Disappointment: My Senate Estimates experience

I was frustrated this week when blogging Senate Estimates (see here). More specifically, the ALP frustrated me (I’ll note up the top I’m an ALP member).

Occurring three times per year, Senate Estimates is about providing accountability for parliament. Typically, the opposition parties seek to better understand government policy by cajoling public servants into laying bare the assumptions and evidence of said policy. In the immigration estimates hearing this week, we saw scant evidence of this.

To help me explain, I’m going to lean on some twitter thought bubbles.

I’m not sure if Mr Towell saw much of the immigration portfolio but he is spot on. ALP senators Kim Carr and Lisa Singh failed to admonish the government over glaring policy and process abnormalities (Joe Ludwig also sat in, however silently for an entire three hours). Poor questioning and an inability to ‘sniff the wind’ rendered the day largely useless.

This was demonstrated from the very start of the day, where more than 30 minutes was spent on the use of the term ‘illegal’. I’m certain the Coalition use this word for no other reason than to deliberately rile up their opponents, something they are apparently wildly successful at. At one point, the Chief Legal Officer of the immigration department said there was very little to separate the term ‘illegal’ under migration law to the ALP preferred term ‘irregular’. This should have been the end of the matter but quibbling continued and precious time was wasted.

While the progressive activist might rail at language, the ALP itself has a past littered with using the word ‘illegal’, as the Assistant Minister for Immigration gleefully highlighted. This made for an awkward spectacle. Policy issues, such as the coming education visa reform which will expose many international students to possible exploitation, were provided scant attention in comparison. We know changes to international education will result exploitation, because it happened in the last term of the Howard government. In fact, the ALP had an entire review into the system (see here). Somehow this major review into one of the largest export industries in Australia escaped the attention of the senators. An inattentive ALP does not excuse the government from seeking to provide a quick buck of profit to educational providers at the expense of migrants seeking a life in Australia.

However this oversight was minor in comparison to the strategy around questions to General Angus Campbell, head of Operation Sovereign Borders. While Carr and Singh did ask some questions about process, the underlying foundation of the Operation was not questioned. There was no demonstration against the use of the military for what is a non-military matter. Despite what the government may believe, it is disingenuous to equate people smugglers to the Taliban. This point cannot be emphasised enough. By accepting the premise of the Operation Sovereign Borders, the advocation of alternative policy is harder. General Campbell says he is not involved in the political process while also claiming Senate Estimates is not the appropriate forum to discuss operational matters. Both of these defining statements of how asylum policy is now run in Australia are completely incorrect yet they were left to hang silently over the proceedings, without nary a scant of opposition from the ALP.

A complete denouncement of the process of Operational Sovereign Borders was in order. Secrecy, via the deliberate prevention of information to the parliament should have been called out for what it is: the deterioration of parliamentary accountability and the transformation of asylum policy into an ‘operational matter’. This is a highly political process, with General Campbell in the middle. Sarah Hanson Young, someone I typically disagree with mightily, was at least able to draw the General out on the absurdity of the ‘boat buy back’ scheme. Her questions were focused and in less than half the time provided to the ALP, was by far the best advocate for asylum seekers on the day.

https://twitter.com/clothedvillainy/status/403395040652689408

Our next tweet shows why a complete denouncement of the process was required.

It is broadly acknowledged that the ALP is between a political rock and a hard place when it comes to asylum seeker policy. Members largely support onshore processing and a shift to community detention. The public are more skeptical, given the hysteria whipped by Hanson, Howard and Abbott over the past 15 years.

I am in the minority of progressives, as a supporter of current ALP policy.  Regional cooperation is complex and deserves what has been missing since 2009: a proper, nuanced, substantial answer to the progressive movements concerns as to why it is necessary. Mr Fletcher highlights this appears to be lacking.

This is not easy. In fact, it’s probably the shittiest job in the ALP. But it is what is required. A hard, long, lonely journey for Richard Marles, from sub-branch to sub-branch, set speech after set speech. Yet it is crucial to defining why current policies exist, providing a valid, supported alternative set of policies on asylum.

A denouncement of the current process allows this conversation to occur with a clear distinction drawn between the ALP and the government. While some in the party may wish for this issue to go away or to just follow government policy as closely as possible, the ‘solution’ is not that simple. That track leads us to this…

This is what happens when policy is played by rules established by the Coalition. Bob Carr might be a feted political genius given four state election victories, but this is cold hard evidence showing the folly of his approach to copy and support government policy. Are the ALP too going to blame traffic in Western Sydney on asylum seekers? How about criticising compassion, making a song and dance about grieving relatives attending funerals? I’d prefer to hand back my membership.

The ALP have the people within caucus to have this conversation with members and broader progressives. When I asked the member for Parramatta, Julie Owens, what she thought of Prime Minister Gillard’s comment about ‘migrants going to the back of the queue?’, she called it out for what it was: politics. Her analysis that education and employment are the driving concerns of suburbia was not the sign of a desperate politician looking for someone to scapegoat. We have witnessed the failure of scare tactics by the ALP repeatedly over the past decade, only to see what is acceptable policy shift further away. Luckily, we have a window into the future.

This is the easy political road, filled with regulations which hurt the economy and rupture the social fabric of a country. The British government, egged on by its right flank, is currently choosing the easy road. If the ALP shrinks from a comprehensive public discussion, simply copies government policy, the end outcome is brutal.

For too long, the ALP also chose that easy road. For more than half of its existence, it was the strongest supporter of possibly the most racist of all western immigration policies, the White Australia Policy. However a hard decision was made and the results speak loudly. A proud recent record of multiculturalism, successful immigration reform and a balanced approach to population. Many may not know it, but the ALP is the party of reform when it comes to immigration in Australia, a fact obscured by the failure to take credit.

There was little evidence on display this week about any long term strategy around asylum policy from the ALP. There was no explanation, comparison or alternative version to the government’s asylum seeker policies.

The day to day failure of things such as a poor senate estimates outing is an easy mistake, especially in the wake of an election loss. It can be fixed relatively easily. Perhaps the immigration committee require a member of the A team, John Faulkner or Penny Wong.  While I was disappointed, February 2014 is but three months away.

Harder is the decision to shy away from a public discussion, a short-term judgment which may eek out an extra vote here or there in 2016. Yet we are already at the point in this country where policy detail is hidden from parliament for “operational matters”. We are already at the point, where elected members of parliament equate ‘stopping the boats’ with implying a better cosmopolitan life in our largest city. I hope what comes next will reflect a hard choice made by the ALP.

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One thought on “Disappointment: My Senate Estimates experience

  1. Pingback: Immigration Senate Estimates: What we need to know (Part A) | Value for Money

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