Responses to the Federal Government's recent reform of Australia's immigration detention policy have once again shown that debate over immigration issues in Australia is drenched in symbolism, political posturing and ideology, obscuring the human reality beneath.
On the one hand, it is hard to imagine how it could be contentious for a government to state that we should not lock up people for long periods when they have not been charged with any offence, unless there are compelling reasons to do so. But as soon as you mention asylum seekers or refugees - let alone bring up loaded and misleading terms like "illegal immigrants" - at that point simple, humane common sense seems to go straight out the window.
Ezequiel Trumper quite rightly expressed amazement and dismay that a decision by the Government to reassert such a basic aspect of the rule of law was done with so little fanfare. He was also angry that there was so little condemnation of the policies that were being discarded, and no "moral censure of the perpetrators of these horrendous human rights violations".
Yet in announcing what should turn out to be a historic realignment in national immigration policy and law, the Labor Government has been as keen as anyone else to keep it low-key. Despite (or because of) the political significance of the issue, the announcement was made by Minister Chris Evans, not by the Prime Minister - even though the issue is ideally suited to Kevin Rudd's pre-election characterisation of John Howard's "Brutopia", and is also perfectly in tune with Mr Rudd's own praise of Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his notion of the Christian duty to support "the marginalised, the vulnerable and the oppressed".
Despite some standard criticism by Chris Evans of the previous government's policy, he also made it very clear - in line with Labor's official policy - that "mandatory detention" was being retained. Indeed, Evans emphasised that number one of the Government's "seven key immigration values" is that "Mandatory detention is an essential component of strong border control".
Labor has junked the old form of mandatory detention, but at the same time has been keen to retain the label, and also to keep linking it to other phrases such as "border control". In fact, the arrival of asylum seekers by boat has nothing to do with effective control of our borders, nor do any of the other tough terms deployed in this debate have any real value except to play on security fears in the community. The people who might threaten our security are those who try to sneak in undetected or use false pretences to avoid scrutiny of their intentions. By contrast, asylum seekers deliberately seek to be detected, and then undergo more rigorous assessment, including police and security checks, than any of the literally millions of other people who enter Australia every year.
To some extent, one could say the Government's relatively quiet reform is just another example of politicians trying to use language that will appeal to both sides of an issue. But the underlying politics and community attitudes regarding immigration and refugee issues should not be underplayed.
Labor's cautious approach on this, and the generally low-key political responses so far, are not just due to the psychological and political scars from 2001's Tampa election. We cannot ignore the fact that significant antagonism towards asylum seekers, refugees and migrants still exists in the wider community. While Ezequiel Trumper lamented how little coverage such a potentially momentous policy shift received in the newspapers, it was certainly sufficient to generate some heated comment on anti-migrant blogs around the world. There was also plenty of vitriol among the many reader comments left on mainstream media sites such as this one at The Courier-Mail.
This can't just be dismissed as a venomous online fringe. Not long after Chris Evans's announcement regarding immigration detention, a survey (PDF 84KB) found over 60 per cent of respondents believed Australia's past policy towards asylum seekers was either "about right" or "not tough enough". Only 24 per cent thought it was "too tough".
Andrew Norton pointed to a number of other polls, including the 2007 Australian Election Survey, which also suggest that the level of public sympathy for refugees is not as strong as human rights campaigners might like to think.
It is fair enough to say that governments shouldn't pander to such attitudes, and certainly the tactic from the Howard era of deliberately inflaming community antagonism towards refugees and migrants for political gain must continue to be condemned.
But in shifting away from such past policies, it is asking a lot of any government to expect them to tackle such antagonistic attitudes head on - particularly if there is not a strong movement at community level also seeking to shift such attitudes.
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