Enough is enough on asylum seeker politics

THINGS are changing, or so it seems. After Saturday's capsizing of an asylum-seeker vessel off East Java, and the loss of perhaps 200 lives, Liberal elders Philip Ruddock and Alexander Downer have urged the two major parties to break their impasse on immigration policy. The subtext is obvious: enough is enough.

After the government told us that Tony Abbott had rebuffed an offer to discuss immigration policy just days before the tragic sinking, Ruddock's and Downer's intervention risks revealing the Opposition Leader's intransigence as cold and calculating.

You can add to this Cardinal George Pell's plea that ''the government and opposition promptly agree on effective offshore deterrents'', WA Premier Colin Barnett's belief that both sides have been disappointingly ''petty'' and Mark Latham's excoriation of the Greens and their insistence on onshore processing, and you may be forgiven for sensing a tipping point - a swelling of public and political feeling that the two major parties and the Greens ignore at their peril.

Now, Immigration Minister Chris Bowen has said that the government will consider Nauru as a location for offshore processing - the Liberals' favoured site. It's a major - and mature - concession from the government, and a sign that they're willing to negotiate with the opposition in good faith.

But let's review the year that was. One year after 30 asylum seekers were fatally dashed against rocks on Christmas Island, our immigration policy has gone nowhere. One year on, and the political language is still insufficient and misleading; the debate anorexic. The so-called Malaysia solution promised, well, a solution. Instead of the conclusive efficacy its name implied, we were left with more questions than answers. It was semantics as political theatre - a muscular, reality-defying noun which told us not to worry, the government had it covered.

Let's be clear: there is no ''solution'' to asylum seekers, short of immediate and irrevocable world peace. All we have is the hope that our political leaders might imperfectly but fearlessly navigate issues of security and dignity, law and contingency, and let us know when our expectations run contrary to facts or decency.

What is possible is the surrender of banal political brinksmanship, and a public acknowledgment of the abiding complexity of the issue. As welcome as Ruddock's and Downer's entrance into the debate is, it comes at a time when our public discussion - and subsequent policy - is riven by the damaging fault lines of partisanship.

In February this year I wrote to the office of Scott Morrison, opposition spokesperson for immigration, expressing my fear and loathing at his politicising the government's decision to fly a violently orphaned refugee to his parents' funeral. They had lost their lives off Christmas Island.

I wrote: ''… let's say all you did was question the government for paying for orphans to attend the sinking of their parents' bodies into the ground. That qualifies you for a title so profane I'm terrified to include it in this email lest the law get involved.

''Apparently you're a Christian. Have you read Saint Augustine? I'll assume you have … Augustine thought man a volatile mix of the body and soul. The divine and the vulgar.

''You have traumatised your soul, sir, and done some damage to the nation's, by insisting on the vulgarity of cynicism. Or perhaps there's no cynicism here? Perhaps you're convinced of your own rectitude? Perhaps you really feel we should declare these smashed bodies legitimate spaces for political theatre?''

This isn't where the story ends, so, Green voters, please save your self-congratulatory cheers for now. Twelve months after those asylum seekers - mostly Iraqis - perished, possibly as many as 200 men, women and children have drowned making their way to Australia. To meditate on the desperation forcing them from their homelands only to be replaced with the desperation of watching their loved ones sink beneath the sea, is shattering. But not so shattering, apparently, that we still have not achieved a sensible policy worthy of this.

Sarah Hanson-Young, the Greens' immigration spokesperson, had this to say of the tragedy: ''I have always believed that the issue to do with asylum seekers and how we respond must be a humanitarian one. Tragedies like the one today absolutely confirm that.''

Pressed on whether the Greens' position of onshore processing contributes to the likelihood of such a tragedy, Hanson-Young said: ''Well, of course not. Tragedies happen. Accidents happen.'' I find this almost as useless and offensive as Morrison's comments on the funeral.

The truth is, the government, Coalition and the Greens have all been both right and wrong on aspects of immigration policy, but we haven't had the honest political leadership to accept as much, and forge a bipartisan policy.

Let me explain: the Greens are right to draw attention to the conditions of Australia's detention centres. They are squalid, ill-regulated shacks of mental illness. And the Greens might do well to highlight the cognitive dissonance of voters who sceptically treat the claims of asylum seekers who come from countries we deem to be so heinous we've gone to war there.

But the Greens entertain a dark and pessimistic fallacy when they hint that Australia is an incurably bigoted society, and that all of our immigration policy reflects that fact. They are wrong to instinctively conflate scepticism of a ''big Australia'' with racism, or the two major party's preference for offshore processing with cowardice. Well, mostly wrong.

There was ample evidence in last year's election of dog-whistle politics: a sick and sub-audible appeal to the darker angels of our nature. I grant the Greens this. It was - and remains - a disturbing political habit. But this country does not have a monopoly on bigotry, and apprehension of higher immigration or an argument for offshore processing, is not prima facie evidence of racism.

The reflex to define the Coalition as little more than a funnel for Australia's heart of darkness risks hardening into sanctimony and a tone-deafness to reasonable solutions (should the Coalition ever feel like submitting any).

Which brings us to offshore processing. It's Green orthodoxy to state that offshore processing is inhumane, but onshore processing has contributed to the profitability of people smuggling. It has contributed - and how much is impossible to determine - to the deaths of desperate asylum seekers.

This must be acknowledged by the Greens, as it was acknowledged, in these pages yesterday, by Robert Manne. In a piece bannered by the famous John Maynard Keynes quote ''When the facts change I change my mind. What do you do, sir?'' Manne wrote that he didn't have the guts to give Labor the right advice when Rudd took office in 2007. ''For its part, the left has been unwilling to concede that the Pacific Solution succeeded in deterring boats … The left's unwillingness to acknowledge the obvious has been of great political significance.''

As for the two major parties, well, they both agree that onshore processing increases perilous sea crossings, but can't agree beyond that point in order to prevent onshore processing becoming the default outcome. Such are the spectacular demands the 43rd Parliament asks of logic.

Yesterday, Manne stated the obvious: the political stalemate has had an ''ideological dimension''. Indeed it has, and my message to the Greens - and anybody else - would be that being an adult, or a serious player in Parliament, means recognising that ideological rigidity may confer a sense of superiority, but it rarely affords a decent view of the mess of reality.

I'd also point out that suspect motivations may lead to good outcomes as much as good intentions can lead to bad ones.

In the asylum seeker debate there has been as much dog-whistling as there has sincere intent to damage the people smugglers' ''business model''. On the other side, the Greens have been as unhelpfully rigid as they have been sincere in their abhorrence of refugees becoming political footballs.

Saturday's was a sad and sorry affair, and it demands much more than the yawning malaise of our national politics. A sensible and intelligent consensus must be struck by the parties immediately, one informed by honest self-examination and gracious acceptance of where the other parties have it right.

What might such a policy look like? It might collapse the absurd distinction between asylum seekers who arrive by plane (about 75 per cent) from those who arrive by sea; it would properly define ''national security'', restoring to it a broader sense of national livelihood after September 11 so thoroughly militarised the phrase; it would accept that, as a large island continent, asylum seekers court greater peril than those seeking refuge by land, and would provide disincentives to those contemplating the trip - and those who seek to profit from it.

It would ameliorate the hysteria on the issue by drawing sober attention to the internationally negligible numbers we absorb; and it would tactfully reexamine the role our neighbours - particularly Indonesia - play in screening and law enforcement, roles the Australian government enhances through ''capacity building''. This is an international issue.

Finally, the cost of mandatory detention - both morally and financially - might be considered too high in favour of community relocation.

Not easy, no. Far from it. But those fleeing the arch regime of Khamenei and Ahmadinejad, say, deserve much more than our bickering.

Martin McKenzie-Murray is a former political speechwriter.

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