One of the most striking things about the mainstream media coverage of Kevin Rudd’s “PNG solution” is how the discussion is mostly framed by ideas, policies and language that are increasingly relics of a past phase of the interminable “border security” debate. By outmanoeuvring opponents to both his Right and Left on this issue, Rudd has created massive confusion among them as to what he is doing.
So today’s newspapers were full of stories about how the PNG solution was facing insurmountable challenges that would cause it to fall apart, that the detention camps would burst with new arrivals, that local PNG residents would revolt, that legal challenges would wreck the plan, etc.
Such views miss two dramatic differences that separate Rudd’s initiative from previous attempts to deal with the issue. First, Rudd has achieved something that even Howard couldn’t — creating a Regional Resettlement Arrangement (RRA) with Australia at its heart and PNG the first country to sign on. This means that Australia can subcontract its obligations under international conventions to other countries in the region. Second, Rudd is not simply recreating the bizarre temporary schemes where asylum seekers were left in various kinds of purgatory, whether in camps or in the community, on an open-ended basis. Instead, this is about assessing and resettling refugees in a country where they (at least technically) no longer face persecution. It was fascinating to watch Immigration Minister Tony Burke on Insiders calmly explaining that the welfare of the asylum seekers sent to PNG would continue to be his direct responsibility and high priority.
This goes along with point 9 of the RRA (a document many journalists and pundits seem unable to comprehend, despite its plain English construction), which outlines who is to pay for all this:
Australia will bear the full cost of implementing the Arrangement in Papua New Guinea for the life of the Arrangement. If this requires additional development of infrastructure or services, it is envisaged that there will be a broader benefit for communities in which transferees are initially placed.
Let’s be clear why Rudd’s move is so effective: He is using both soft (consensual) and hard (coercive) state power, and doing so not just domestically in terms of border protection and control of unwanted entrants, but internationally by locking Australian migration policy into the power relations of the region, as well as beyond. In a very sharp analysis, The Piping Shrike has outlined how regional realities have allowed Rudd to use the international elements to his advantage to be the “great destabiliser” of Australian domestic politics.
This confuses many on the Left because it is not properly understood that the corollary of capitalism being a global system is that there is an international system of competing nation states, with dynamic hierarchies of power based in economic, political and military strength. Thus it is not simply that state power is internally focused to manage social conflict through a monopoly of violence, but that it is also directed outwards at allies and enemies. Rudd has been able to use the realities of the relationship with Indonesia to smash Abbott’s “three word slogan” and then take advantage of the internal weakness of the PNG state to get its political class on side.
During the 2000s large sections of the Left didn’t fully come to grips with the way that Howard took advantage of 9/11 and the War on Terror to ram home his border protection policies, tending to keep the two issues artificially separate. This was an issue that weakened the politics of the movement overall. But let’s be clear: From now on it’s going to be impossible to consistently fight for refugee rights without also opposing Australia’s regional imperialism.
Sadly, some of the outrage at the PNG solution has fed into the demonization of PNG as a nation, with the anti-racist defence of the rights of asylum seekers suddenly blurring into an uncomfortably paternalistic attack on the rampant poverty, crime, violence, sexism and homophobia that apparently define the whole country. For two antidotes I would suggest Victoria Stead’s excellent materialist analysis of the structure of PNG society in The Age, which debunks the idea that it is “hellish” as some refugee advocates claim, and Antony Loewenstein’s exposé of how Australia’s “vulture capitalism” is to blame for many of PNG’s social problems in The Guardian. The already-present instability of the PNG state — which PM O’Neill is trying to address by getting Australian help — may cause the unravelling to speed up even more.
Understanding how much Australia — as the regional hegemon — is to blame for the state of PNG society today should therefore lead not to decrying the lack of “civilisation” in the smaller country, but to understanding that the Australian state is the true barbarian here.
