In the wake of last week’s report on the Australian Public Service, the Centre for Policy Development has released another substantive paper; this time on how we might return the debate on asylum seekers and refugees to rationality, and suggesting some short term policy initiatives the Commonwealth Government could take if it were interested in framing evidence-based policy.
The report is based on extensive research, and was written by three researchers with extensive expertise and experience in immigration policy and immigration law: John Menadue, Arja Keska-Nummi and Kate Gauthier.
The report seeks to place the arrival of asylum seekers by boat in its proper perspective, and emphasises the continued dimensions of international refugee population flows and the continued salience of the UN Refugee Convention. In doing so, the authors demolish a number of the egregious untruths which have distorted the domestic debate, and proffer suggestions about how fact could be communicated more effectively.
The thirteen recommendations made rest on principles for a policy approach which:
* Adheres to all international conventions which we have voluntarily signed
* Quickly and correctly identifies those who are refugees and grants them protection
consistent with UNHCR policies and guidelines
* Protects Australians from any health or security concerns
* Discourages dangerous journeys, but treats fairly those who have made those journeys
* Affords all people in Australia their human rights, as well as access to the legal systems which deliver them, and
* Rapidly returns home in safety and dignity those who are found not to be in need of Australia’s protection.
The recommendations, to be found on pages 7 and 8 of the report, make a number of eminently sensible and practical suggestions about how the debate could be refocused, an emphasis on true regional cooperation incorporated into policy and how we could increase our intake, restrict detention solely to health and identity checks, care for children, and better promote resettlement in the Australian community of refugees.
The question, of course, all this raises is whether, in the current political climate, this sort of approach is feasible.
Fact and value
To large degree the question of asylum seeker boat arrivals is one of heart and head, fact and value. It’s normally assumed that the dominance of the frame which drives current policy is near impossible to shift.
I’m not at all convinced that is the case.
Let’s consider the framing of the debate. This report, for instance, points out that – under both Australian and international law – it is not illegal to seek asylum even if so doing involves actions which might otherwise be illegal. A recognition of that, and fostering an understanding of why desperate people are driven to take actions they would not otherwise take, would be enormously effective.
Fact and empathy go hand in hand.
The questions the Essential Research poll recently asked about degree of concern regarding boat arrivals showed a full 10% less were “very concerned” about boat arrivals when presented with just one fact: that the number of arrivals this year is less than half that of last year.
So, we have just a single fact being able to move opinion substantially. The truth is a powerful weapon.
There have been too many counsels of despair among progressies about the asylum seeker question. The CPD Report provides not just reasoned analysis and substantive policy direction, but also immense resources for persuasion. Mobilising a campaign on such a basis would be a tremendous start.
A new approach from Labor?
As to whether the government will take heed of this report, I’d have to say I think they’d have nothing to lose if they did. It’s intriguing to see Fremantle Labor MP Melissa Parke among the signatories to a letter of support for the report’s findings and recommendations.
It didn’t look like it at the time, but the Gillard government’s approach during last year’s election campaign was actually moderately promising. The Prime Minister did give a speech putting the numbers of asylum seekers in accurate perspective, and underlining the reasons for Australia’s international obligations. There was a clear logic in attempting to separate out some of the concerns the proverbial Lindsay voter had from the issue itself – through launching a debate on sustainability and population.
Of course, this wasn’t unaccompanied by the expected dollop of ‘tough’ rhetoric and visual imagery.
Sadly, but predictably, we’re back in ‘Stop The Boats’ land with the supposed argument for the ‘Malaysian Solution’ reduced to a sound bite about “breaking the people smugglers’ business model”. Once again, the government has allowed its opponents to frame the debate, and its attempts to be proactive are in fact reactive.
There’s been some talk over recent weeks about how Julia Gillard and Labor can respond to an Opposition Leader who’s torn up the rule book. The answer is actually obvious; to get on the front foot and to carve out distinctive positions based on both rationality and values.
The report, and the letter of support, recommend a return to “constructive bipartisanship” on asylum seeker policy. That’s not going to happen. What the government needs to do is to be constructively partisan.
It wouldn’t be too hard to think of an opening – delays to the ‘Malaysian Solution’ and Manus, for instance. It would not be too hard to argue for a completely different path. It would take courage. But Labor has very little to lose, and potentially a lot to gain, by doing the right thing.
Elsewhere: Frank Brennan.