Political Pragmatism And Asylum Seekers: The Ugly Truth of Australian Politics

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The recent decision by the ALP National Conference to back Opposition Leader Bill Shorten’s push to adopt the ‘turn back the boats’ policy toward asylum seekers undoubtedly represents a victory for the advocates of ‘political pragmatism’. Shorten will also be gratified that this victory has secured his grip on the ALP leadership ahead of next year’s federal election. Others, however, may wonder what this triumph says about the current state of political culture within Australia.

Shorten has been careful to clothe his ‘pragmatic’ stance in humanitarian language, arguing that the current system of offshore detention has prevented deaths at sea, and that preventing such deaths takes priority over all other considerations. But beneath this veneer of concern for the lives of asylum seekers lies a stark political calculation: this is an issue which, in recent years, has been electoral poison for Labor.

Opinion polls consistently report widespread public support for the Abbott Government’s ‘turn back the boats’ policy. The logic of ‘pragmatism’ adopted by Shorten therefore demands asylum seekers be neutralised as an electoral issue before the ALP can effectively attack the government in policy areas – such as climate change – in which it is especially vulnerable.

Seen in this light, Shorten’s declared desire to save the lives of asylum seekers is, in reality, a ‘pragmatic’ concern for the ALP’s electoral prospects – and his own political future. But it also raises a profoundly disturbing question: what does it say about our political culture when the ideology of electoral victory trumps the need of the helpless for effective political advocacy?

Labor apologists will point to the Conference’s decision to double the refugee intake to 27,000 should the ALP win government, as proof of Shorten’s good intentions. But if other countries follow Australia’s lead and refuse to accept asylum seekers or even to examine their claims to be refugees, good intentions won’t stop the collapse of the international framework for refugee protection. And while offshore processing might have reduced the numbers of asylum seekers drowning at sea, it has not stopped them risking death by boarding unseaworthy vessels.

The answer to the asylum seeker ‘question’ surely lies in effective regional processing combined with expanded refugee intakes, thereby obviating the need for dangerous sea voyages. That Shorten’s ‘pragmatism’ has driven him instead to adopt the ‘turn back the boats’ policy points to a worrying failure in moral leadership. That the ALP as a party has bought into this adoption indicates our political culture is very sick indeed.

© Copyright Brendan E Byrne 2018. All rights reserved. Originally published in Social Policy Connections as ‘Labor’s pragmatism and turning back the boats’.