Part 6 transcript

Dennis Altman:

As I said at the beginning, I would like first of all to get some discussion on the panel. I think as we’ve sat and listened it’s become clear that there are rather different both interpretations and policy outcomes from what each of the speakers has said. So if you will bear with me I might ask Julian and then Marilyn and George and then finally Robert who has just spoken, to comment on each other’s and then if we have time we’ll throw it open to some short questions. So Julian …

Julian Burnside:

Can I start by saying I think Robert’s position is a very courageous one because I know it goes against your moral instincts to be suggesting something that is on the face of it not very palatable. I wanted to pick up on a couple of things though because numbers are a really important element in determining what’s possible, then there’s a question of methods. You said that between ’99 and 2001, if I heard correctly, that 12,000 boat people arrived here. I think that’s incorrect. My understanding of the figures is that 2001 saw 4,000 and that was an all time high and the longish term average is about 800 to a thousand per year over the life of the Howard Government. You’re shaking your head.

Robert Manne:

There’s an excellent parliamentary paper, parliamentary library paper on this which I checked all the figures.

Julian Burnside:

Is this boat people? Or asylum seekers?

Robert Manne:

Boat people. It’s ’99, 2000, 2001 and it comes to 12,000.

Julian Burnside:

I don’t think there was 4,000 in each of those three years, but in any event, we can … I guess we can check somewhere. And it’s a while since I checked the Department’s figures. The other thing is, you’re saying that there’s an acute dilemma because the sort of friends of asylum seekers approach would in effect be a pull factor, in effect increase the numbers substantially and that involves an assumption that the deterrent measures operate to reduce the numbers. Now, it’s all contestable but I’m prepared to assume you’re right on the causation element but the question is, how many people are likely to come here, even if you add that we act decently. And I do think the danger of the voyage is probably the most significant deterrent. I mean, hundreds of people have died trying to come. It’s pretty clear that the people who do get here that way are pretty desperate. And so I wonder are we ever likely to see really big numbers of the sort that European countries get.

To put it in perspective our annual migration intake … if our annual migration intake of recent years were represented by the number of people in this room, this year’s boat arrivals would involve one extra person coming into the room. You know, on any view, demographically, it’s a very small number. Now if that increased to an additional four or five people coming into the room, demographically it would not be a problem and you could always adjust the migration intake as we seem to do year after year. The real key to it is, can we get some sort of political management of the public reactions? Because actually, when you look at the facts, I don’t understand what people are frightened about. Now I know that politics is a difficult area, it’s not my field, but I would be reluctant to go along with your theory simply because we assume it is too hard to persuade politicians to do the right thing and to actually lead rather than stir up fear and then follow. We’ve slipped for the last couple of years into the Jim Hacker style of leadership, which says “I’m their leader, I must follow them.” You know, they check the Newspoll and then they say – OK, we’ll do that. That seems to me not a good way to run a country.

Dennis Altman:

Can I supplement that point because I’d like to get Marilyn’s and George’s response and then give Robert a quick response. And then we’ll throw it open.

Marilyn Lake:

I completely agree with Julian, because … I wrote a biography of Faith Bandler a while ago, who was one of the national leaders of the referendum in ’67 on aboriginal rights and I was really persuaded in writing that – she worked for about ten years to bring that referendum the “yes” vote about. How absolutely important her moral and eloquent leadership was, you know, she was charismatic and she was a fantastic speaker, and I also agree with Julian in that I actually still think, you know, I’m an optimist, I still think if we had moral eloquent political leadership, that actually put those facts before people, that we still should cling to that hope that that will persuade people that there’s nothing that is so fearful. I think the continuity here with Deakin and democratic government in 1888 is precisely Deakin’s perception that with the advent of democracy in Australian colonies, in Victoria, which was completely novel in the world at that stage, you know, relatively, and he could see mob rule posed a new political problem altogether. And he caved into it. That was his choice. He was quite aware of what he was doing. I also think that what not so much scares people, but what really annoys people about uninvited asylum seekers arriving across the water, is that sense, which I why I emphasise sovereignty, is that sense that the Australian people, that John Howard captured really well, want to think they’re in charge. You know, we’re in charge, we’re going to say who comes, get in the queue, you know, whatever language they use, but we have to be in charge of this.

So I think so long as we explain a process in which we’re still in charge, but it’s rational and fair, and it’s very interesting the figure that there’s a much higher percentage of those who come as boat people who are successful in claiming refugee status. I think if we can persuade people that we’re actually in charge of that, that’s our policy, it’s not been foisted on us by these people who come uninvited, then, yes, I think that should be … I think we need more eloquent moral leadership.

Dennis Altman:

I’m not asking for eloquent moral leadership necessarily but I’m asking for a response.

George Megalogenis:

