Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Refugees and a contempt for the ordinary person

Viking1-420x0 This is a very simple post with a deeply heartfelt plea.

This photo shows Shri Lankan refugees on the Australian customs ship Oceanic Viking moored 10 nautical miles off the Indonesian port of Tanjung Pinang. They were rescued when their ship sent out a distress call. This Age story will give you more details as at the current position.

Neil Whitfield has carried two stories on the re-ignited debate in Australia on asylum seekers (here and here). Neil, I and many other thinking Australians are deeply upset with the way Australia's major leaders are handling this issue.

I do not think that either Mr Rudd or Mr Howard before him know how deeply upset we are.

There are, as Neil noted, some 16 million refugees globally excluding internally displaced persons. There is no way Australia could manage this current number. Hard choices have to be made.

My charge against Messrs Howard, Rudd and Turnbull is simply this. They are treating the Australian people as dumbies, incapable of forming a sensible view. They play to our emotions, not our thoughts. My further charge is they (and especially Mr Howard and his ministers) created an inhumanity in Australian thinking.

We cannot win on refugees, we all know that. All Australia can do is to help a little. So what we must do? Simple enough, I think.

The Government should release a green paper for consultation setting out problems and principles for discussion. Then a white paper setting out a proposed approach. This can lead to a formal policy statement.

With proper consultation, this would provide a base that I could at least understand and explain.

There is a current argument that Australians are just too dumb to understand serious policy thinking. This is crap.

I am, I think, reasonably bright in an intellectual sense. In most cases, the only difference that I have found between an intellectually bright and a dumber person lies in speed of learning new things. Certainly I have found no difference in what I would call moral grounding, the capacity to understand and value moral judgements.

The job of politicians who represent us all is to explain. Our leaders do not do this. They go for the short media grab, the immediate response. In doing so, they fail us all.      

Postscript

Instead of doing a new post, I decided to extend this post by bringing up and responding to a comment from Kangaroo Valley David (KVD). David is a regular commentator. The material that follows is not intended as a rebuttal, rather an attempt to extend the debate. I have inserted responses in David's material.

David wrote:

"Your post irritates just as much as I suspect you wished it to."

I was angry and disappointed when I wrote this post. Instead of trying to maintain my normal balance I was indeed deliberately writing for reaction. 

David continues:

"While I hold no high hopes for Mr Rudd’s response to this situation (and like many, was quite ashamed and embarrassed by the Howard era cold-heartedness) I think it is unfair to hang Rudd out to dry on the basis of media sound bites.

Maybe this is one time when the messenger (and I mean the media) really should be shot? Rudd operates (very successfully) in the given media environment. I just think you are selling both his and the Howard governments short if you believe that the only things achieved are those reported in the obligatory sound bites that pass for news these days.

I think it is the media which is treating (and thus profiting by) “treating the people as dumbies”, not Rudd, Howard, Turnbull etc."

David raises a number of different issues here.

To begin with the media. We can look at this at several levels. The sound bite problem has been dealt with extensively in commentary. There is no doubt that this, the need to get short excerpts, has distorted reporting. However, the problems go beyond this. The media has come to stand between us and understanding.

In the case of the treatment of the Sudanese refugees in Tamworth, the initial simplistic reporting of the matter in terms of black-white relations and racism went round the world. Deadline pressed reporters imposed their own views on the evidence. It took hours of research on my part to start untangling the issues. I did so in what were some of the highest trafficked posts that I have achieved. Yet the damage had been done. Tamworth, and by implication Australia, was racist.

Last night on the 7.30 Report Kerry O'Brien interviewed Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith on the Oceanic Viking affair. The transcript does not properly bring out the tone of the interview. I wanted to listen to the Minister. I thought that he was explaining things in a calm and rational way. Mr O'Brien's bleeding heart stood in the way of my understanding.

In talking about reporting I have deliberately chosen examples on one side. I could equally have chosen examples on the other.

Governments cannot control the sound-bite mentality, nor can they control the biases of reporters whose own views act as a filter between events and public understanding. They can control their responses.

Herein lies my specific charge against Mr Rudd. This Government did introduce long needed changes to the previous Government's policies. However, in his desire to appear tough, Mr Rudd played into his opponents hands. After all, it was Mr Rudd who gave the sound bites. You cannot blame the media for running lines that they have been given!