The reason I stress these issues is to emphasise the political aspect of the asylum debate, and to highlight how politics and the state are so intimately tied together. That is why I am suspicious of legal action being central to challenging what Rudd is doing. It is understandable people are interested in this because his policy seems to more flagrantly transgress established legal precedent than even Howard and Gillard’s moves. Yet, unless we grasp how legal and ethical norms were torn up under previous governments, we cannot understand how it could have come to this especially audacious manoeuvre on Rudd’s part. If anything Rudd is more honest about why he’s doing it — he doesn’t dress it up in the kinds of weasel words and justifications that characterised the debate of the last 3 years. The arguments that large numbers of refugee rights advocates ceded ground to — e.g. about the evil of people smuggling and the need to save refugees from drowning by stopping the boats — are definitively and pitilessly answered by Rudd’s policy.
Rudd’s revenge on the political machinations that got us to this spot is that he has not only successfully mobilised hard and soft state power to give himself authority to outflank them, but that he is (as the opinion poll says) “making things happen” in a way his predecessors couldn’t. He is, even more than his first term, simultaneously prime ministerial and anti-politics. Of course, as I have argued elsewhere, the social content of his project is deeply in favour of the prevailing social relations, and so he will be unable to forever stave off the contradictions inherent in that reality.
The last few days have seen a lot of moral outrage on the Left, but such outrage will simply dissipate if it is not channelled into a political project that starts to grapple with how refugee rights supporters (and the wider Left) have not only been losing the debate over the last six years but how their strategy remains stuck in the arguments of an earlier time. Otherwise we will end up fighting with shadows rather than the actual horrors the Australian state engineers.
The other danger embodied in the crisis of politics is that the increasingly authoritarian solutions imposed to try to stabilise it produce other kinds of reactions. I don’t mean the argument — well challenged by Jason Wilson in an interesting post drawing on Jacques Ranciere — that the deployment of nationalism and race by the political class merely draws on the dark passions of the populace as a whole. Rather, the increasing failure of the state to provide a way forward for society can lead a conscious minority to seek even more authoritarian ways out of the predicament, drawing on existing policies but arguing they don’t go nearly far enough.
It is exactly two years since Anders Breivik massacred 77 people in Oslo and on Utøya Island. Breivik was a fringe extremist in the European Islamophobic far Right, infuriated by globalisation, multiculturalism and the Left. He was eventually found both guilty and mentally fit to be culpable of his crimes. The liberal mindset would suggest that he was such a freak outsider that he is of no relevance whatsoever. But that is not how politics works. Rather than his crimes tarring the Islamophobic Right, the hard Right Progress Party of which he was once a member, has risen in the polls. Some argue that by being so extreme in his actions, Breivik has paradoxically legitimised less horrific forms of racist and authoritarian politics.
So far these kinds of politics are very weak in both Norway and (more so) in Australia. But that does not mean that the emergence of such forces is impossible — in Greece, for example, we can see how different sections of the far Right have tried to build, and how Golden Dawn has seized the moment to take advantage of the discrediting of the hard Right LAOS party because of the latter’s participation in an austerity government. And as the political system fractures, the far Right’s ability to use anti-politics as a way to appeal more widely should not be underestimated either (indeed, this seems to be UKIP’s modus operandi in Britain).
In 2011, Liz Humphrys, Guy Rundle and I edited a collection of essays called On Utøya: Anders Breivik, Right Terror, Racism and Europe. You can still get the e-book from Amazon’s Kindle store here.
In the book we argued not only that Breivik’s inspiration came from the actions and arguments of Western politicians and thinkers through the War on Terror (including a certain Australian PM for his border protection agenda), but that Breivik’s project was a conscious one to radicalise the European far Right. If the crisis of politics persists and intensifies, as seems likely, the Left needs to start to develop some serious strategy of its own, in order to point a way forward that does not involve ever-worsening savagery, whether by the state or darker forces waiting for it to show its weaknesses.