Kevin Rudd’s initial response to reports of the Ashmore Reef boat incident condemned the “evil trade” conducted by people smugglers - “scum of the earth” who “should all rot in jail”. He then proceeded to offer his government’s response: a “hard line, tough, targeted approach to maintaining border protection for Australia”. And thus, the parameters of public debate were set. Asylum seekers are the victims of people smugglers, who represent a real security threat to Australia.
People smuggling, however, is not a security dilemma. It is a humanitarian challenge.
The smuggling of human beings across borders is an insidious trade, preying on some of the world’s most vulnerable people - those stateless, fleeing persecution. There are few who would argue with this and yet, by focusing the debate on the relative efficacy of the government’s border protection policies, the Rudd Government has adopted a line of reasoning completely out of touch with the heart of the refugee issue. Experts have long argued that asylum seekers arriving by boat do not represent a real security risk to Australia.
The Rudd Government’s overhaul of legislation relating to asylum seekers and refugees has been bold and brave, doing away with the Pacific Solution, temporary protection visas and indefinite detention. This is the first time, since making these changes, that the government has been seriously challenged on its policy decisions. Rather than standing proudly by changes that brought about a more just system, hailed by groups such as Amnesty International, our politicians have retreated to the border protection discourse that has proven so electorally successful for governments in the past.
They have failed to engage the Australian public in a productive debate regarding the very real and difficult humanitarian dilemmas that this latest tragedy involving boat people represents. If the opposition has exploited the issue, this has been made possible by a government that has bought into an old and familiar discourse.
It is one thing for the Rudd Government to enact positive policy change. It is another to successfully shift the parameters of public debate and bring about real socio-political transformation. The language used by those in positions of public authority is inordinately significant to the evolution of popular mindset.
One purpose of moral discourse is to shape practical responses to ethical dilemmas - how to act in a particular situation so as to promote justice. This is a debate that needs to take place in Australia, if effective and just responses to questions of people smuggling and refugee integration are to be properly addressed. Rather than scrutiny of the relative efficacy of present and previous governments’ border security policies, the energy of public debate in Australia must be refocused. Reform of refugee determination processes, investment in conflict-ridden source countries and better dialogue with transit countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia are just some of the issues that could form the heart of public discussions.
Until dominant discourses reflect the reality that people smuggling is a threat, not to the physical security of Australia, but to the lives of those individuals caught up in it, it seems unlikely that progress in this area can be made. The securitisation of the asylum seeker issue by successive Australian governments is reflected in a news media response that is far from measured: security threats allow for dramatic headlines and emotional public outcry.
Dominant discourses can be changed, can be rendered socially responsible and ethically appropriate to reality. While shifts in discourse usually happen over time, organically, and unintentionally, it is a mark of great leaders that they have the prescience to direct such change. Barack Obama’s recent attempt to reverse the nuclear arms race represents such an effort.
To an audience in Prague, he declared: “A call to arms can stir the souls of men and women more than a call to lay them down. But that is why the voices for peace and progress must be raised together”. While the path to a nuclear free future will be long and difficult, Obama wisely chose to make the first step a discursive one, for he knows that if he can transform the lexis, the battle is half won.
The Rudd Government - the same government that so recently successfully reoriented Australia’s discourse on indigenous reconciliation - is reluctant to challenge entrenched public discourses on illegal immigration. And yet, until it does, debate in this country will not move forward.
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