You can understand why Corinne Grant, as a long time campaigner for refugees, feels frustrated at the latest ghastly developments in asylum policy. But the approach she takes in her Hoopla column today is, I think, quite mistaken.
We just want the government to spin us some line that will vindicate us wilfully and knowingly abandoning desperate people asking for our help.
We’re not angry Scott Morrison isn’t telling us anything, we’re angry he isn’t assuaging our guilt.
So now we’re giving Sri Lanka two fancy military boats with all the bells and whistles necessary to help them keep the people they are persecuting within their clutches.
Big deal. Most Australians will agree with the decision.
We’ll give ourselves a little pat on the back and say, ‘It will stop the boats! Aren’t we good, kind humanitarians? We are stopping people from drowning’.
We are a country of hypocrites and it’s time we owned up to it.
We are bigger bull-shitters than the government has ever been.
That’s why we vote for people on both sides of politics that persecute asylum seekers. If we genuinely cared about the welfare of these people, we’d care about them being beaten and shot in Sri Lanka as well. […]
We are a nasty, cruel, petty little people who injure and damage those who are weaker than us because it makes us feel powerful. We are a country of bullies.
Presumably, Grant intends the piece as a wake-up call, a slap in the face to a somnolent and self-satisfied Australia.
But it’s wrong and deeply disorienting to understand Abbott’s policies as driven by some groundswell of public enthusiasm for anti-refugee cruelty.
What do Australians think about refugees? If you look at the useful Monash Uni page collating surveys on asylum policy, the situation’s far more complex than the ‘Australians are racist idiots’ approach suggests.
As Andrew Markus notes:
[T]here is a large measure of confusion. As many as one in five respondents report uncertainty in a number of surveys. In such a context, minor change in the wording of questions can produce significant change in responses.
In other words, the results that pollsters get on this issue (as on so many others) depends on the question they present. If people think they are being asked, ‘Do you believe foreign terrorists should come and take our jobs?’, they will respond differently to if they hear, ‘Should we save people from torture?’.
Perhaps more importantly, the data simply does not support the image of a populace demanding a crackdown on refugees. Look at the Essential Report from 29 July 2013. When people were asked, ‘How important is the asylum seeker issue in deciding which party you will vote for in the Federal election?’, only 7 per cent listed it as ‘the most important issue’ and only 28 percent as ‘one of the most important issues’. The comparison with the campaign is revealing – ‘stopping the boats’ was, it seems, far more important a slogan for the politicians than the punters.
Of course, we might complain that voters should have made asylum seekers a major priority, that they should have voted against the party promising more cruelty.
But, actually, lots of the people on the Left are prepared to overlook anti-refugee policies. Think of the post-election rehabilitation of Gillard, the ‘thank Julia’ meetings in which the former PM’s appalling refugee stance was dismissed as a minor blemish on a successful administration. Why, then, should we think it peculiar that ordinary people went to the polls more worried about jobs or housing or similar matters than about refugees, especially during a campaign in which both parties touted their credentials as ‘close the border’ zealots?
It was, after all, Kevin Rudd who implemented the PNG solution; it was Julia Gillard who excised the entire continent from the migration zone. With Bob Carr popping up today to laud Abbott’s ‘sound policy’ on Sri Lanka and reveal that Labor, too, considered supplying Sri Lanka with boats, can we really be certain that the situation today would have been different had the ALP won?
Certainly, it’s true that the major parties and many pundits obsess about border security. But it’s far from obvious that ordinary Australians do.
Indeed, isn’t that precisely the logic behind Scott Morrison’s crackdown on information on boat arrivals? The Liberals know that, actually, refugees aren’t responsible for clogging the roads or taking hospital beds, that, in fact, they barely impinge on the lives of suburban Australians. Thus, if the boats aren’t in the news, many voters are quite likely to forget about them. The Morrison silence is predicated on a tacit acknowledgement that the border security hysteria is media-driven, and thus can be dampened down by cutting off the flow of stories.
Sure, there’s a degree of xenophobic hostility out there. Markus suggests that those ‘who hold strong negative views on asylum seekers outnumber the strong positive, probably by at least two to one’. But that result also means there is a sizeable body of people who, despite all the propaganda and despite the best efforts of the entire political class, are still prepared to voice strongly positive views about refugees.
An approach that begins by writing off the entire population as hopelessly racist amounts to an acceptance of defeat.
You don’t convince people by abusing them. You convince them by offering them a real alternative. And that’s what we haven’t done.