Making things happen: race, borders & the state

by · July 22, 2013


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.

Discussion7 Comments

  1. jeff says:

    The problem I have with this is that you take everything Rudd says on face value, in order to buttress this argument that he represents something fundamentally new and different. For instance, you write: ‘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.’
    Well, that remains to be seen. Actually, when you listen to PNG politicians, it is far from evident what’s going to happen to detainees — in one interview, the MP for Manus Island said that he didn’t think any refugees would remain in PNG and they would all end up in third countries, which he couldn’t name. He was then flatly contradicted by Burke, which, to put it mildly, suggests that bizarre temporary schemes should not at all be ruled out.
    You note that: ‘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.’
    The newspapers are full of those stories because all of them are imminent possibilities. If you look at the PNG media, there’s considerable hostility to the plan from the church, from the opposition and from some of the papers themselves. No-one seems able to explain where the refugees will be housed, what conditions they will face, etc. As for legal challenges, well, a variety of experts have now said they expect the scheme to be knocked down in the courts. They may or may not be correct, but it seems weird to just flatly dismiss the possibility, simply on the basis of Rudd’s assurances.
    Perhaps these issues will all go Rudd’s way — but that’s by no means assured, and it’s not useful to proceed as if he’s some man of destiny who just shapes the world to his will.
    As for Burke justifying the scheme in terms of the welfare of refugees, you seem to think this is something new. It’s not. The ALP has always made two arguments on this. To the Left, they say, we need to be tougher because otherwise people will drown. I remember hearing Gillard made that argument repeatedly in a trades hall meeting, explicitly accusing refugee advocates of having blood on their hands.
    At the same time, Labor has always simultaneously said to the Right, look how cruel we’re being. Which is, again, precisely what they’re doing now. While Burke was on tv bleating about humanitarianism, the immigration department was showing footage of crying refugees, precisely to play to those who think asylum seekers must be made suffer.
    I agree that the refugee movement needs to find some way to turn moral outrage into a political project, and that it hasn’t been successful in doing so. But it’s been evident for a long time that refugee activists have been unable to move from the fringes. The real question is how. Yes, we need to take up Australia’s role in the region and, yes, we need to popularise the opening of borders. But neither of these arguments is exactly new among refugee activists — people have been arguing both of these points since the early 2000s. On both grounds, it’s been hard to get much purchase. So, yes, the Left needs some new strategy. I agree with that. But I don’t understand from this piece what it is that you are proposing.

    • Dr_Tad says:

      Thanks for your comment, Jeff.

      I think you misunderstand what I’ve been arguing about Rudd. I am not arguing that his policy on this issue is radically different to what has come before. I agree with much that you’ve written in the past about the lack of policy difference between Gillard and Rudd, or between LNP and ALP for that matter. In many ways this is an extension and elaboration of the race to the bottom we’ve seen since the late 1990s.

      And I’m not arguing that there will be no setbacks for Rudd on the path to the RRA being worked through. Indeed, Burke and Rudd have gone out of their way to tell us to expect setbacks and problems.

      The difference is how Rudd has used the state and its international relationships to dramatically reframe the politics of the issue as a regional one he can deliver on. Of course, as I suggest above, this could lead to a political crisis in PNG over time, but the PNG state has signed on to the RRA for 12 months because it’s in need of a lifeline. And that RRA (an inter-governmental agreement rather than a political press release) commits Rudd to implement a processing and resettlement regime in PNG with Australian money.

      This is why we have the Coalition in disarray over this: Because Rudd has called their bluff when Gillard couldn’t. Labor are not simply saying to the Right “look how cruel we are”, they are enacting the logical consequence of the debate, using the authority of the state to do so. This gives Rudd massive scope to ram through any necessary legislative changes if he wins the election. On what grounds could the LNP possibly sustain opposition to the RRA if they have already admitted it is a really good policy? They would be politically slaughtered. And that political balance will make it much harder for the courts to knock down the plan… after all those same courts have already accepted all kinds of other legislative changes that the majority of experts once thought would be rejected. Between equal legal rights, force decides.

      Burke’s comments about welfare are clearly directed at the Left. But he is not merely talking about refugees’ welfare; rather, he is making explicit that their welfare is his responsibility. He is saying to Cassidy, who sees this as palming off such responsibility, that he is doing no such thing, the buck stops with him. Again, it is a shift in the way this has been framed politically, not simply to accuse the Left of stonewalling but to say “we’re making things happen” in a positive sense when you Lefties can’t.

      Unless we understand the political discontinuity then we cannot grasp why the Greens are suddenly at the forefront of mobilising nationwide protests against the government whereas in the dark days of Gillard they were mainly focused on the parliamentary arena. We cannot understand why there is such a big reaction to a move that is not necessarily that far removed from the crimes of the last three years. Things have changed much more than is reflected in the way people are trying to frame the arguments as if not much has changed. Can you see that contradiction?

      On refugee activism, I think the problem is not that refugee activists have been “unable to move from the fringes”. It’s that they had more influence in the last years of the Howard government and they gave that influence up because the dominant politics in the movement was humanitarian, moralistic (about women and children, etc.) and ultimately politically subordinate to an ALP moving ever closer to Howard in policy terms. Even the Greens held back from a radical critique of the problem. And I disagree that the Left generally understood the connection between the War on Terror and asylum that Howard utilised. Otherwise people would stop talking about “the Tampa election” and start calling it “the 9/11 election”. People have artificially separated out the issues and in so doing shifted the focus onto the alleged racist underbelly of Australian society, with the political class merely responding to the darkest elements of the Australian population. There has been little thought given as to how the impotence of the political class has led it to project the use of coercive state power and scapegoating onto the myth of nationalist marginal seat voters.

      You can see that in the way that so much of the refugee movement (even many who actually believe in open borders!) has resisted the open borders argument: That they think you cannot beat the ingrained nationalism and so must adapt to it. Hence they have been mired in humanitarianism when they should have been thinking about politics.

  2. Jeff says: “I agree that the refugee movement needs to find some way to turn moral outrage into a political project.”

    It is unlikely to find it. Such moralising is the antithesis of social change as it is primarily about separating themselves from the “racist” electorate than persuading it. It turns politics from being about social change into a self-preening resignation of its impossibility. It also plays right into the hands of the state and indeed bolsters it. It is a million miles from what is needed right now.

  3. […] the refugee issue clarifies Rudd’s approach. Central to his strategy is the use of regional (international) statecraft to establish authority. By having Indonesia expose Abbott’s plan to “turn back the boats” as […]

  4. […] the refugee issue clarifies Rudd’s approach. Central to his strategy is the use of regional (international) statecraft to establish authority. By having Indonesia expose Abbott’s plan to “turn back the boats” as […]

  5. […] is interesting to note that the same criticisms are being made about Kevin Rudd’s new ‘PNG Solution’. Maybe Rudd could learn […]