Late on Friday, twenty minutes after Republicans in the United States Senate agreed to a compromise proposal on a payroll tax extension, Air Force One lifted off to take US President Barack Obama to Hawaii for Christmas.
It was a near-miss. The president’s family had gone on ahead and Obama remained alone in the White House with the family’s dog for most of the week, sweating on a political deal with his strident opponents in the Congress.
Here, Julia Gillard went on holidays a week ago, leaving her deputy, Wayne Swan, and Immigration Minister Chris Bowen to slug it out with an equally strident Opposition on the perennial issue of asylum seekers.
Unlike Obama, Swan and Bowen left town on Friday with no hint of an agreement. The discussions were “cordial”, both sides agreed. Further talks are anticipated, but the Opposition made it clear the initiative must come from the Government.
On Christmas Eve, a boat carrying 116 passengers was intercepted off Christmas Island. It was the 69th boat to enter Australian territorial waters this year. The previous 68 carried 4,457 passengers.
Those numbers, and the loss of life after a boat capsized off East Java province on December 17, explain an apparent change of heart by sections of the media and the political establishment. While not unanimous, there now seems broad agreement that the de facto onshore processing policy hasn’t stopped the boats. Even Robert Manne says “grave and arguably unacceptable risks” attach to a “regime of spontaneous asylum seeker boat arrivals and onshore processing”. The Left got it wrong in not accepting that the Howard government’s Pacific solution “worked”, Manne argues.
Apparently we are all supporters of offshore processing now.
And some time in the past fortnight, assorted journalists and newspapers decided the electorate was demanding that the asylum debacle be “resolved”. We were spared the findings of an opinion poll in support of this public clamour, but politicians of many colours joined the demand that something be done.
The Government was already onto it prior to the capsized boat. An exchange of letters between Gillard and Abbott began on December 14. The letters make for interesting reading because they expose the policy confusion, political timidity and surrender of authority that is at the heart of the Government’s dilemma.
“The fact of the matter is that both parties agree on the need for offshore processing,” wrote Gillard. Citing the national interest, she called on Abbott to make the Opposition’s immigration spokesman Scott Morrison available for talks with Bowen. She raised the possibility of recalling Parliament to pass the Migration Act amendments the Government proposed after the High Court killed off the Malaysia swap plan on August 31.
In his reply on December 16, Abbott treated Gillard to a personal taste of the lines he has used in public for months.
“The Opposition, as always, stands ready to support good policy,” Abbott asserted, welcoming the Government’s “belated conversion to offshore processing”. He called on Gillard to re-open the processing centre on Nauru and to reintroduce temporary protection visas (TPVs).
More pointedly, Abbott rejected the Malaysia solution as fundamentally flawed.
“You cannot seriously expect the Coalition to change its position from one that’s been proven to work,” he said. Hinting at panic and disorganisation on the Government’s part, he said: “You have had nine weeks to deal with the obvious unwillingness of the Parliament to support your people swap proposal.”
Abbott suggested Gillard should make the migration legislation a matter of confidence and demand support from “your Green alliance partners”. He could see no reason for a meeting between Morrison and Bowen.
The next day the boat went down off Java with the loss of around 180 lives. With Gillard now on leave, Acting Prime Minister Wayne Swan reiterated the call for a meeting. He wrote to Abbott on December 19, saying:
“Whatever else divides us, I know we share a sense of sadness at the loss of life at sea.”
Abbott responded the same day, accusing the Government of “obstinacy” and refusing to bend on its own policy, whereas it “has been willing to make any number of concessions to the Greens and independents on matters before the Parliament”, including “the repudiation of election commitments”.
There followed three days of to-ing and fro-ing, with Abbott demanding the Government put a specific proposal on the table. The Government attacked Abbott’s negativity and unwillingness to agree to any government initiative. Trade Minister Craig Emerson appeared on television to claim that the boats would henceforth be known as “Abbott’s Armada”.
With Christmas looming, the Government acceded to Abbott’s demands. He got a formal offer in writing late on December 22, in which the Government maintained its support for the Malaysia swap plan and rejected TPVs but gave ground on processing of asylum claims in Nauru.
