacific Solution. Indeed it now seems that some ALP supporters loved their party more when it was trying to win the race to the bottom but losing, rather than winning like it is under Rudd.

How much this will repeat past instances of ALP votes breaking to the Greens remains to be seen. Labor candidate Cath Bowtell, running against the Greens’ Adam Bandt in Melbourne, has unsurprisingly attacked the policy. However, many — including some activists — will also greet the shift from detention hellholes to community resettlement (even if it is in an impoverished country with a weak state) as a humane step, although one laced with toughness. On today’s 1000-strong Sydney rally — pulled together at short notice by activists, including from young Greens networks — I was struck how chants like “free the refugees” and “close the camps” will soon be rendered mostly irrelevant by Rudd’s brutal manoeuvre.

More significantly, for the first time since becoming leader Abbott has been forced to embrace a Labor policy on asylum. If Abbott’s silly revision of Howard’s 2004 “trust” formula is any guide — “Do you trust the party that is the original and the best when it comes to stopping the boats?” — Rudd’s shift almost certainly represents a decisive blow to the LNP’s election strategy. More worryingly for Abbott, well-connected Howard biographer Peter van Onselen last night tweeted:

PVOThe problem for the Coalition is that its “stop the boats” posturing relied on disregard for the views of the Indonesian regime, which Gillard never seriously challenged them on. Since Rudd’s return Indonesia has stated its opposition to unilateral Australian action so clearly that Scott Morrison resorted to desperately claiming that Bob Carr had used “union-style Sussex Street” tactics to get them to say it!

Rudd’s turn also exposes the weakness of the broader refugee rights movement over the course of the Rudd-Gillard era, which has been characterised by a slump in activism compared with the Howard years. With Labor’s 2007 election victory and subsequent softening of policy, some campaign groups wound themselves up on the basis that the government had sufficiently liberalised the border regime. While groups like Refugee Action Coalition correctly argued that this would be disastrous in the long-term, as with so many other issues there was great pressure to simply let the government do its work.

The resurgence of border politics in 2009-10 was accompanied by some revival of protest activity, but from the dying days of Rudd’s first term through the Gillard era it became clear that many opponents of Howard — perhaps most infamously Robert Manne — had decided that defending Labor meant accepting many of the Right’s arguments. There was also a tendency for some campaigners to get dragged into arguments that left the basic case put by the major parties unquestioned: That border security was a real issue, that asylum seekers needed to be “deterred” from coming, and that the issue could be resolved legalistically in terms of obligations under international law. This process reached its low point with excruciating hand-wringing over how much barbarity towards boat people was needed to “save lives”, as if this couldn’t be solved by simply providing a decent ferry service.

The only consistent and realistic alternative to such convoluted justifications is a policy of open borders. Yet from the NGOs to the Greens (and even the Refugee Action Coalition), this was usually seen as utopian dreaming rather than pragmatic policy and, at best, a nice idea for some unspecified date in the future. Such arguments missed three hard lessons of history: (1) That migration involves real human beings making difficult, considered choices about whether and where to move and so will not be halted through policies of deterrence, (2) that states run highly inconsistent migration policies based on a dynamic contradiction between economic goals and the political value of excluding “others”, and (3) that the ideological justifications for tough policies are a smokescreen for their function in securing authority for politicians.

Until such arguments start to get a hearing more widely it will be too easy for the Left to again be hamstrung politically. You can see it in how Rudd has trumped arguments about “push” and “pull” factors, which treat refugees as passive victims of events beyond their control whose own choices are not part of the equation, by promising safe resettlement to all boat arrivals. It’s just that he will resettle them somewhere they don’t want to go. Having spent so much time claiming that “genuine” refugees have no real choice but to attempt the dangerous journey to Australia, some activists will now have problems defending refugees’ preference to come here over PNG.

Because refugee supporters looked first to Rudd and then the Gillard government to do something about the Right’s attacks, they opened themselves up to being lured by apparently “pragmatic” positions that could not actually deliver real-world solutions. Rudd has now delivered a real-world solution of a different kind, full of superficially humane process but a deeply unjust outcome. Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young pointed to the contradictions involved:

Permanently resettling refugees in Papua New Guinea is no way to respond to people seeking protection. The government can’t have it both ways. It has already said it’s sending people to PNG as a cruel punishment, now it wants to say it is an appropriate place to permanently resettle refugees.

