A look in the mirror

Two events this week demonstrated how the progressive movement can struggle when it comes to migration in Australia.

The most obvious is how the lack of movement on asylum policies will occasionally come back to bite.

Richard Marles’ comments this week – when you actually read them – are nothing out of the ordinary. He spoke about how Australia’s relationship with Indonesia is paramount and boat turn backs damage the relationship (true). He said how the government had yet to establish how the process was safe (true; at least publicly this has not been shown). He did not mention the concept of refoulement but that is more difficult on a five minute talking head spot.

But that’s not how it works. We live in a binary world of yes/no. “Might” doesn’t exist and thinking through issues occurs privately. Marles’ should have known better. The tension within the ALP over asylum policy isn’t going anywhere and this was an opportunity for it to flare up onto the front pages.

Is it possible to simple not talk about asylum policy in Australia for an entire term of government? We’re going to find out as the ALP try.

And least anyone assume I say this negatively, I believe this is the only way forward. Compare it to how the Abbott government handles workplace relations. Don’t respond. Don’t bite. Ignore the question until you are blue in the face. In a vacuum, I would prefer a different approach, one where issues are debated on their merits and evidence is advanced. This is not quite the environment we find ourselves in.

There is a relatively straightforward pathway for the ALP to take into the next election; a world-leading humanitarian program of 20,000-25,000, a commitment to keep relations with Indonesia above politics, offshore resettlement as part of a regional solution and opposition to TPVs. This might sound familiar give it’s the status quo for the ALP.

One cannot forge proper relations with the Indonesian government from opposition. You cannot craft a sustainable regional solution from opposition. The hard work will come in government as the current set of asylum policies are unsustainable over a period of time any longer than 3-5 years. While pull factors exist, push factors also play out over time. This is the largely unacknowledged gap in Operation Sovereign Borders, the most expensive per capita migration policy in the world.

Passionate ALP members and progressive community advocates do not like this status quo. But the way to improve the long-term outcome of Australia’s asylum policies is from government. Witness the current lack of visa processing from the government and you immediately see a stark difference in asylum policy despite the incessant cries that the two parties are the same.

The other event was less political, more difficult. It should generate a reflection of what an Australian progressive movement wants when it comes to immigration. Unfortunately the moment will likely pass us by unnoticed or ignored.

The Scanlon Foundation produces an annual survey on social cohesion and public attitudes to migration. To quote David Marr, the reports contain “a beautiful set of figures”.

In 2014, Australian attitudes to immigration are stark. Unlike OECD countries across the world, Australian’s are largely supportive of immigration. Only 35 per cent of people think immigration is ‘too high’ whereas 58 per cent say it is ‘about right’ or ‘too low’. We are a positive outlier in one of the most socially divisive issues in the developed world.

This is incredible for a number of reasons. The actual number of migrants arriving is high and stable. Combined with soft feelings about the economy and slightly higher unemployment, tradition would dictate about half the population would think there are too many migrants arriving.

Yet this is happening (in part) because people are not concerned about asylum. In 2013, a full 12 per cent of the population thought this was the most pressing issue facing Australia. A year later this figure is four per cent. While the economy still plays a strong role in determining Australian attitudes to immigration as a whole, it cannot be doubted that these attitudes are also influenced by the particulars of asylum policy.

How should a progressive respond to such findings?

These are some of the most popular comments on the Marr’s write-up of the findings which represent attitudes similar to what I’ve seen and heard elsewhere:

DameEdnasGlasses: “Oscar Wilde nailed it.’Patriotism is the virtue of the vicious’. If people are happy now they are bloody idiots who deserve to lose the excellent quality of life we used to have to bigoted thieves.”

Wobbly: “Great weather, beaches and food, but too right wing, too intolerant, too anti-intellectual, too apathetic about environmental degradation, Murdoch too powerful and Abbott is worst PM in Australia’s history. You can live well with blinkers on but nirvana it is not.”

Brnost: “What we are seeing is not, as the article suggests, a rise in patriotism, but rather a rise in nationalism of the worst kind – the kind that fuels xenophobic right-wing groups such as the Tea Party and UKIP.”

There are a couple of take-aways from this. The most evident is people will write uninformed rubbish in the comments section.

Take the last comment above. The Tea Party and UKIP exist (in part) to oppose immigration. This is clearly not compatible with Australian attitudes to immigration, where concern is at a historic modern low. One way to look at the current environment is that there is no space for a UKIP to emerge because people do support immigration, on the proviso it is ordered. Look at the failure in the 2013 election of the myriad of far-right, explicitly xenophobic parties.

Other commenters seem perturbed how public attitudes will ‘follow’ politicians. Yet on asylum, you only need to examine opinion over time to see where our failure as a progressive force on asylum stems from.

Since about 2010, between 20-25 per cent of the public support permanent residence and settlement in Australia for asylum seekers. The rest of Australia – around three-quarters – doesn’t. This finding hasn’t changed over time. 63 per cent of Green voters agree, 31 per cent of ALP voters and just 13 per cent of Liberal voters.

That’s the equation for progressive Australia on the question of asylum and public attitudes to immigration.

I think about migration a lot. I work at the Migration Council Australia. I have an Amazon wish list titled ‘migration books’. My Twitter feed is about 30-40 per cent migration-related.

I believe both; people should have more freedom to move, particularly those seeking asylum, and, public attitudes to migration are extremely vital for long-term societal cohesion.

And at the moment, I have no idea what to think about these results. But I do believe if we continue with the current approach embodied by the comments above, history will simply repeat.

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