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Stopping the Stupidity on Boats

There has been another asylum seeker tragedy in Australian waters. In the latest incident, following an increase in the number of maritime arrivals, two people died and two were critically injured. A total of 95 asylum seekers were rescued off the ship which capsized near Christmas Island on Monday. The debate over the issue, never far from the headlines, has again escalated since the overturning of the vessel. The same lines are being trotted out and the race to the bottom is continuing over an issue which Australia can do little to solve. There needs to be a different way of thinking on the issue, but that is impossible while there is political capital to be gained from ‘talking tough’.

The Gillard Government has, in the wake of the deaths, called on the Opposition to work with them to pass an amended deal with the Malaysian Government so that asylum seekers and proven refugees can effectively be traded by the two governments in a vain attempt to stem the increased flow of maritime arrivals in Australia.

The trouble is that offshore processing has achieved nothing and the Malaysian swap deal will also fail to make an impact on the so-called ‘problem’. The whole ‘cruel to be kind’ policy mantra has been shown up as a failure. Offshore processing along the same lines of what was enacted under the Howard Government has not halted the flow of asylum seeker vessels.

The whole issue, including the unfortunate deaths of the two asylum seekers needs to be rethought. The realities of the situation need to be assessed and the emotional politics completely removed from what should be an issue that is centred around the idea that asylum seekers are human beings. An acknowledgement of the different roles of the different players in the policy puzzle needs to be made.

First and foremost, refugee policy needs to be thought of as an issue where there can be domestic policy settings which contribute to working towards a ‘solution’, but also that there are other considerations which need to be taken into account. In fact, regional and international processes need to be factored into the equation, because asylum seekers do not magically arrive in the Asia-Pacific region. Domestic policy has a role, but its significance is much less than our politicians would have you believe.

As Australians, from our politicians down to ordinary everyday citizens, we also need to rethink the asylum seeker conundrum in another important way. We must view asylum seekers arriving by boat as a problem which is based on desperation, for the most part, rather than ‘failed policy’. We have a strong policy now and still have a high number of vessels coming into Australian waters.

The “blame game” over asylum seeker deaths has to stop too. It goes back to the idea that domestic policy now has little effect when it comes to people arriving in Australian waters on dangerous vessels seeking asylum. So government is not to blame, especially when they are resorting to inhumane acts in order to try to deal with the issue. We have to accept that it is the waiting game played by asylum seekers and those already granted refugee status which feeds the desperation that leads to risk-taking behaviour.

And finally, it is the asylum seekers themselves who are ultimately responsible for the actions they take, even though such actions are fueled by the desire to be in a better situation.

Julia Gillard, Western Sydney and the Art of the Stunt

Prime Minister Julia Gillard is heading to western Sydney. From Sunday Julia Gillard will spend almost a week in Rooty Hill, an area of western Sydney frequented by politicians, particularly during recent election campaigns. Ms Gillard will temporarily relocate to the area from the Prime Minister’s residence in Kirribilli where the aim will be to try to reach out to some of Australia’s most important voters. The move is one of the most obvious examples of a stunt that you could find. But not only that, the mini campaign smacks of desperation and the timing of the visit is incredibly poor.

The poll numbers are bad for the Australian Labor Party and even the Prime Minister’s political stocks are falling against a more positive Opposition Leader in Tony Abbott. The latest Newspoll has the ALP two-party preferred numbers at 55% to 45% in the Coalition’s favour. But it gets worse for the government, because that poll also suggests that 80% of voters have already firmly made up their minds. It would be a brave punter backing a Labor victory at the September 14 poll.

Desperate times have certainly resulted in a desperate measure when it comes to Julia Gillard’s little sojourn to the western part of Australia’s biggest city. Nothing looks more desperate than the most senior government MP spending a week in an electorally important area at any stage in the electoral cycle, let alone this far out from the poll.

The announcement of Ms Gillard’s intentions could not have come at a worse time. Just a matter of weeks ago, the PM nominated a firm date for the 2013 election. During that speech at the National Press Club, the Prime Minister remarked that her decision to call the election this early would clearly lead to a differentiation between the days where the government would be engaging in the task of governing the country and those days where it would be campaigning for re-election. Well, it is now clear that mantra has been thrown out. Next week will be a week of campaigning on the part of the Prime Minister.

Let’s be honest though – regardless of Julia Gillard’s words, we were still going to be in campaign mode. In fact, we have been in campaign mode since day one of the 43rd parliament. Most of that campaigning has been coming from the opposition, but nonetheless, the naming of the election date will only give rise to more feverish campaigning, particularly on the Labor side of politics. Both the Liberal and National Parties will continue to campaign, as they have now for over two years.

Julia Gillard’s sudden immense interest in western Sydney, if not an act of abject desperation, is a stunt. Well actually, it’s almost certainly both an act of desperation as well as a stunt, a public relations exercise – call it what you will. That is a pretty lethal combination.

It is true that all politicians engage in stunts. Politicians often take part in stunts on a daily basis. Even press conferences can be little more than stunts from time to time. The hard-hat however seems to be the prop of choice for political stunts, albeit a necessary one – most of the time.

Voters are generally very cynical about even the most tame of stunts engaged in by our elected representatives. Most of us wish they were not a feature of politics, but they are an unfortunate but necessary reality. They are aimed at the less politically attuned. Political displays are used as a subliminal tool to try to convince the unwary voter of the bona fides’ of politicians.

A stunt should look more natural to even the most discerning voter. Political grandstanding is always going to look a little ugly to the clued up elector. Subtlety is the key to faux displays of political action.  There is nothing subtle about the Prime Minister spending five days in an area across town from her residence, when we know how important western Sydney is.

A very helpful point was made on The Drum tonight. One of the guests remarked that it was odd of the PM to decide to stay in western Sydney rather than make the daily commute. The argument was that the daily drive would have shown just how difficult it is to commute between the city and the suburbs. And that is true. Infrastructure and overcrowding is a big issue in Sydney, and increasingly so in the west of the harbour city.

Some very dodgy and panicked choices have been made by the Prime Minister and Labor and they have all been painfully obvious to the electorate. A more subtle approach to western Sydney would have been appropriate, though as it is – the little campaign on the other side of town will matter very little in the bigger picture.

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