Asylum seekers and political fantasy
The following article was published on ABC Online in September 2011 in response to the Australian High Court’s decision on the repatriation of asylum seekers from Australian territory to Malaysia for processing. My aim was to cut through the surface debate and ask some questions about its meaning for the literally fantastic quality of Australian political discourse.
A fantasy debate, disdainful of basic facts
The High Court’s stunning decision on the illegality of the offshore processing of asylum seekers should have profound implications for our national politics, but I am not holding my breath.
I am not referring to its implications for the credibility or electability of the Gillard Government, which seems to preoccupy so many journalists. That impulse – to abandon the task of explaining complex public policy for scriptwriting political soap opera – is part of the disease. It prevents us asking some hard questions about the nature of our policy framework and political discourse.
The disease is not just that so much of the community, and our political class, seem xenophobic and racist when it comes to flows of desperate people fleeing conflict. It is that this ‘debate’ operates at the level of fantasy, and is so disdainful of basic facts.
The first fantasy is that any government can “stop the boats”, short of violent military action that would trash a slate of international laws and bring shame to the nation. No-one can plausibly claim that the lull which happened during the final Howard government was due to harsh Australian policy. It had more to do with an improvement in conditions in Afghanistan and Iraq; when they deteriorated again, and were joined by the brutal endgame to the Sri Lankan war, flows restarted.
Pushing boats back towards Indonesia, as Tony Abbott threatens, will simply result in crews scuttling their boats – either forcing the Navy to pick them up or endangering innocent lives. The most likely result is tragic death, needless diplomatic tension with an important neighbour, and detrimental impacts on service morale.
The second fantasy is that asylum seekers are some kind of threat to our national security or our ‘borders’. This has been institutionalised in the bizarre idea of ‘border protection’ and the title of the renamed Customs service. A border is not a ‘thing’ that requires protection. It is an imaginary line on a map. This line can be breached, or travelled across, but not threatened as such.
Security is about threats to actual people, and – by and large – the only security issue asylum seekers pose is the insecurity they themselves suffer as stateless and vulnerable people. The small minority of cases that may attract an adverse security assessment from ASIO can be managed with existing domestic police and intelligence procedures. Such assessments are a judgement about uncertainty – we need better due process for those who receive them, and have binding non-refoulément obligations in any case.
Yet whether it be plans for offshore processing, or a reintroduction of the temporary protection visa, governments seek to treat the problem with a ‘deterrence’ model only appropriate for military threats from heavily-armed states. That numerous government officials and security analysts seem to have swallowed the ‘border protection’ kool aid is an indictment of their rationality.
The final fantasy is that offshore processing was ever a viable policy solution. The High Court decision, which appears to have ruled out not only Malaysia, but Papua New Guinea and Nauru as legal options, should be the final nail in the offshore processing coffin. It ought to be, as the saying goes, a ‘reality check’. However I am sure both Government and Opposition, and too many thoughtless media commentators, will spend the next few months thrashing around with ever-more illogical arguments that continue to stoke community anxiety whilst providing no solutions to an artificial crisis. The worst of these is that Government and Opposition should unite to legislate around the decision, forcing us to withdraw from the 1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol on Refugees. There goes our UN Security Council bid, and much of our international credibility.
These fantasies are part of a larger national identity fantasy, none of which hangs together logically: that Australians are generally welcoming and generous people, but sticklers for the ‘rules’; that we have a homogenous, Anglo-Celtic identity that is threatened by waves of non-white immigrants; and that we can wall ourselves off from international developments rather than participate intelligently and decently in their management. It is this fantasy that, since the 2000 defence white paper, has seen asylum seekers and refugees placed on a security agenda in which they have no place, and which distracts us from far more profound challenges.
It is time that our political class begin to show Australians rational moral leadership on the asylum question. Such leadership needs to be based on three basic facts: first, that flows of people can at best be slowed but never stopped; second, that Australia deals with relatively very small numbers compared to Europe, Pakistan or elsewhere; and third, that we have fundamental obligations under international refugee and human rights law that should prevent us resorting to arbitrary deportation, long-term detention, offshore processing and temporary protection visas. While we continue to investigate and prosecute people smugglers, we should process people onshore and allow them to contribute to Australian society on a fair and equal basis.
We should also ask ourselves about the broader damage being done to our society and our public policy process by the rise of political fantasy, which seems to have afflicted debates about climate change, tax reform, and macroeconomic policy. The irrational extremes of US policy debate – where it is apparently possible to cut deficits without raising revenues, create jobs in recession without government stimulus, and natural disasters are divine wrath rather than a test of government preparedness and community resilience – are making their way here. As a political scientist, I have begun to wonder if better explanations for our current predicament lie with the psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud or Jacques Lacan – the study of desire, fantasy and neurosis – than those that assume the rational discussion and pursuit of public interests. If so, we are in truly frightening, and uncharted, territory.