Sunday, July 21, 2013

Sunday Essay - more on Rudd and refugees

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?


Anonymous said...

Now this may seem inhumane and would certainly have considerable costs in human and probably financial terms (let's just ignore that) but if absolutely and rigorously enforced without exception (except for the inevitable exceptions) could well be reasonably effective in terms of stopping the boats.

Yay! Stop the boats! Boats must stop! Use the "proper channels"; how dare you risk life and limb to escape the risk of life and limb from whence you came, on a boat without seatbelts of the proper sort? Join the queue. Joy and multiple sundry rejoicements!

But hang on a minute; Jim proffers not a black and white opinion. What he says is "could well be reasonably effective".

Let me introduce the word 'grey' into the discussion. And also slippery, mealy-mouthed weasle words. Speaking of Mr Abbott:

Where is he when you need him? He said at one point that he'd take personal command responsibility for the ordering of our Border Protection assets to stop the boats. But lately this has slipped to a more nuanced (hate that word) response which now always ends with "whenever safely possible".

And the joke on you is, if you actually get here - to 'Australia' - you've not actually arrived anywhere 'Australia-like' in a legal sense - because we've excised ourselves! We no longer exist in any identifiable political, moral or prosecutable form.

Which I think is why we are losing the cricket. We need Warney back.


Jim Belshaw said...

I feel obliged. kvd, to come to the defense of anon. Am I being unfair in saying that if you want to shift anon's view you have to engage objectively on the issues?

Now I happen to disagree with anon quite deeply. But he gave us the credit of putting forward a coherent, to use his word, rant.

Now on you final point, maybe we are losing the cricket because of the absence of Warney. Or maybe because we have lost sight of the game.

Anonymous said...


Perhaps, with such terms as 'proper channels' and 'floodgates' I have simply become lost in a discussion about the Murray-Darling rejuvenation proposals?

I am just so used to hearing and seeing those terms used in a provocative sense in relation to the vexed problem of 'we don't want you lot here, unless you join a queue and look a lot like us' that I quite forgot myself.

Anyway, I offer my apologies, and complete support to my fellow anon. We shall henceforth together fight in the ditches.


Winton Bates said...

I don't think external pressure had much to do with relaxation of the White Australia Policy or with any aspect of our immigration policy. The issue is how we perceive it is appropriate for us to behave.
The big question in my mind regarding the PM's PNG initiative is how the people in PNG will react. If the boat people are motivated mainly by econpmics and the policy is 'successful' in stopping the boats, the numbers being offered settlement in PNG will be very small, so there is not likely to be a problem. On the other hand, if we are really talking about desperate people fleeing persecution ...

Jim Belshaw said...

I agree with you on the semantics, kvd. A case of words twisting.

The White Australia case is an interesting one, Winton. The historical analysis I have done points clearly to the importance of external factors including Asian perceptions of the policy. That had significant effects on both Government and those agitating for change. The policy itself was still very popular domestically. However, pressure may not be quite the right word.

The numbers question you point to is very important. Excluding all other issues, PNG doesn't have the facilities and won't for some time. I suspect the policy will unravel on details like that.

Anonymous said...

Forgive me kvd but I am a tad confused here. What exactly is it you want?

Is it that anybody who comes here by boat or other means should be welcomed into the community. We shut down all detention centres. Conduct background checks but only after they have been re-settled into the population and then somehow try and find those who aren't genuine refugees and inform them they have to go back.

And if the cost blows out as we accept more and more refugees genuine and otherwise and the associated administrative costs of keeping track, providing housing, medical and other sundries increases is it okay to raise the GST to pay for this?

I'd suggest 15% followed by a chorus of "I didn't want them to suffer but this is a bit high don'cha think".

Are you suggesting that we have an open door policy on immigration? If we as a country are acting like a pack of heartless rat bags (and maybe we are) and yet the number of boats keeps increasing what are the implications for a relaxation or abandonment of any restrictions?

I can hear them now, "well I'm certainly not proposing that we abandon any and all restrictions". Yeah? so what is it your proposing?

And finally I keep hearing from the Greens and other concerned citizens about how wrong this all is but nobody ever follows up with "what I think we should do is.....".

Okay, I get it, maybe the plan stinks. I already know what we are not supposed to do. I have had that drilled into my ear'ole by MS Hanson-Young, Christine Milne and others.

So how about telling us what we should do?


Anonymous said...

Hi Anon. Thank you for posing a quite legitimate question without much use of emotive language. You ask what it is we should do:

1. Medical check them; settle them into the community; process their applications. This approach would cost far less than the $200,000 to $400,000 per person, per year we presently spend on indefinite detention – a process which itself only produces a dehumanising effect upon the unfortunates involved.

2. Remove this as an ‘issue’. By that I mean we need national leadership which states plainly and consistently that the arrival of (let’s say) 25,000 asylum seekers (which number is automatically offset against our continuing humanitarian resettlement program – and is supported by both sides without demur) constitutes just a very small part of the problems which need to be addressed by this country.

3. A lesson in arithmetic: ignoring for the moment the offsetting noted above, a figure of 25,000 compared to a population of 22+ million represents a ‘problem’ equivalent to 0.1136% - i.e. a tiny bit over one tenth of one per cent. This is “opening the floodgates”?

4. Stop painting the entire 25,000 as crooks, thieves, liars, rapists, and terrorists. Recognise that those sorts of people thrive well in anarchy – not in a reasonably well-ordered society such as we have - so why would they come here? Recognise the vast majority for what they actually are: people like you and me who are fleeing oppression.

5. Finally: Raise the GST? By all means! I’ve been banging on about just that right here on this blog for years now. But not for this piddling purpose; more to address the far more pressing issues we face as a country – like a health and education budget out of control, yet producing less; an aging population; decrepit infrastructure; all things which affect all 22 million of us, not just one tenth of one per cent of us. (Do you actually appreciate just how much a GST rise from 10% to 15% would raise? Do you really think such a sum would be gobbled up in dealing with 25,000 asylum seekers? Please let’s stick with reality.)

Back to you, with my thanks for raising one of my favourite topics!


Anonymous said...

Source for that $200-$450 thousand per person, per year comment above:

Just stop for a minute, and say to yourself "$200,000 per person per year" and think what that could be spent more effectively upon...


Anonymous said...

Nice try Anonymous but, I disagree with all of the above.