Reaction to yesterday's post, Mr Rudd's shame, provides the entry point for this post. One of the difficulties of this type of debate lies in the way that different things get mixed together. Debate takes place at multiple levels, with apparent responses at one level actually triggered by other levels. It becomes very difficult to untangle it it all.
A Personal Perspective
Back in May 2011, I supported Julia Gillard's Malaysian solution (When perfection's not possible: Gillard & refugees) as possibly the best result from a difficult situation. There I tried to outline a few basic principles that guided my reaction. In November 2011, I wrote in a round-up post:
I haven't commented on the latest race to the bottom on Australian refugee policy. Back in May 2011, I supported the proposed "Malaysian solution" (When perfection's not possible: Gillard & refugees) as a possible path. Now Opposition, Greens and Government between them have delivered the worst possible outcome.
I know from conversations just how polarising this issue has become. My friend and fellow New Englander Paul Barratt has been blogging on the broader issue. The insanity of Australia excluding itself from its own migration zone makes me wish for Monty Python.
I am repeating this background now so you know my position. I have, I think, been consistent.
Life is riven with contradictions. One principle of the the political school I grew up in, I have called it New England populism, was that any government action involved some restriction on the freedom of some. We called it the oppression of the minority by the majority. For that reason, all Government actions must be subject to scrutiny. But that school also saw a strong role for Government in reducing oppression and in achieving the common good. This built an inherent tension into the political philosophy, a tension that could only be overcome by careful analysis to delineate the issues.
This view was in part captured by a commenter attempting to put the pro-restriction side.
However, the flow of this debate is so predetermined-lest we step out of line on this, one sided - only the intelligentsia get a say and littered with preconceived ideals that I felt someone should show the other side of the coin.
Pardon me if I don't go with the flow on this but maybe a more rational policy could be formulated if all sides of the argument were heard rather than badging views that differ to yours as worthy of "nonsense more usually heard on talkback radio?"
My commenter stated, accurately enough, that he (she?: I think that it was a he) represented a very popular stream of opinion. Now without getting caught too much in the detail, I want to devote this short Sunday Essay to a delineation of some of the issues.
The Right of the Group
In a comment, kvd wrote:
But if you are willing, I'd like you to expand upon your I believe that any nation or group actually has a right to determine who should belong comment?
To my mind, all groups have the right to determine membership. However, this is not an unqualified right, for groups sit in a hierarchy that forces qualification on that right. Let me illustrate by example.
I was a member of a male club that was forced by law to admit female members. I objected. I was also resentful that certain female social organisations were allowed to remain gender based simply because they were female. I did not object to Rotary Clubs, for example, admitting female members. That struck me as very sensible. But it was a decision of the clubs in question, whereas in the case of the club I was talking about the change was imposed by force. Hence my resentment.
Australia is a bit like that club. We have the right to determine who should be admitted to the country, as does Japan. We have chosen by majority, although some still disagree, to be an open multi-ethnic society. Japan chose a different route. Both choices involve costs and risks.
Those choices were not made in isolation. All groups face external pressures. In Australia's case, the White Australia Policy was abolished in part because of the costs it imposed on the country via external reaction. Japan was able to maintain what is in effect ethnic exclusivity because that approach was not subject to effective external challenge.
In setting our group entry approach, Australian chose to join the refugee convention. Here we qualified the group's right to determine entry by accepting an externally created obligation. We did so in a very particular context, but the principle remains. Now we chafe at the constraints imposed. We seek to work our way around, to modify or even abrogate the convention.
That is our right as as a group, but it places us in a difficult position. Logically, if we disagree with the convention, we should withdraw. But we can't actually do that because of the costs and risks involved. So we temporise and try to fiddle.
Internal vs External Dynamics
All groups have their own internal dynamics. Those in positions of authority play upon those dynamics to maintain authority. In doing so, they appeal to group norms. The internal debates can be heated, for they involve questions of comfort and power. As indicated, all groups have to deal with external reactions. The interaction between the two determine what will happen.
I accept that I am restating things said earlier, but I have in mind a slightly different point.
To group members and those in power, the internal reactions are critical up to that point where external responses impose their own dictates. Many times on this blog I have cautioned about the way that Australia ignores external responses. By the time that external responses start to dominate, the group has actually lost its power to control its own destiny. That is an opinion, although I think that it is based on evidence.
In the current case, this is another opinion, my perception is that in the heat of the internal debate an internal issue has become so important that all sight has been lost of external considerations.
The Importance of Facts
To introduce this segment, let's look at just what Australia is paying for the PNG deal over and beyond direct costs. We have agreed to, and I quote from Mr Rudd:
We've agreed that Australia will now help with the redevelopment of the major referral hospital in Lae and its long term management needs.
We've agreed to fund 50:50 the reform of the Papua New Guinea university sector including next year by implementing the recommendations of the Australia-PNG education review.
We've also agreed to help PNG with the support they have sought in professional management teams in the health, education and law and order portfolios.
And Australia, Prime Minister, stands ready to assist PNG further with other development needs in the future.
So apart from the direct costs, we have agreed to what appears to be some very major funding commitments. Don't get me wrong, I am not opposed to those funding commitments in the context of our relations with PNG, just questioning the price that we are paying for our refugee solutions.
I have never seen a proper objective analysis of the price we are now paying for current refugee approaches, nor have I seen any benefit maximisation analysis. Now that we are spending so much. surely we are entitled to ask the question are we getting best value for money? I would have thought with the sums now involved, that that that was a reasonable question.
Will it all Work?
This is actually a very slippery question, for it depends upon the meaning attached to the word work. What is our objective?
If the aim is just to stop the boats, the most cost effective way is simply to destroy them. An alternative view was expressed by anon:
Finally here's a thought. Some may see this as cruel and inhuman but I bet it would stop the boats. Why not make it that the only way to be granted residency in this country is to arrive through the proper channels. If you arrive by boat or overstay your visa you will not be granted residency ever. Increase the intake if that's what you want but send out the message that nobody gets to stay unless they apply like many thousands of others have.
Now this may seem inhumane and would certainly have considerable costs in human and probably financial terms, but if absolutely and rigorously enforced without exception, could well be reasonably effective in terms of stopping the boats,
By contrast, the latest Rudd approach poses considerable risks.
A Question of Balance
I struggle a bit to understand why this matter has become just so important in political terms. I have listened to some really heated arguments. It's become another of those touchstone issues relating to divisions in Australian society.
To my mind, its a practical problem. We accept the refugee convention, We have a problem to which there is no perfect solution. What are our most cost-effective options taking our values into account? How do we preserve our own values in the response? Can anyone tell me that?