He could have gone other routes. Consider these line:

"Is the Honourable Member seriously suggesting that we should reintroduce policies that, according to the Commonwealth Ombudsmen, caused at least 300 cases of wrongful detention? Does he want to bring back a system that saw Australian citizens wrongly interned or deported?"

David continues: 

I would prefer to believe that all possible options have already been carefully, endlessly weighed, amended, discussed, and reconsidered by our Public Service, and that this is yet one more of those problems where any so called “solution” will inevitably lead to dissatisfaction for one or other (of the many) points of view which can be reached on this subject.

I wish that I could believe this. The difficulty that I have, and it is one that I have written about a fair bit, is that our public service has lost the capacity to provide independent advice.  

As a branch head in the Commonwealth Public Service I jealously guarded my direct lines to the Minister. Of course, I took Departmental views into account. Every minute I wrote to the Minister was seen in the Departmental blues circulated to senior staff. But it was my advice. I stood by it at a personal level. 

I resigned from the Commonwealth Public Service as this became harder. There was more interference. Suddenly I had to clear things. The policy issues I was working on had long pay-back periods in national terms of five to ten years. We were constantly flexible. Meet one barrier, go another route. Suddenly I had to report in quarterly terms. I said that I was to do x, why had I not done it?   

I tried to explain that x seemed important when I set the quarterly targets, but things had changed. We needed to do something different. This type of flexibility is impossible to justify when you are working in a rigid world.

Things have got worse since. Strategy piles on strategy, plan on plan, corporate reporting target on corporate reporting target. Minutes or memos have to be signed and counter-signed.

Say I wanted to do something new in the past. I would put up some thought pieces to the Minister. His staff would prepare a short overview and attach it to the minute. I knew the staff, knew their views, would have spoken to them. So no problem. Then I would put up a recommendation. Then implement.

Today I would have to first prepare a policy paper for consideration by the various decision making bodies in the organisation. If something really new, I might need a communications and risk management plan. All this would be reviewed for consistency with current policies and plans. Only then would it go to the Minister, and then after multiple vetting.

When Mr Rudd became PM he thought that there would be a repository of Public Service ideas that he could draw from to refine the new Government's thinking. Poor Mr Rudd. Not only were ideas not there, you try to think of new ideas when when your time is spent in a rigid system, but he couldn't get to those in the system who might have new ideas! New ideas generally come from those who want to change things, and there was no way for the Government to tap this.  

All this said, I am side-tracking. David is, of course, correct that any "solution" will leave at least some people dissatisfied. This is an issue that we cannot win on.        

David continues:

You now suggest a white, then green, paper be prepared. But this is just a ‘process’ – not a ‘solution’. H. Appleby would be delighted. The boat people less so.

My bet is that the cupboard is full of multicoloured position papers by this time and no miracle will occur if yet another review is undertaken.

David is, of course, right that I am focusing on process. I want the Government to set out its views so that I and others can comment in a sensible fashion. 

David finishes:

I have three simple hopes:
1 that a decision (any decision) is made shortly and then held firm.
2 that this decision is “less wrong” than all other possible decisions.
3 that you have had a nice day

David, as it turns out I had a very nice day! I agree with your first two points, although one of our problems is, I think, that discussion is too dominated by individual examples such as Oceanic Viking. By this I mean simply that we have become reactive.

Taking the Oceanic Viking as an example, it would seem to me on the available information that the Government has in fact done the right thing to this point so far as actions are concerned. If the people in question cannot be landed in Indonesia for a whole variety of reasons, then they will have to go to Christmas Island. This will be presented, wrongly, as a failure.

We cannot solve the refuge issue, we can only control our responses to it. Herein lies my problem. Right across the spectrum from the Government to the opposition to the media, the need to play to the domestic short term makes it very hard to deal with the issue in any sensible way.  

9 comments:

noricd said...

Thank you for saying what needs to be said, and often.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks, Noric.

Anonymous said...

Jim

Your post irritates just as much as I suspect you wished it to.

While I hold no high hopes for Mr Rudd’s response to this situation (and like many, was quite ashamed and embarrassed by the Howard era cold-heartedness) I think it is unfair to hang Rudd out to dry on the basis of media sound bites.

