Do elections have to bring out the worst in us? Immigration Minister Peter Dutton’s comments on “illiterate” and “innumerate” refugees taking Australian jobs sees us heading down a familiar path.
As Australia’s two major parties struggle for cut through in the 2016 federal election campaign, we see an easy slide towards xenophobia and the familiar dog whistle to Australian racism that has come to characterise other federal election campaigns.
Perhaps the worst case of this was the Tampa affair in August 2001, when the Howard Government refused entry to a Norwegian freighter, the MV Tampa, carrying 438 asylum seekers rescued at sea after a failed attempt to reach Christmas Island.
Despite strong international criticism, Prime Minister John Howard used the Tampa affair (followed by the September 2001 terrorist attacks and the subsequently unsubstantiated claims asylum seekers on another boat seeking unauthorised entry had thrown their children overboard in order to be rescued and brought to Australia) as the catalyst for introducing Australia’s new border protection regime.
Border security became a pivotal issue in the 2001 federal election. The Government had been trailing the Labor Opposition in the polls, but quickly found its hardline response played well with the electorate. In November 2001, the Howard Government was re-elected with an increased majority.
Mr Dutton’s comments are in a similar vein and are misleading for at least two reasons.
Firstly, they are factually incorrect. Yes, some refugees have had little opportunity for education, given the volatile and chaotic countries they are fleeing. But this isn’t always the case. I have met refugees who were lawyers, doctors, teachers and journalists in their home countries. Once here, they are rarely able to work in their chosen field, instead forced into unskilled and low-paid work despite often high levels of education.
Secondly, even if every single refugee who came to Australia was illiterate and innumerate — so what? Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has himself described Australia as “the most successful multicultural society in the world”.
This success rests in large part on our historical ability to accept immigrants — including refugees — from a range of circumstances with varying levels of education, providing them with opportunities to learn and contribute to society. Since Mr Dutton’s offensive comments, the media has been filled with such stories.
But of course, the point of the comments was never about factual correctness nor about any real threat to Australian jobs or security. Rather, they are a calculated attempt to incite fear and anxiety among sections of the community.
They are also an attempt to wedge Labor on an issue that continues to divide the party, despite its stated commitment to the offshore detention regime.
And here’s the rub. As both parties double down on their “strong on border protection” rhetoric and refuse to acknowledge the now urgent need to rethink offshore detention, the policy debate stymies.
The Greens are the only party presenting an alternative policy platform on refugees. Their approach emphasises the need for Australia to invest in regional processing in order to provide asylum seekers with a genuine pathway out of the purgatory of an uncertain future.
But this alternative will not get much traction. Civil society organisations that have devised further policy alternatives have made the wise choice to keep them off the table until after the election. Putting up such proposals now would see them torn to shreds by the the xenophobia and hysteria that characterises election “debate” on this issue.
We should be at a turning point in our policies over refugees and asylum seekers. Recent deaths in offshore detention camps from desperate acts of self-harm, and appalling standards of healthcare, have shocked many who were otherwise prepared to turn a blind eye.
Yet here we find ourselves, in another election campaign where our leaders appeal to the worst aspects of our national character.
Just weeks ago the surge in compassion for refugees was evident as church leaders, premiers, activists and ordinary citizens showed their support for the Let Them Stay campaign. But once an election was called, refugees once again became political footballs.
The next few weeks will show us more of the same. Those of us sensing the urgency of policy reform in this area feel the need to bite our tongues and bide our time. Although there are clear policy alternatives, we fear these will be torn apart in the vitriol and dog whistling of the campaign.
We know that in time we will need to apologise – again – to those vulnerable souls who will be demonised in the names of votes and power. And once the election is done we will need to turn our attention back to the task of persuading other Australians, and eventually our politicians, that there is indeed another way.
Associate Professor Sarah Maddison is also chair of GetUp!
This article has been co-published with Election Watch
Banner image: Asylum seekers behind a fence at the Manus Island detention centre, Papua New Guinea, in 2014. Picture: Eoin Blackwell/AAP