Inconvenient sanity

The judicial arm of government has taken the executive’s asylum seeker policy out the back and had it shot, such was the extent of its mutilation and suffering.

The Labor Party is busy saving whatever face it can, but this is really very hard to spin. I fervently hope its strategists are even now exchanging self-conscious glances, recognition dawning of the sheer arrogance and stupidity of what they tried to accomplish.

One of the ABC’s opening articles on the great event generated comments that fell neatly and predictably into two camps. This time neither group wanted to take a stand alongside the architects of unconscionable incompetence. Nevertheless, the two popular messages made an interesting contrast. Half the commenters applauded the High Court’s decision – a very honest and straightforward show of respect for the rights of refugees.

The other half are tied up in a complicated psycho-political game, in which the decision itself is not opposed, but its consequences are nonetheless an object of outrage. “The government can’t do anything right,” they opine, citing the High Court’s decision as evidence. This is fair comment, as far as it goes (though in my view Labor’s actual level of incompetence doesn’t begin to compare to the stratospheric reaches of Abbott’s self-contradictory, populist whinging, and in general this government is not significantly more or less incompetent than any other government). You have to ask, though, what principles this group of commenters has in mind when they voice such opinions. It certainly isn’t a defence of the rights of refugees.

For someone arguing on the basis of actual principles, the High Court’s decision is either justified or not and fortunate or unfortunate (or perhaps some shade of grey in between). I don’t think this group especially cares whether the High Court was justified or not. What they care about is the gotcha moment, when everything falls (neatly or otherwise) into their Outraged Voters(tm) narrative structure beloved of the Opposition.

This is precisely the kind of thing that political parties in opposition do, as part of the “small target” strategy. They snipe at the government (which they preciously call “holding the government to account”) without ever nailing down any of their own principles, or indeed being remotely constructive. It’s more depressing to see this behaviour reproduced in (relatively) ordinary people, many of whom are presumably not party members1. It’s something deeper than the mere chanting of slogans. Ordinary people themselves script narratives and find political gotchas, almost synchonised, along the same lines as high-profile ideologues. Their rhetorical scheming seems intended to change minds, but is fairly ineffectual because they’re the bottom level of a giant rhetorical mind-control pyramid scheme.

For the Opposition and its hangers-on, all our hopes and dreams seem to rest on a tiny, dysfunctional island. It’s always on the tips of their tongues, and slips out at the merest hint of trouble with “boat people”.

To its comparative credit, which is not saying much, the Opposition’s Nauru option is only the second worst asylum seeker processing “solution” to have ever been proposed. It does at least provide a pathway to asylum, and in doing so it does still protect at least some rights. However, in the end, it’s precisely this protection of rights that will completely erode any deterrent effect – which of course is the whole reason for the policy in the first place. Any deterrent effect – i.e. a reduction in the “pull” factor – can only result from the perception that refugees will not ultimately be granted asylum. In our care, they must eventually be granted asylum, and perception must eventually catch up to this reality. We cannot, legally or morally, simply leave asylum seekers to their own devices in the middle of nowhere, as the High Court seems to have reaffirmed. Once prospective asylum seekers are tuned in to this fact, any off-shore processing “solution” simply becomes a circuitous bureaucratic construct, whose dubious rationale vanishes altogether.

The Coalition may point proudly to the immediate impact of its Pacific Solution as evidence that putting asylum seekers in the middle of nowhere “works”, but the limited data available is badly over-interpreted. The policy coincided with a dramatic decline in global asylum seeker numbers – the “push” factors – which masked its true impact. What impact it did have could not possibly have been permanent.

Nevertheless, I’m sure there are boundless prospects for further inventive stupidity on this.

  1. Some of them might be, but party membership in Australia isn’t terribly high overall. []