The politics of unlawful boat arrivals could be to the modern Labor Party what the Split of ’55 was to their predecessors.
The recent news that there had been no unlawful boat arrivals in Australia for over five weeks, after tough measures from the Abbott government, came as no shock to rational observers of the political scene, but the bewilderment and fury it caused to the Left and the Labor Party provided some light entertainment. Torn between triumphantly claiming that the government had somehow ‘failed’ and condemning the government for succeeding unfairly through secretive methods, the Left have clearly been unable to come to terms with this issue in the 12 years it has featured prominently in national affairs. Much worse for the Left is the recent polling released by Essential Vision and UMR Research which shows not only that the Abbott government is on the right side of the politics of irregular migration, but also that there is no prospect of recovery for the Left. Handled properly by the Liberals, the politics of migration could be no less potent for them, and just as lethal for the Labor Party, as Communism and the Labor Split were up to the 1970s.
First we’ll look at the breakdown of the polling to reveal how deadly this issue will continue to be for Labor. The standout figures from UMR Research are that 60% of those polled agreed that the “Australian government should increase the severity of the treatment of asylum seekers“, while 59% disagreed with the statement that “Most asylum seekers that arrive by boat are genuine refugees“. In addition to this, 59% of respondents said that refugees should not receive welfare assistance from the government. As this polling was collected in December 2013, at the height of the Abbott government’s military operations, it’s difficult to conceive of a hypothetical measure the government could take, short of actually torpedoing the boats, that wouldn’t receive majority support from the electorate.
The latest Essential Media Research polling largely reinforces these findings. 35% of respondents say the government is “taking the right approach” to asylum seekers while 25% say the government is “too soft“. Only 22% of those polled said that current policy was “too tough”. So as things currently stand we could summarize as follows: a little over a fifth of the electorate actually oppose the government’s policies from the Left and are theoretically receptive to Labor’s criticism of the government. At least 60% are openly hostile to the Left’s policies – this is further evidenced by the 60-63% polled during the Gillard years who replied that asylum policy then was “too soft” – while the remainder are apathetic or acquiescent. Given that the opponents of the government’s tough line on boats are already in the tank for Labor, and also that the same people have a disproportionate influence on Labor policy, there is simply no room for Labor to move at all, so long as boat arrivals remain a live issue in politics.
If we go further into the UMR data, the Labor Party’s troubles are if anything compounded. The 30-49 year-old demographic go 62% in favour of ramping up deterrence measures against unlawful boat arrivals. The 50-69 demographic are 61% in favour, with 68% of voters aged 70+ supporting a harder line. But even among the millennials aged 18-29, a plurality of 48% support tougher policies on boat arrivals, with only 40% disagreeing. Finally, some of the harshest attitudes to boat people are found among those earning less than $40,000 per year, with 65% wanting a stricter approach; this rises to 70% among voters with TAFE or trade qualifications. These figures are absolutely diabolical for Labor, because not only are they unable to gain traction on the issue in the present, the demographics ensure there is no possibility of their ever being able to draw breath so long as illegal migration, or the mere prospect of unlawful boat arrivals, is a matter of public importance. It would take about 30 years, assuming a substantial turn-around in the attitudes of younger demographics, before Labor might be able to re-enter the debate and win the issue on their own terms. But there is nothing in current polling data pointing to that as a likely outcome.
By contrast, the Liberals have an opportunity to make anti-illegal immigration the anti-Communism of the 21st Century – in effect, a silver bullet topic that instantly disqualifies the opposition from serious consideration, simply on account of the topic being raised and discussed. The beauty of this is that the merits of the issue itself are not even the most salient factor, although in this case it’s difficult to think of any policy that has been more thoroughly trialed and refuted by experience, on its own terms, than the Labor government’s asylum policy post-2008. What makes this matter so potent, and poisonous, is that the Left have no way of even being able to approach it in a level-headed and rational manner. They can’t neutralize it in the same way that the Liberals shook off Work Choices, due to the history of unlawful boat arrivals in Australian elections.
The starting point is that an entire generation of Left political activists, policy advisors and pundits have been reared on the following myth – that John Howard stole the 2001 election on a xenophobic lie, that the selfish electorate refused to see the light after the lie was exposed, and even had the nerve to vote in greater numbers for the wicked Howardian usurper in 2004, and that the stupid voters cared more about their McMansions than human rights. Such total paranoia on the Left is compounded by the sequel – what was supposed to have been a long period of progressive political dominance post-2007 was derailed once more, this time by the Abbott Liberals’ campaign of racist hysteria against the non-existent flood of boat arrivals. This distraction along with Labor’s vacillating response caused them to lose office prematurely at the hands of ungrateful voters, before the government had a proper chance to bed down their enlightened and self-evidently correct policies. What we are looking at here is the Australian Left’s Dolchstoßlegende, and as with the German Right’s irrational obsessions of the inter-war years, the Myth cannot be critically examined without calling one’s motivations into question.
