Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Asylum Seeker Dilemma

So I go away for a week and in that time Julia Gillard starts getting applauded by Pauline Hanson.

Note to self – never go on holiday again.

I had no real problem with Gillard announcing in her first press conference that she understood why people were anxious about asylum seekers. But her line over the weekend that she wasn’t politically correct and that people should feel free to “say what they feel” on this issue was a bit dumb. Bit it wasn;t all she said: here’s the total of what she said:

'For people to say they're anxious about border security doesn't make them intolerant. It certainly doesn't make them a racist. It means that they're expressing a genuine view that they're anxious about border security.

''[By the] same token, people who express concern about children being in detention - that doesn't mean they're soft on border protection. It just means they're expressing a real, human concern.

''So I'd like to sweep away any sense that people should close down any debate, including this debate, through a sense of self-censorship or political correctness.''

The second sentence did not get any air time at all – all that got through was the first sentence, and her line about “politically correct”.

I have to say I have no truck with those who are against things being too “politically incorrect”. Generally the only people who actually use the phrase “politically correct” are those who use it to disparage such views and generally to justify their own prejudices.

And thus it has been since Julia’s call to say what you feel. Michael Gordon in The Age related some of the calls on talkback radio – eg:

As ''Andrew'' the first caller, expressed it: ''People have had a stomach full of these illegal immigrants paying to come in.''

Subsequent emails lamented that the refugees were ''given money, free medical, housing assistance, etc, that then enables them to pay back whoever loaned them the money in their own country, so that the next person can come over in the same manner.''

The best thing said about “politically correct” was by Paul Keating on the day after the last election:

Some people said, "oh you must be happy". I said no, I was just so relieved that the toxicity of this government had gone, you know? That this dreadful, vicious show, which had been around for all these years, you know, the active disparagement of particular classes and groups.

You know, John Howard said to Miranda Devine in the Sun Herald a week ago that his great achievement he said was to, you know, turn over political correctness. In other words what he thought was really good was to be politically incorrect, you know, to be able to sling off at someone's colour or their religion, you know. And in a country of immigrants, this is poison for this society, poison for us.

Sigh. How long ago does that seem now? 

Now before I go further I have to admit that in the past on this issue I have got it wrong. Here’s me back in October last year writing perhaps the most naive thing I have ever written:

Sure, when polled on the whether or not they are concerned about illegal immigrants people may say “yes”. But how many people do you know would change their vote over the issue?

I’m going to make a big guess at zero.

If you favour a stronger border protection than currently exists I’m pretty sure you’re already a Liberal voter. If you want a softer line taken (and you believe Rudd is being too Howard like), I’m betting you already vote the ALP or Greens, and will do so at the next election.

This was naive because I forgot the words of that great Australian political animal, Graham Richardson:

 'You will never lose votes in Australia railing against refugees'.

So why has Julia gone this route? The answer is the Prisoner’s Dilemma of Australian Politics – namely that “you never lose votes in Australia railing against refugees”, so the temptation we be to always chase those votes.

Back in April 2009 when the issue had not really taken hold, the Newspoll showed people saw no preference for either the ALP or the LNP on handling the issue – both polled 27% on who was best to handle asylum seekers. Thirty one percent were uncommitted. In April this year, when the issue had taken hold and Abbott had come out with new, “tough”, policy, the Newspoll showed voters favoured the LNP 44% to 26%.

So the Game Theory matrix for the Asylum Seeker Dilemma is something like this:

ALP SOFT 50 \ 50 35 \ 65
ALP TOUGH 60 \ 40 45 \ 55

If both the ALP and LNP are perceived to have “soft” asylum seeker policies – both get 50% of the vote. When both have “tough” policies, I give the LNP 55% and the ALP 45% purely because if both are seen to have “tough” policies you can bet the issue is prominent in the news and at such times the issue is generally seen as one in which the LNP is seen as better by default.

If either side is seen as having a “soft” policy while the other is seen as “tough”, then in line with the 44%-26% poll the “tough” party would get 65% and the softies take only 35%.

So back in April, both sides had a “soft” policy. The issue was not an issue, and the voters didn’t really care about it. But such a situation is not a stable equilibrium. The temptation will always be to go “tough”. For the ALP going “tough” is not as worthwhile as it is for the LNP because if it goes “tough” while the LNP stays “soft” (a very unlikely situation I realise) the ALP will lose votes from the left; when the LNP goes tough against a “soft” ALP however, it gains the swinging ALP voters as well as appealing to its base.

You can see under my figures (and they are just mine, I have no problems debating what the numbers would be) if the ALP goes “tough” it will get either 60 or 45 (average of 52.5%); whereas if it goes “soft”, it will score only 50 or 35 (average of 42.5%). It’s obvious if you’re chasing votes what you would do. For the LNP it’s even more stark. If they go “soft” they get either 50 or 40 (average of 45%); but if they go “tough” they get either 65 or 55 (average of 60).

If you were running the Liberal Party campaign what would you be advocating your leader do?