It is promising that the Greens have responded as clearly as they have, but their close association with the Gillard government finds them weaker than they were three years ago. Even though asylum was probably the issue where they maintained greatest distance from the ALP, it was still an issue where, Bob Brown complained, he’d bitten his tongue to help the alliance. He added: “I get asked on this immigration question, as with others, well, why aren’t we bringing this government down? Because you get Tony Abbott.” Yet the propping up of Gillard has now been followed by Kevin Rudd’s PNG solution. Similarly, the Greens’ willingness to draw a moral line between political and economic migration has led them to give ground to the other kind of anti-immigration politics Australia is famous for.

Rudd’s audacious move clarifies things, however. Nobody who is serious about ending the use of refugees as political scapegoats should have any hesitation in voting for the Greens ahead of Labor this year. But neither should they presume that voting for the Greens, or even getting them into parliament in decent numbers, settles the question. The last three years is proof of the limits of that strategy, of propping up a political system that delivers ever more appalling abuse of some of the most desperate people on the planet. Developing an alternative, it should now be obvious, will have to primarily happen outside the ALP and against the state rather than within either.

The absence of that kind of alternative on a sufficient scale in today’s Australia means that we have not yet finished plumbing the depths.

Thanks to Liz Humphrys for her comments and suggestions.

Discussion29 Comments

  1. “I get asked on this immigration question, as with others, well, why aren’t we bringing this government down? Because you get Tony Abbott.”

    Yes, this is the key point. As long as people are unwilling to take on a Coalition government directly, as long as people depend on the ALP for whatever measure of protection they provide, there’s no serious way to threaten the ALP politically. Voting Green ‘1’ and ALP ‘2’ won’t do a huge amount to threaten them, unless of course the Greens win (at least) several new seats in this year’s election.

    You said today on Twitter that you think very few people will be willing to actively vote against Rudd to bring his government down as punishment for his decision. You’re probably right, but I think we need to at least start floating the argument.

  2. Chris says:

    I will vote 1 Green 2 LNP on the grounds that 1. both sides have equally bad policies on refugees (with the ALP’s possibly marginally more inhumane), 2. the LNP at least plans to plant a few trees to offset carbon, where the ALP now plans to encourage the coal industry via a European Union tied ETS, and 3. the LNP’s PPL scheme is more progressive than anything the ALP has come up with

    • MikeH says:

      vote 1 Green 2 LNP

      “the LNP at least plans to plant a few trees to offset carbon, where the ALP now plans to encourage the coal industry via a European Union tied ETS”

      Well that is truly bizarre Chris.

      But in some sense not surprising with the anti-Greens left arguing that carbon taxes are evil. Perhaps not enough time has been spent explaining that Abbott and the LNP are climate science deniers and their “Direct Action” plan is fake.

      (I am thinking of this article

      Sorry Tad – this is a bit off topic but I could not let it go without comment.

    • Nathaniel says:

      How is merely turning boats around a more humane policy than flying the refugees to PNG? How is helping PNG become a more prosperous society a bad thing too? Or should we just ignore them as they aren’t getting in boats?

      As for you argument about the planting of trees, that has to be about the most stupid comment I’ve ever read, you really need to go and read their direct action policy (I have), and you will see that most of the money goes to funding bullshit like carbon capture for coal fired plants, building gas fired power stations, and spending money on unproven carbon sequestration.

      You are voting without any idea about the policy you want to vote on.

  3. Nick Fredman says:

    >>And the plan to raise the annual refugee intake is meant to convince many of Rudd’s fundamental benevolence<< There is no such plan. Rudd merely made the faintest implication of this, "Australia stands ready to consider progressively increasing the number of places in the humanitarian program as recommended by the Houston Panel" In fact if Rudd has any self-awareness of what he is saying, this is an almost insultingly transparent attempt to sound decisive ("stands ready") while doing absolutely nothing (not quite up to the "consider" stage). In terms of his target audience, like with those revolting ads in the papers today which were supposedly addressed to asylum seekers, I don't think he's so bothered about sounding humanitarian.

    • Dr_Tad says:

      It’s true it’s not set in stone, but if you look at the trajectory of policy it would be weird indeed if they didn’t do it. The issue is that the “orderly queue” argument has great resonance.