This hysteria is undoubtedly a good thing for the Liberal Party, because the facts, the background and the emotional dynamics guarantee that just as the issue is an automatic loser for the Left, it is also impossible for them to ignore/neutralize it. The opportunities for Liberal trolling and baiting are endless as the Left are programmed to respond exactly as anticipated when provoked, usually by either condemning the government for cruelty and/or secrecy, or claiming ludicrously that the new policy has already failed. If you are still not convinced that the Left are operating in a vacuum of irrationality and self-harm, just consider that Labor truly believe they had a clever cut-through line about the Abbott government’s military secrecy – “They promised to Stop the Boats, but now it’s become Hide the Boats!” – it’s difficult to guess how they thought this would play with the 60% of the electorate who believe that the Abbott government needs to take a harder line, that the majority of boat people are not genuine refugees, and that refugees should not be entitled to welfare at all. The ABC/Guardian/Fairfax press have been especially helpful by trumpeting the alleged inhumanity of the Abbott government, how it is heartlessly returning desperate asylum seekers in leaky boats to Indonesia, and apparently getting the navy to physically torture them on the high seas! Such information is no doubt useful to would-be boat arrivals weighing their diminishing probability of success, as well as being reassuring to swing voters in marginal electorates.
So how can we string this out for the next generation? There is a temptation to assume that there will be less demand for people smugglers in future, because the world is getting wealthier and folk will not be as desperate to abandon their own country as they are now. This is mistaken. The poorest people in the world have no chance of raising the 10K-20K cash for an illegal boat journey – that’s why there are so many of them rotting away in refugee camps in Africa (and that’s precisely why said people should be the focal point of our humanitarian concern). But those in middle-income countries certainly have the resources to buy their way into the developed world, and we may find that even as the raw volume of misery decreases, the demand for asylum into rich countries may perversely increase. There is also the fact that for the next 20 years at least, the Howard/Abbott Aberration will be a formative experience for those who control and set the agenda on the Left. It’s not clear how they would even start to discuss a settled policy of boat deterrence with their peers, when to do so at present invites an accusation of racism.
It is very likely that the Liberals will have reduced boat arrivals to almost nothing by 2016. It is also likely that Labor will continue to make incredibly daft statements about the boats as they attempt to cover all their bases out to the next poll. Labor have taken at least five totally different positions to the voters since 2001 (agreeing with Howard; calling him a racist liar; let’s abolish the Pacific Solution but turn the boats around; the East Timor solution plus onshore processing; no onshore processing and you’re all going to Papua New Guinea!). These should be brought together in a snappy production to help voters revise the history of Labor’s paralyzing incoherence on boat arrivals. The video should finish off with a few more recent quotes that underline Labor’s confusion and debt to the refugee lobby. It must be explicitly warned that Labor will open the floodgates as soon as they get back in office. Another production could focus more on the human costs of open borders, in particular the 1,000+ people drowned at sea and the billions wasted on ‘managing’ rather than solving the problem over the Rudd-Gillard years, reminding the viewers once again that Labor were responsible for this state of affairs.
We should also consider how to talk to different constituencies about this important issue. Swing voters would be very interested in the merits of the issue – stopping the deaths at sea, re-gaining control over our national sovereignty, fixing Labor’s mess, and still meeting our international obligations in terms of permanent re-settlement of genuine refugees. But when confronted with a member of the refugee lobby or the anti-Abbott Left, it would of course be totally pointless to discuss with them the substance of the matter. Instead, the main focus of the interaction ought to be how Labor killed over 1,000 people, how Abbott is the nation’s saviour for blocking the ‘queue-jumpers’, how his policies have the overwhelming support of the Australian people, and that there is nothing the Left can do about it because they are the minority. This should elicit the usual accusations of racism, including expressions of disgust towards the Australian people, which is of course exactly the sort of tone that will damage the Left’s long-term interests. The more prominent Left-wingers we have out there calling Australians racist and yelling for open borders, the easier it will be for voters to draw the link to the Labor Party and resolve never to trust them again. Which in turn fuels more Left-wing paranoia, hysteria and hatred towards the electorate. This is a vicious cycle, and so long as they are not engaging with the issue rationally, they will never be able to neutralize it.
There are many angles to the politics of irregular boat arrivals, and I have only dealt with a few of them. No doubt others will have much more to add. What we can say is that this issue is not going anywhere, that all demographics are strongly in favour of a tight pro-deterrence policy, that this will not change in the foreseeable future, and that Labor could well face at least another decade (and perhaps a generation) of excruciating pain if the Liberals are able to keep the boats front-and-centre.