The problem though is while “tough” and “soft” polices may change people’s perceptions of who is best to handle the issue, how many votes will it actually change?

On Sky News today while waiting for Julia Gillard’s speech to the Lowy Institute, it was breathlessly announced that asylum seekers would be "the most important issue at the next election".

Bollocks, says I.

The most important issue at the next election, like every single election, will be the economy. And the big issue in the economy today was that interest rates were kept at 4.5% – and the news that the RBA is likely to keep rates on hold for a long while pretty well kills the Libs’ argument about the debt and deficit driving up interest rates…. 

Yes people may swap votes on asylum seekers, but enough to win an election? My view is the issue is a bit like a canary in the mine – when the mine fills up with gas the canary dies, but the canary dying is not what kills the miners, it’s the gas. Saying asylum seekers will win or lose an election is a bit like blaming the canary instead of the gas. There will be many other issues that change the votes – many more deeper issues – economy, education, health. Asylum seekers is just a nice easy one for the media to spot – much like spotting the dead canary. It also seems to sell newspapers and keep the talk back phone calls running hot.

The last poll on what issue voters were most concerned about was in May by Essential Media (via Pollytics):


As you can see immigration policies came in twelfth. So perhaps I wasn't so naive after all.

But (to torture the analogy a bit more) the asylum seeker issue may also be a bit of a canary in the mine – when voters turn off the Government on this issue, it may be auguring that they are turning off on other issues.

So while it is true that the election is not won or lost on the issue, asylum seekers may be the first indicator of which way the voters are going.

It is this last aspect which fuels the Asylum Seeker Dilemma – parties will make sure they cover off this issue to ensure it is not some thin end of the wedge. And thus they keep trying to wedge each other…

Which brings us to Julia Gillard’s speech today titled “Moving Australia Forward” (bloody hell, can someone go though Parliament House and eliminate all idiot media/speech writers in the ALP’s ranks?)

It started brilliantly. Try this on for size:

… let me turn first to some remarks made in the last few days by a prominent Australian, Julian Burnside QC, an eminent lawyer much respected in our community. Mr Burnside said, and I quote:

"I challenge Julia Gillard to point out to the public that at the current rate of arrivals it would take about 20 years to fill the MCG with boat people."

Obviously, Julian Burnside, like me, is a Melbournian. He went on to refer to certain Australians as, and I quote:

"Rednecks in marginal seats"

On the first point Mr Burnside is very, very right and I'm happy to oblige. He is right because in the context of our migration program, the number of asylum seekers arriving by boat to Australia is very, very minor. It is less than 1.5 per cent of new migrants, and indeed it would take about 20 years to fill the great MCG with asylum seekers at present rates of arrival. This is a point well made.

bVJb16Wow! How long has it been since a political leader in this country has mentioned this fact? A fact which is nicely represented by this graphic:

Gillard continued:

On the second point, though, Mr Burnside is very, very wrong. It is wrong to label people who have concerns about unauthorised arrivals as 'rednecks'.

Of course, there are racists in every country, but expressing a desire for a clear and firm policy when you are faced with a difficult problem does not make you a racist.

For too long, the asylum seeker policy debate has been polarised by extreme, emotionally charged claims and counterclaims; by a fundamental disrespect that I reject.

Nice work, Julia – positioning yourself as the sensible person in between the extremes (meaning Tony Abbott on the right). She then skewered Abbott nicely:

My opponent, Mr Abbott, is really very good at slogans: a great, big, new tax on everything; a great, big, new mining tax; a big, bad tax; and now we've got 'turn the boats around'.

But these slogans are shallow.

The Opposition is trying to sell the Australian community a fairy tale in which all you have to do to deal with the asylum seeker issue is go out to sea, get an asylum seeker boat and turn it around and everything will be fixed - but this fairytale is not the facts.

The facts are the boat will be scuttled and it will start to sink.

The facts are that this nation would then be confronted by a stark choice: either we could leave the scene in the certain knowledge people, including children, would drown; or we could rescue the asylum seekers from the water.

Today let me say one thing loud and clear: our nation would not leave children to drown. We are Australian and our values will never allow us to countenance that kind of evil. So, inevitably, the so-called strategy of turning the boats back would become a strategy of rescuing asylum seekers from the water with all of the risks that entails to the lives of defence and customs personnel.

The slogan is hollow and Mr Abbott knows it.

In his own policy document he says that the so-called turnaround of boats would only happen, and I quote, "Where circumstances permit". This is an admission that it won't work.

Very nice work – she even had Sky News agreeing after the speech that turning the boats back was just a slogan.

She then reached great heights in political oratory – heights that had me amazed that I was hearing such things being spoken, and had me feeling very proud to be a Gillard fan:

How appalling is it that this is where the long-running debate on asylum seekers we are at this point - at the point of an unedifying exchange of incendiary labels like 'red neck' and hollow slogans like 'turn the boats around', with nobody asking how we can move the nation forward.