      I think Rudd is extremely self-aware. He is actioning his very disruptive combination of anti-politics and autocratic prime ministerial authority. We underestimate him if we think he is just continuing the old game on asylum.

  4. Nick Fredman says:

    I should add I generally agree with your post, in particular on the contradictions of the liberal left and Greens on migration generally and the need to raise open borders as the only fundamental solution. But I also wonder if the asylum seekers aren’t going to be banged up in PNG for quite a while and generally have a miserable time, meaning a basic humanitarian response will still resonant strongly. I’d also put the question, which has never been clear to me: how can the radical left popularise the open borders demand in a broad movement?

    • Dr_Tad says:

      My guess is that the processing will be super-fast in PNG, and the refugees will be free in the community, so I think the humanitarian part will be undercut by Rudd’s approach.

      The easiest way to popularise it is to start raising it and calling for debates and discussions on it. The movement ain’t so broad these days anyhow, and a final position for the movement as a whole is not necessary — we just have to fight for it to be a valid and respected position within the movement, one that informs strategic debates.

  5. Tim Dunlop says:

    Thanks for this. Really terrific discussion. One very minor point to make at this stage: it seems clear the PNG PM is of the view that this will work, that is, that it “stop the boats”. He clearly thinks that he hasn’t opened himself up to an ongoing flow of arrivals. He clearly believes his “liability” is very limited. Is that a fair conclusion to reach?

    • Dr_Tad says:

      I’m not inside his head, but the way Tony Burke was talking this morning the Australian government is downplaying any hope there will be a rapid stopping of boats. Any way you cut it, the subcontracting to PNG model — even if 100% funded by Australia — may be a lot cheaper for the Budget bottom line here than the existing arrangement.

      • Tim Dunlop says:

        I think they have to play it down: they don’t want set up “arrivals” as a metric of success. Still, the whole thing is predicated on “stopping the boats”. If it fails on that level, suspect no amount of Aust money keeps PNG onside.

  6. […] amongst the political analysis, the proof that Manus is hellish, and the arguments for human rights, I want to make a fairly […]

  7. kevin1 says:

    One of your 3 lessons of history – “That migration involves real human beings making difficult, considered choices about whether and where to move and so will not be halted through policies of deterrence” is not self-evident to me, and I didn’t see any reference to it in your (very interesting) The Drum article. I am a new reader so maybe you have expanded on this elsewhere?

  8. Some very good points here. Of course many people are rightly outraged and I’m all for expressing that outrage. But we need to devote at least soe of our thinking and reactions to how to effectively counter the rhetoric as well as the policies of Labor and Liberal. I feel there was some success in the latter part of the Howard era in turning people opinion to some degreee, but those gains have been lost – and while it would need a bit of decent research to determine if it is the case, I tend to feel majority public opinion and attitudes have turned even further away frmo being supportive towards refugees.

    I agree this is a turning point – and whilst it’s one that’s likely lead to further suffering for some refugees, it is also one which provides an opportunity for opponents of the ALP/LNP policies & rhetoric to shift the way the isue is framed. As you indicate, the pro-refugee movement have (inadvertently or unknowingly) ceded the ground to the ALP/LNP on how the issue is framed, and unless we can shift that it’s likely we will continue to be in a minority on this.

    Promoting greater freedom of movement of people and moving towards more open borders is one part of it (which could start quite easily with allowing the same sort of open movement currently provided to New Zealanders – although it should be recognised that New Zealanders living here do not automatically get access to the same supports and entitlemenents as permanent residents do, no matter how long they live here). This would also entail pro-actively countering that part of the community (which includes what is currently a minority in the environment movement) who assert that Australia is full and cannnot ‘absorb’ any more people in an environmentally sustainable way. At the moment such assertions are mostly left unchallenged, even when they are overtly racist, misanthropic or elitist – but ignoring them won’t make them go away.

    Personally, I think this latest policy from Rudd is unsustainable in the long or even medium term. There will probably be some refugees resettled there initially to show that it is being enacted and to ‘send a message’. But unless boat arrivals stop very quickly (which I think is unlikely), it will not be feasibale to settle thousands of refugees in PNG, no matter how much resources Australia pumps into it. The most basic of the support services which are essential for effective resettlement (of even minimal standards) do not exist and cannot be easily or quickly built up. It is very likely that some of these refugees, who will be very visible, will soon be subjected to serious violence which will make it very difficult for the Australian government to keep sending them there. The majority of the Australian community may have accepted the way the ALP/LNP have framed this issue, but I think public opposition would still grow if it became evident that the refugees were being sent to situations of significant danger. (I know people are mostly OK with sending Sri Lankans back as they were with Afghanis being sent back under Howard, even when it was later shown that many of them were sent back to very serious danger and some were killed. But all of that is basically invisible – I think it will be harder to keep such violence against refugees invisible when it happens in places like Port Moresby.

