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Stop using the public service as political tools

By Eva Cox - posted Monday, 12 September 2011

Government bureaucratic advice that more boat arrivals would cause social unrest similar to the UK riots is both wrong and unacceptable public service behaviour.

The political views of the ALP Government can be ill informed but asking or permitting senior public servants to brief politicians and the public along these lines moves well beyond their role of offering frank and fair advice. Interestingly Wayne Swan this morning on Radio National breakfast avoided endorsing this view! And now they seem to be denying it happened.

The level of cover the story received in the media suggests a range of unhealthy views throughout the various power players!! It raises issues of whether this issue be resolved fairly.


An assumption that higher numbers of on-shore processing of refugee/asylum seekers would make any contributions to public disturbances is an absurd and alarmist claim.

I have a dual basis for commenting on this issue. I am a sociologist with a particular interest in issues of social cohesion and put social capital as social glue onto the public agenda in Australia in my 1995 ABC Boyer Lectures on a Truly Civil Society, and I am an ex refugee.

I was able to migrate to Australia in 1948 because Arthur Caldwell and the Chifley Government ignored public opinion polls that clearly stated that Jewish displaced people were not welcome, as we would undermine Australian life. They offered political leadership and courage that is singularly lacking today.

The rhetoric has changed but residual public fears of some strangers are still there to be tapped. Instead of clearly racialised prejudice, the campaigns against those arriving by boat use terms like 'queue jumpers' and 'illegals' to feed the fears of the public.

The politics of both major parties are adding in a law-and-order focus on 'people smugglers' to earlier implication of alien terror and threat. This takes the focus off the actual asylum seeker and onto images of rejecting greed and money rather than desperate people.

The result has created divides in the community, as some groups keep the focus on compassion and rights while others play on greed, order and vague undefined prejudice and fears.


This toxic change of direction in the briefing the Opposition leader designed is to show the 'dangers' of his rejection of the Malaysian option. Riots in the street are ridiculous as we have over 150,000 thousands of new migrants who arrive each year. Why would a few thousand more create social disturbances?

Even if the government let out the thousands in detention and doubled their numbers, the communities would hardly notice them unless the government and opposition cynically continue to foment anti-asylum seeker feelings for political advantages.

It already costs us too much to detain people. It is economically irrational to spend $123,000 per asylum seeker each year in detention centres where we damage the physical and mental health of many who we later accept.

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About the Author

Eva Cox is the chair of Women’s Electoral Lobby Australia and director of Distaff Associates.

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