Maybe this is one time when the messenger (and I mean the media) really should be shot? Rudd operates (very successfully) in the given media environment. I just think you are selling both his and the Howard governments short if you believe that the only things achieved are those reported in the obligatory sound bites that pass for news these days.

I think it is the media which is treating (and thus profiting by) “treating the people as dumbies”, not Rudd, Howard, Turnbull etc.

I would prefer to believe that all possible options have already been carefully, endlessly weighed, amended, discussed, and reconsidered by our Public Service, and that this is yet one more of those problems where any so called “solution” will inevitably lead to dissatisfaction for one or other (of the many) points of view which can be reached on this subject.

You now suggest a white, then green, paper be prepared.

But this is just a ‘process’ – not a ‘solution’. H. Appleby would be delighted. The boat people less so.

My bet is that the cupboard is full of multicoloured position papers by this time and no miracle will occur if yet another review is undertaken.

I have three simple hopes:

1 that a decision (any decision) is made shortly and then held firm.
2 that this decision is “less wrong” than all other possible decisions.
3 that you have had a nice day

kvd

Anonymous said...

Jim

Sorry - I mixed up my whites and my greens, and then completely forgot about a 'policy statement' - would that be grey by any chance?

I like grey. Reflects reality, I think.

Anyway, being so decidedly colour blind, maybe there is hope for me yet.

kvd

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks for your comments, KVD. You were absolutely right to challenge me. I am not sure that my subsequent response on the post itself is as focused as it should be, but the dialogue is very important. In this case, a policy statement would almost certainly be grey!

Rummuser said...

Jim, in this debate, I as an Indian have no business to suggest anything. I however have strong opinions about the problem of refugees per se. You are of course in a different situation, but, in India, we have a completely different situation. Tamil refugees from Sri Lanka came into India fleeing both the Tigers and the Sri Lankan forces, we had Bangladeshis during the butchering that led to the splitting of Pakistan, we had and continue to have the problem of Tibetan refugees and the Dalai Lama's presence here. Bangla Deshi and Nepali refugees keep just pouring into India and are beginning to cause all sorts of problems with indigenous populations. As I write this, a much bigger problem is staring us in our face. I anticipate Pakistani refugees in droves sooner than later, and that will lead to problems not only for them but also for Indian Muslims.

What would you do as an Indian? An already over crowded country with many internal displacement problems, can ill afford to have such large refugee problems being created.

I for one, would say, seal off your borders and do not let anyone enter, come what may. If they drown or get shot by the border security forces, too bad. The message will go back that they are not welcome and will not be accepted.

Jim Belshaw said...

My comments were directed at the Australian situation, Ramana. There is no direct comparison. Australia does not face India's problems.

Just talking of Australia, one of my concerns has been the way in which the refugee debate has led to a coarsening, a hardening, of community attitudes, including acceptance of clear cases of individual wrong that would not have been acceptable in the past. I find that sad.

In a way, you last sentence captures this. You wrote:

"I for one, would say, seal off your borders and do not let anyone enter, come what may. If they drown or get shot by the border security forces, too bad. The message will go back that they are not welcome and will not be accepted."

It may be necessary for a country to close its borders for the protection of the community as a whole, assuming that a country can in fact do so. However, if this means that the country and its people then lose sight of the basic humanity of those on the other side, the country and people are poorer for it.

Rummuser said...

So do I find that sad. The problem however does not go away. The solution to the problem of refugees is to ensure that the situation from which they are fleeing is corrected by other countries. Let us take for instance two cases in India. The Bengali Indian resents the Bengali refugee from Bangladesh so, the latter moves to Assam, and there is even worse reaction to him. In Tamil Nadu, the Indian Tamil resents the Sri Lankan Tamil, and has been living in refugee camps at Indian tax payers' expense. How do we ever resolve these issues unless, all countries beset by the refugee problem, ie, perceived to be better off in terms of opportunities for a digified living, should ensure that governments like Sri Lanka and Bangla Desh should do everything possible to get to the same status. This will be a positive approach rather than being impotent for political reasons.

Jim Belshaw said...

Ramana, we are talking from the same hymn book, so much so that I will post on it. This is especially important for countries such as Australia that have been very lucky in economic terms.