The policy proposals of the Australian Labor Party and the Liberal Party in response to asylum seekers who come to Australia by boat have rightly received a significant level of attention in the federal election campaign.That both major parties are pushing so far to the right on this issue – in spite of political ideology, supposed Australian egalitarianism and our nation’s history – is deeply concerning for many voters who want to see a humane approach that is founded in respect, compassion and proudly meeting our international obligations. Neither the Government’s PNG Solution
nor the Coalition’s Operation Sovereign Borders
come close to this.
The longstanding dearth of positive political leadership on this issue has served only to misinform the Australian public. In wanting to be seen as tough on boats, both parties have privileged irrational political rhetoric that has served to amp up the idea that the Australian way of life is under threat by the 0.99% of the world’s asylum seekers who envisage a better, safer life in this country. This is not a crisis.
The war cry repeated by some elected leaders that the actions of asylum seekers are ‘illegal’ appeals to the idea that the control of our borders is under threat from criminal people smuggling syndicates. This language is emotion-filled and misleading – a xenophobic dog whistle to manipulate the public into opposition of those seeking asylum.
This issue – perhaps unlike any other that the polity and public have had to grapple with – has been characterized by an unseemly and embarrassing race to the bottom, whereby our international responsibilities are abrogated, reputation tarnished and commitment to human rights ideals thrown out the window.
The public discourse on seaborne asylum seekers must be re-imagined and policy settings realigned. The ingrained culture of demonizing asylum seekers for political gain must come to an end. If this process is to begin in this election campaign, our leaders must speak now with facts not fear. Although there have been many low points, the high road can still be taken before 7 September.