The re-surfacing of fear and loathing on the 2016 election campaign has bugger all to do with individuals from some foreign land prepared to risk everything, including death, to get to our cherished continent.
Nor is it about people smugglers. Tony Abbott already stopped the boats. Just ask him.
It’s about votes, votes and votes. And for the rest of us here in voter-land, it’s an invidious choice between the lesser of evils.
Neither of the election combatants has a workable clue how to get the nation out of the moral and political quagmire it’s been in for decades.
This week, we had the incomparable Peter Dutton – Malcolm Turnbull’s more-than-willing stooge on both asylum seekers and immigrants – disparage them as illiterate, innumerate queue-cloggers and job-stealers.
Amazingly, during his watch, Labor’s former foreign minister Bob Carr wrote off most asylum seekers as “unacceptable economic refugees”. Scott Morrison, as Mr Abbott’s immigration minister, spent his waking hours befuddling us with double-speak about pushing, towing or turning the boats back to somewhere, anywhere, so long as it was not Australia.
Motivated by domestic politics, both sides batter each other to convince us that once elected an overnight miracle will fix the worsening humanitarian calamity of now 70-million-plus displaced people around the globe – a measly half of one per cent of which causes us political apoplexy.
Name a solution, any solution – Nauru, East Timor, Indonesia, Malaysia, Cambodia, the Pacific, poor old Christmas Island, the inhumane and unprecedented Manus Island PNG buck-passing solution, or any other out-of-sight, out-of-mind location you can think of. They’re all variations of the NIMBBY solution: “Not in my bloody backyard!”
The political duck-shoving continues to damage Australia’s reputation as a ‘good global citizen’. For years, respected experts have counselled that this country’s bi-partisan failure to implement widely-accepted international human rights standards is at odds with the UN Convention on the Status of Refugees and the Law of the Sea – let alone our own Migration Act.
James Hathaway, an expert on international refugee law and professorial fellow at Melbourne University, has pointed out that Kevin Rudd’s now well-and-truly defunct PNG Manus Island deal was without international precedent. “This plan is without question the most bizarre overreaction I have seen in more than 30 years of working on refugee law,” he previously told ABC radio.
Professor Hathaway said the UN Convention decrees that a country cannot penalise refugees “for arriving without authorisation”. This fact, and the plans to dump them on PNG, were illegal and discriminatory penalties, he said. As for the N-word, Nauru has bounced between an illegal hell-hole and a dangerous, even deadly joke. And as for Cambodia – an expensive, laughable failure.
The professor went further, asserting that Australia’s refugee crisis “doesn’t really exist compared to other developed countries”, pointing out that our annual intake of around 30,000 refugees is “a totally average, absolutely manageable number”.
As for Australia’s politically expedient bi-partisan obsession with “boat people”, Sydney University professor Mary Crock, an international migration law expert, had an intriguing “psycho-political” explanation.
“I think Australians have a deep historical fear of invasion by the sea,” she told me in the run-up to the 2010 election. “We’re not unique in that respect. Many countries around the world overreact when people come by boat to seek asylum.”
The salient fact is that most potential refugees come to this country by plane not boat, and more often than not are granted status.
“Yes, we don’t get concerned by that,” Professor Crock said. “People who come by plane are at least processed. They present their passports at the airport to get into the country, whereas people who come by boat often come without any documentation of any kind – no health or character checking at all.”
Hence, governments of both political hues continue to view “boat people” as illegal immigrants who’ve jumped the queue.
Another fact: it is not illegal to seek asylum. This week, Bill Shorten at least gave lip-service to it, but he reiterated that Labor was unapologetically opposed to on-shore processing. As for Mr Turnbull, defending “absolutely outstanding” Mr Dutton, it could have been Mr Abbott. All that was missing was the gait.
The genuinely thorny question of people smugglers continues to boggle on the one hand and serve as a convenient political weapon on the other.
“Send back the boats! But what about the people on them?” might be a good place to start a new, bipartisan debate on this horrible dilemma of people smuggling – and people dumping.
Meanwhile, where do we go to seek asylum from Australian politicians?
George Negus has more than five decades of experience in journalism and broadcasting and is the author of several books, including The World from Islam. In 2015, he was awarded a Member of the Order of Australia for services to media.