    However, the immediate intent with this policy is obviously focused on the upcoming election and it could well serve Rudd well in that regard.

    • Dr_Tad says:

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Andrew.

      I agree this is probably not sustainable in the long term, but I also don’t underestimate the ability of Australian imperial power in the region to impose settlements long past their sane use-by dates.

      In general I think that Rudd’s social project is deeply unstable — he is little more than a neoliberal technocrat — but his populist/anti-politics political project is extremely destabilising for his opponents and therefore he may also be able to sustain his domestic authority from the PNG solution for longer because of the weakness of his enemies in the political class.

      One of the main reasons I wrote the post was to not just argue for a less hamstrung policy position on migration, but to shake people into thinking about the overarching political shift that we’re all being hit by, and that exposes the strategic limitations of the Left over the last decade also.

      • Andrew Bartlett says:

        Thanks. I’m not sure of all the answers, but I do feel pro-refugee folks do need to give more thought as to why we have been losing this debate politically (as in numbers of people supporting our view, not votes for particular parties) over the last few years in particular.

        As you said, a lot of people thought we could move on to other issues in the early part of the Rudd years, esp when then Minister Chris Evans outlined some ‘new values’ regarding detention and related issues – which didn’t go far enough (and crucially involved only administrative rather than legislatiev changes) but certainly seemed to be going in the right direction. About the only thing left from the smoking ruins of that approach has been the scrapping of TPVs.

        Hopefully at a minimum comments such as yours might encourage progressive people to give more thought to the overarching elements of the issue beyond slogans and chants at rallies (not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it ain’t anywhere near enough)

  9. […] If you’re not sure what all this is about – read this opinion piece by Christine Milne and this one by Tad Tietze.  […]

  10. Mike Grewcock says:

    A very thoughtful piece Tad. It is worth noting that there is a lot of academic literature that broadly supports this argument. For those who are interested, there are a number of books that make the case for ‘open borders’. These include (in alphabetical order): Grewcock, Border Crimes (2009); Harris, The New Untouchables (1996); Hayter, Open Borders: the case against immigration controls (2000); and Marfleet, Refugees in a Global Era (2006). The issue is how to get these arguments into the mainstream at a time when having only one foot in the cesspit is redefined as ‘progressive’.

  11. […] government’s decision to send all refugee boat arrivals to Papua New Guinea (PNG) is a political earthquake. It has nothing to do with alleviating the suffering of asylum seekers – if Canberra cared about […]

  12. […] have gone out the window, even though some have already decided not to take that risk. As Dr Tad points out, it will be difficult to sustain the argument that asylum seekers are not economic refugees if they […]

  13. […] Australian government’s decision to send all refugee boat arrivals to Papua New Guinea (PNG) is a political earthquake. It has nothing to do with alleviating the suffering of asylum seekers – if Canberra cared about […]

  14. […] the last week, I have read two pieces that argue why the Australian left should embrace the concept on ‘open borders’ […]

  15. […] Tietze: Turning point – Asylum, Rudd’s realpolitik and the Left and Making things happen – race, borders and the […]

  16. Byon says:

    “Nobody who is serious about ending the use of refugees as political scapegoats should have any hesitation in voting for the Greens ahead of Labor this year.”

    I for one have had more than enough of the Greens’ sickening Tartuffian piety. No less than any of the other parties of the political parties of the ruling establishment, they are a party of neoliberalism, war and austerity. While making progressive noises, which seem to have been quite effective at misleading some of the public, they’ve voted for every reactionary budget put forward by the ALP, and are no less responsible than the ALP for the criminal behaviour of the state towards refugees, Aboriginal people, the people of occupied Afghanistan, the mushrooming numbers of homeless here, etc over the last few years.

    Under the present regime, the only purpose served by voting is to give unwarranted credibility to the a criminal and increasingly discredited political establishment.

    George Carlin on the same subject: