Is there a way back from here?

July 2, 2012

The Age, 2 July 2012

By Tim Soutphommasane

Most of us following the political debate about asylum seekers could be forgiven for despairing. How did it come to such a dispiriting deadlock in our Parliament? How can a democracy look itself in the mirror when issues involving life and death are held hostage to partisan politicking?

It has so far proved beyond the government and opposition to reach some bipartisan agreement. Whether the appointment of a new expert panel led by former Defence Force chief Angus Houston will help resolve the impasse is uncertain.

There is no shortage of factors that explain how things have reached this point. True, much is due to the brutal politics of a hung parliament and to a Coalition that is unwilling to brook any compromise. Not to mention a Greens party that holds the balance of power in the Senate but remains unable to exercise it with maturity.

Yet it is helpful to take a longer view.

For many years, there was a consensus in Australia that some matters should be placed beyond partisan contest. Questions of immigration were seen as too important to be determined by mere politics. These were the days when things such as the national interest still counted for something. When humanitarian issues weren’t determined by cold calculations about political advantage.

All this broke down in the 1990s. It began with some hardening of sentiments towards asylum seekers. The Keating Labor government in 1992 introduced mandatory detention, which was believed to serve as a deterrent to boat arrivals.

Two subsequent developments, however, were most profound. The rise of Hansonism had a palpable effect on public attitudes. The ideological developments of the Howard years reinforced this. Hansonism was co-opted into a conservative populist nationalism. It became acceptable within mainstream debates to politicise asylum seekers as part of a culture war fought over national identity.

Such a politics reached its apogee, of course, with the Tampa incident of 2001 and the introduction of the Pacific Solution. Since then, both Coalition and Labor have sought to outbid each other on how strong they are on border security. Many politicians now feel that any retreat from a hardline stance on ”irregular boat arrivals” will result in savage electoral punishment.

That many Australians are anxious about boat people is undoubtedly true. For some, it is the product of misplaced concern about population growth or terrorism; for others, varying degrees of racism and xenophobia. Quite aside from this, many believe that even the harshest means of ”stopping the boats” is justified if it would prevent asylum seekers dying on the high seas.

But, by exposing boat arrivals to electoral politics, our leaders have created an unedifying situation. The demonisation of asylum seekers has encouraged Australians to withhold their empathy from those seeking sanctuary from persecution. Sangfroid towards human suffering is paraded as a moral virtue.

The political effects have been equally troubling. Much of the left is now defined by a therapeutic moralism; many believe that anything other than the onshore processing of asylum claims constitutes a moral evil. During the past week, the Greens’ unwillingness to make any concessions reflects a naive and ultimately dangerous belief that there could be moral purity in politics.

On the right, meanwhile, there is a reflex of hyper-opportunism. That is, asylum is simply an issue that is to be exploited for political gain, regardless of the broader consequences. The Coalition persists with tough talk about turning back boats, with surreal indifference to the fact that the problem of boat arrivals ultimately requires an international response. Indeed, we seem to forget that our domestic parochialism is making it harder for Australia to develop a regional framework for dealing with the issue.

The appointment of the Houston expert panel is a throw of the dice by the Gillard government. That it has come to this reflects the breakdown of our politics. We have, at least for now, lost the institutional capacity for consensus or compromise. It is a terrible indictment of our Parliament.

Yet, might there also be an indictment of us as citizens?

It could be that we’re just getting the politics we deserve. Perhaps for too long, too many good citizens have acquiesced to a politics that puts extreme partisanship above the national interest.

More of us must send the message to Canberra that Australians won’t tolerate the farcical fear-mongering and hypocritical posturing any longer. It is time to end the cycle of cynical manipulation; to end the tawdry game in which a modest number of asylum seekers is converted into a supposed flotilla of illegal immigrants invading Australia.

It is time for our democracy to get back its self-respect.