Think of the impasse the division has created. If you are hard-headed you're dismissed as hard-hearted. If you are open-hearted you are marginalised as supporting open borders.

I say to those engaged in this type of rhetoric: stop selling our national character short. We are better than this. We are so much better than this.

The other way, the path less travelled in recent times, is the path to move us forward together - to discuss the facts, reject the myths and make our decisions on what we know to be true, on the principles that can unite us.

So let's start by considering the facts. Consider the facts.

Last year, Australia received 0.6 per cent of the world's asylum seekers.

Refugees, including those referred for resettlement by the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees, make up less than 8 per cent of migrants accepted in Australia.

Even if all those who arrived in unauthorised boats were found to be refugees - which they will not - they would still be only 1.6 per cent of all migrants to Australia.

Facts!!! What the hell??!! A PM talking about facts on asylum seekers? Has the world stopped turning??

Then came the policy. After brilliantly demonstrating that asylum seekers are not really a problem at all, she came up with  a policy to stop them (yeah, there’s a problem right there):

Building on the work already underway in the Bali Process, today I announce that we will begin a new initiative. In recent days I have discussed with President Ramos Horta of East Timor the possibility of establishing a regional processing centre for the purpose of receiving and processing irregular entrants to the region.

The purpose would be to ensure that people smugglers have no product to sell. A boat ride to Australia would just be a ticket back to the regional processing centre.

This took about one second for the media to start referring to it as the “East Timor Solution”. And yes there are some similarity to Howard’s sending off refugees to Nauru – they are both “third party” countries, but it ends pretty much there. The big difference is that East Timor is a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention Nauru is not.

Also a big difference is what Julia said next:

I have also already discussed this initiative with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres.

Somehow I don’t think John Howard ever bothered picking up the phone to ring the UN High Commissioner on Refugees when he was developing his policies…

Now maybe you can say that this is just a Pacific Solution with the UNHCR involved, but that a bit like saying police are just vigilante organisations answerable to and authorised by the Government.

Andrew Bolt may think it is a huge back down and back flip; but regional processing has long been ALP policy – in fact it was behind Gillard’s press release back in 2003 that was titled “Another Boat; another policy failure”. As she noted in Parliament on the day she became PM in answer to a question from Scott Morrison on the issue:

… if one looks at the content of the press release, as opposed to just the headline, it indicates that it was my view in opposition that, in order to deal with questions of asylum seekers and refugees, we needed strong, regional engagement with our neighbours, particularly Indonesia. I still believe that.

Now am I in raptures over this policy? No, I am not. I know it is a sop to the votes who want a :tough” policy. But if you have to go “tough” this is the way to do it. I am also very heartened by the thought that we have a PM who in developing an asylum seeker policy is talking to the UNHCR as she does it, and also one who is actually pursuing a regional solution to the problem. The Howard Pacific Solution was not a strategy, it was a punishment. Gillard’s policy unfortunately is a nod to the Asylum Seeker Dilemma, but it maintains some sanity – something greatly missing from much of what Tony Abbott announced today.

Abbott’s new policy involves presuming against granting asylum status to those asylum seekers who have deliberately discarded their identity papers. Good luck discovering the deliberate aspect – such a thing is not easy to prove, and would hardly be workable. Also unworkable would be the policy to give “the Minister for Immigration will have greater oversight of decisions made on protection claims, and will reserve the right to directly intervene in the decision making process”. Apparently this is, according to Scott Morrison, to ensure it is not just those who are denied visas who are given a review, but also those who are given a visa.

Proof positive that the Liberal Party views the issue as a political one, rather than a human rights one…

But the Liberal Party did have one good idea – namely to “increase the number of resettlement places made available through the UNHCR process for off shore applications each year by 1,500 persons, increasing the overall share of these places as part of the overall programme”.

The ALP should follow suit.

The Liberal Party could then agree to support Gillard’s policy of the regional processing in East Timor, and we can all go back to worrying about the economy and live in stable equilibrium on the asylum seeker issue.

Yeah, that’s going to happen.


Anonymous said...

Great post Grog. It's people like you that make me feel slightly better about the intelligence of people that live in this country

mollymalone said...

Good analysis of Gillard's speech. I guess her real aim is to keep Abbott out at all costs so her Timor solution can be seen as good political strategy. Like you, I wish it wasn't necessary. But let's put the blame where it really belongs: the Liberals shamelessly distorting facts on asylum seekers to win votes. Without that, I suspect Labor's policy would be less harsh.

SM said...

Another great post Grog, by going to the source you really highlight the problem of the media taking the sound bite from the detail.

Taking the Asylum Seeker (nee prisoners) dilemma at face value you have given us another view to an announcement that seemed just a tad too familiar in the media noise.

I'm betting the Australian will talk about how its not possible, too expensive and well you can't really trust these UN people anyway.

Shame really because I agree that something other than more of the same has got to be better.

Mixed Up Confusion said...

Thanks for the finer detail and commentary. It's hard to find most things uttered in consecutive sentences out there. No surprise the politicans prefer radio. Context is everything - most times.