Inside Cover, Australian Times, 29/11/11

Karl Mathiesen

Also published on tasmaniatimes.com

This week’s decision by the Gillard government to ditch laws that discriminate between asylum-seekers coming to Australia by sea and those who come through airports could be the first step on the government’s road to redemption – even if they took it for the wrong reasons.

Labor is in a world of pain at the moment, with polls consistently showing Tony-and-friends kicking the crap out of them by 12-15 points.

The asylum-seekers issue has been a dependable loser for Labor for more than a decade.  Abbot has managed to turn the issue against Labor particularly effectively.  Especially when you consider that boat arrivals under Gillard’s premiership have actually decreased since their peak in 2010.  The political debate consistently ignores that Australian government policy is a marginal factor affecting boat arrival numbers; rather more influential is the global refugee context.

The Coalition’s success is rooted in Abbott’s special brand of populism.  He defies the polls that show the majority of Australians saying that they want people’s refugee claims to be assessed in-country.  Instead he whispers to that dark corner of the Australian psyche that harbours fears of the peril flooding over the white picket fence.  Abbott tickles the little bigot in all of us, the part that hopes desperately for things to stay always the same.

Labor’s (and particularly Gillard-Labor’s) failure has been their errant desire to beat the Coalition at their own game – only to find that they aren’t actually very good at it.  Meanwhile they have been haemorrhaging votes to the left and the Greens are like vampire bats in a bison stampede.

The recent policy shift – or ‘backflip’ as the bloodhound media have predictably labelled it – has been precipitated by the High Court’s ruling that the Malaysian Solution is illegal under Australian law.  (Does anyone else find it eerie that we have adopted Nazi jargon to describe our methods of processing “illegal” foreigners?)  Having nowhere to go and unwilling to give the Coalition the satisfaction of returning to the Howard-era Pacific Solution, Labor has suddenly, gaspingly stumbled into the rarefied air of the moral high ground.

This move will be popular with many of the same voters who have supported Abbott’s hard-line stance.  Why?  Because we are a schizoid nation, and from our opposite shoulder we yearn to be better than we are.  This part of us craves a leader that tells us “Yes, we can”.  The Gillard government has been a government scared to lead, cowed by focus groups and opinion polls.  It is a sniffing elitism that disbelieves in the vast potential of the Australian people.  This deficit of leadership relegates us to Abbott level.

More courageous leadership will carry the political agenda, raise debate, reignite Ben Chifley’s guttering vision and (to borrow from Abe Lincoln) appeal to the better angels of our nature.

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