But note Wayne Swan’s words:
“We are offering Nauru because we believe the country is looking to us to work together and because at such times willingness to compromise is demanded – not because we believe Nauru will work.”
In that feeble statement, not of any principle but merely of expedient compromise, the Acting PM laid bare the Government’s weakness. Since the last election, it has been utterly compromised on this issue. Can anyone be surprised that the December 23 talks produced no outcome?
On this issue, the Government threw its moral compass overboard during last year’s election. Since then, Abbott’s “stop the boats” mantra has won the day. Labor’s mishandling of the East Timor processing policy and the Malaysia arrangement has crippled its credibility on refugee policy. Worse, every opportunity to reframe the debate has been passed up by the Government.
Instead, the Government is trapped by its own political cowardice and prevarication. Once again, it is snookered, this time by its clumsy attempt to triangulate and isolate Abbott. The naivety is stunning. We know where the Opposition stands. We’ve known for 10 years since John Howard, the Tampa and children overboard.
Abbott – Howard’s apprentice – will give no quarter on this issue. He certainly won’t give a sucker an even break. He can’t be bargained with. He has to be broken.
Throughout the past couple of weeks, the Government has operated from a position of weakness, although they seem to think it’s one of strength. In seeking to shame Abbott into supporting their legislation, they gamble on an unlikely outcome. Moreover, they have all but surrendered their authority to govern by offering Abbott a seat at the table and a veto over asylum seeker policy.
By constantly drawing the Opposition into the orbit of its decision-making process, the Government only highlights its own indecision and impotence on this issue. In a telling slip of the tongue at the start of last week, Wayne Swan even referred to Bowen and Morrison as “the ministers” in charge of refugee policy. The reshuffled and enlarged Cabinet is obviously bigger than we thought.
It is true that a minority government will inevitably encounter a situation where it can’t muster the numbers for its position, but Gillard also proclaimed asylum seekers as one of three issues she was elected to resolve. She elevated its significance.
Through its mishandling of the issue, the Government has allowed an army of conservative commentators and politicians to opine at length about the tragedy of people dying at sea. Excuse my cynicism, but it is such an obvious attempt to seize the moral high ground. As Julian Burnside pointed out, it isn’t “fair dinkum”. Demonising “people smugglers” is a distraction, a back-handed way of denigrating asylum seekers. Like the pejorative depictions of “armadas” of “leaky boats”, it reeks of insincerity.
It is fanciful to suggest that the Coalition will be blamed for this political and policy mess. Governments are charged with governing, not the opposition. When they produce policies they can’t implement and then offer to implement a policy they say they don’t believe in, the electorate is entitled to draw an obvious conclusion. If the conversation occasionally turned to politics at millions of Christmas dinner tables yesterday, it’s doubtful the Government garnered any sympathy for its handling of refugees.
Consistency is part of the problem. The Government abandoned the Pacific solution but is now prepared to consider it while telling us they don’t believe it will work. Yet the position offered to Abbott last Friday is reportedly similar to the one Bowen took to Cabinet just four months ago when it was deemed a bridge too far for Gillard.
In contrast, at every opportunity, the Opposition repeats its simple, clear message. The occasional small-l Liberal voice is easily muffled and isolated. After all, even the Government now uses the language of its opponents.
Despite what some would have us believe, there is no consensus on asylum seekers. Popular opinion seems to be as hostile as ever. Suspicion of the motives and means of asylum seekers is rampant in sections of Australian society. “Asylum seekers push up rents,” the Financial Review reported last week.
In some quarters, there is support for the de facto onshore processing policy the Government’s contortions have delivered. Clear-headed thinkers of one persuasion see that the issue is a beat-up about a relatively small number of refugees. Others argue the Government has abrogated its control over the flow of immigration and enabled self-selection.
If ever there was an issue that required leadership, this is it. The Gillard Government has not provided it. In the lead-up to Christmas, it merely begged the Opposition to rescue it.
The Government is flailing around on an issue that only causes it political damage. As befits a government that always seems to be keeping one step behind, it has spent most of its time talking about Tony Abbott. Is a complete policy capitulation on asylum seekers next?
This article first appeared on The Drum.