When Tony Abbott addressed the Victorian Australia Day Council on January 24, the Opposition’s campaign to discredit the Rudd Government’s refugee based immigration policy commenced in earnest. While the speech provided a nuanced elaboration of Coalition policy, the message was clear - the opposition was (re)committing itself to the hardline policy of the Howard era.
Refugee policy has long been used by the Coalition as a means of connecting with its conservative base. This time the government has chosen not to directly engage the opposition on the issue, allowing for potentially dangerous repercussions.
The Opposition’s support for the introduction of Temporary Protection Visas (TPVs) and for the incorporation of harsher measures within Australia’s mandatory detention system was confirmed as Abbott reflected, “Unfortunately, there are no easy ways to deter people who want to force themselves on Australia. The alternative to mandatory detention is the risk that people might disappear into the community.”
By employing language such as “force” and “deter”, the Opposition is portraying unauthorised refugees as a “burden” and is an echo of Howard’s rhetoric. Further, it is an approach that plays on negative community perceptions.
Since Abbott was appointed leader of the opposition, the government has attempted to undermine the opposition by labelling their new major foe as being “out-of-touch” and determined to “send Australia backwards”. Rather than addressing the issue directly and presenting a clear alternative, the ALP has been content to accuse the opposition of “scare tactics” and it has been derisive of Coalition as being ignorant on immigration policy calling for the “Migration Act 101”. This smokescreen approach only acts to reduce the tenor of the political debate.
What this approach risks is allowing for the Coalition to set the parameters of the values debate surrounding refugee policy and for the stigmatisation of refugees as a “threat” to the community. The response to Abbott’s draconian stand should not be left solely to NGOs and members of civil society committed to human rights. It is very telling that the most prolific response to Abbott’s speech came from the 2010 Australian of the Year, Professor Patrick McGorry, who labelled Australia’s mandatory detention system as “an absolute disaster we must not repeat”.
However, in policy terms there are clear distinctions between the view that Abbott espouses and the Labour government. Key changes have been made by the Rudd government to wind back some of the excesses of the Keating and Howard government’s legacy in refugee policy. The abolition of TPVs in 2008 and the termination of the Pacific Solution are examples where the government has pushed for a more humanitarian approach to refugee policy. Although it appears that the current government’s attempts to differentiate itself is not helped by ambiguous approaches.
The government took a beating in the polls in late October as it flirted with the “Indonesian Solution” and was forced into negotiating with the Tamil refugees who refused to disembark from the Australian Custom’s boat. In this period the opposition received its biggest bounce for 2009 as its two-party preferred vote rose from 41 to 48 per cent. This fluctuation indicates a level of receptiveness to the Coalition’s position and a chameleon style approach by the government which send mixed messages to the electorate.
Anyone who followed the 2001 election would remember how the issue of dealing with unprocessed refugees or “boat people” played to poorly informed attitudes and base fears. Already Abbott is presenting his party’s position in a more forthright fashion to gain traction on the issue. This was demonstrated in an interview with John MacKenzie on Cairns’ Radio 43A where he declared:
… we will have temporary visas so that people won’t think that getting here allows them the great prize of permanent residency, and where necessary and appropriate we’ll be prepared to turn boats around.
There is past evidence to show this sort of position has some pulling power in the community. While the 2001 Federal Election in Australia and the 2005 United Kingdom Election serve as obvious examples where a more restrictive refugee policy has led to conservative gains, memories of the government’s handling of last year’s Oceanic Viking incident are spurring on the opposition.
Without the backdrop of a substantive number of boat arrivals the government has a prime opportunity to encourage a positive outlook on the role that new refugees play within Australian society. Rather than focusing on the raw number of boat arrivals or “managing” the issue of people smugglers, the focus needs to be brought back to how refugees can be supported by the Australian community and why this should be the case. Unfortunately, it is doubtful that this poll-driven government will be prepared to spend political capital to develop some much needed social capital by exercising a strong commitment to refugee issues and “rights” in an election year.
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