Two things – one, I don’t think the electorate’s view on this is set in stone, I don’t think this is one of those places where a government or an opposition depending on who’s in power and who isn’t, can’t change the public’s mind. That’s the first point I make. And the reason why I make that now, and that’s the second point coming out of the election we’ve just seen, that was the most awful campaign in anyone’s corporate memory. It was the absence of any sense of where either party wanted to take the country. It was the absence of a call for a positive mandate that hung the parliament. So I think we’re in a quite rare headspace now where the first person who stands up and says, here’s what I believe and here’s what good for the country, may actually get a bit of a switch. And these switches are only at the margins anyway remember. What we were talking about in 2001 was taking an 8% primary vote from One Nation, halving that to 4% and transferring that 4% across to the Coalition column to decide an election that the Coalition thought they would lose. Not just on the asylum seeker issue but these are pretty narrow caste transactions. Now as the Labor Party found in the election just been, where they lost their majority but the people didn’t want to embrace a change of government so they hung the parliament, was that there was actually a bigger group to their left now than Howard ever had to contend with to his right when Hanson was running amok. So, you add the Coalition primary and the Hanson primary in ’98, you don’t get to 50%, but if you do add the Labor and Greens primary in 2010, you do get to 50%. So a lot of things are obvious with the benefit of hindsight but Labor would have been much better placed in this debate if (a) they didn’t take the hit in 2001, didn’t feel … and I’m arguing political assessment here, I’ll take the emotion out of it, if Labor didn’t allow itself to be hoodwinked in 2001, and then when they had power in 2007, had a good idea of what they wanted to do with it when the boats came back, and clearly that was the failure of leadership with Kevin Rudd. He didn’t have another system in place, and he had a mandate for another system, because remember, John Howard lost Bennelong in 2007 and any Labor spin could interpret that as a cosmopolitan protest vote. So you could have done anything with that mandate and the reason why they are looking at a hung parliament is that Labor didn’t lead on a number of issues. They’ve got a second chance I think, but that’s only because the uniqueness of a hung parliament, Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott are pro-asylum seeker, amongst other things.

Dennis Altman:

Robert, do you want to make a quick response now?

Robert Manne:

Yes. Is that all right? I’m absolutely in your power sir. But a short one.

Dennis Altman:

Well, the other possibility that I’m … if you’re happy with this, is a couple of very comments or questions and then give all of the panel …

Robert Manne:

Well, perhaps I could say something about Julian and Marilyn very briefly. I think the opposition to boat arrivals is insane and distressing. I also don’t believe that either the death of the Rupert Murdoch and the end of the horrible News Limited, or political leadership can easily change the attitude. And I think … it’s strange, because even more than Marilyn I think the weight of history is very real, and that Australians I don’t think are in any obvious sense racist any more, as they once were. And I don’t think, and I know from the polls that they don’t oppose refugees, that’s what they say. They do oppose the uncontrolled nature of boat arrivals. I think that goes very deep. And I don’t think it’s a lack of moral leadership that leads to that, I think it is very deep in the national psyche and I think it was actually even there before Tampa. I think Howard was late in the peace and that he got onto something and I think there’s a poison now in the political culture to which we haven’t found the antidote. I think that to be honest, if Labor allowed boats to continue to arrive but in particular also scrap mandatory detention, which they’d have to. Mandatory detention cannot work for thousands of people, it’s a nightmare. Indefinite mandatory detention. And I think Labor would be very imperilled at the next election. I think it is now a really difficult problem for Australia. Other countries in Europe have muslim questions, I think this is our one. And it’s for these reasons it’s a message of defeat I have, but it’s a message that I think has to be argued very carefully.

Julian Burnside:

Can I just respond …

Dennis Altman:

This is where being a Chair becomes an act of pure bravado. I’m going to allow three very quick questions or comments and I am quite ruthless, I will be with you. Stand up as the acoustics are terrible. We’ve got a mike coming to you. Very briefly, and then I will give the panel a chance to respond to three comments or questions.

Daniel:

Sure. Well, my name is Daniel and I’m a student here. I’m also an activist in the refugee rights campaign. The thing that I disagree with Robert Manne on is you seem to take public opinion towards asylum seekers and arrivals as a fixed quantity and I think there’s a lot of evidence from Australian history and recent history that shows that these kind of fears can be overcome. You look for example, attitudes towards the war in Afghanistan …

Dennis Altman:

Not a speech …

Daniel:

Sure. The argument I think we need to wage with the Australian community is that they need to change their views towards arrivals. I don’t think we can make concessions to the fear. I think we need to take a stand and I think that’s what courage is, and I think that’s the kind of friendship that asylum seekers need. It’s why we’ve got to wage the argument. If we lose it, well, we’ve got to wage it.

Dennis Altman:

There are quite a few hands and I said I’d take three. I’m going to have to be rude. So it’s up the back. And then over here, and I’m sorry but there’s no choice.

Question:

I’m also a student here and an activist for refugee rights on campus as well as for students in Palestine. And my question is as well, Australia has a history of racist policies and mandatory detention in itself is a racist policy. And you look at the numbers of boat arrivals that come here and it shows that the amount of millions and millions of dollars that we invest in mandatory detention doesn’t make sense for the amount of arrivals. And I think what we need to address as well is not just the idea that people have that the media in itself constructs these fears. And government’s play up to it because it’s an easy way into elections like 2001 and 2010. And I think the argument here is why Labor lost the votes, is because it didn’t take on a left wing trajectory – it took up in the stance in supporting refugee rights and I think there is an avenue in there and I think you guys could address that aspect of it.

Dennis Altman:

OK, we have one last comment from you and then it will be over to the panel.

Question:

It’s going to be on a similar theme. You’ve picked the three Trotskyists in the room. [laughter]

Dennis Altman:

Bad choice on my part.

Question:

I want to keep it brief. I just want to say that I disagree with Robert because I think that the formulation that he put forward is actually capitulating to the right before you’re having the argument. It’s saying, well, if we actually win the left wing demand then the right will be emboldened by it, so in order to not let the right be emboldened, we need to capitulate to the right and actually accept this horrible process of offshore detention. There’s been a few mentions of eloquent courageous moral leadership but I don’t think we’re actually going to see it from politicians. I think it’s these friends of refugees in this room and right here actually who are going to provide it. So I just want to say Robert that politically, you know, it’s a wrong policy because it demobilises people but actually the people who can actually make a difference and start to build a movement that will provide that eloquent leadership is sitting in this room, I’m standing … and that the first step for it is the demonstration that you’ve all got the things for.

Dennis Altman:

This demonstration has been plugged sufficiently. Now, no more plugs for the demonstration unless of course Julian chooses to use it in his right of reply to marshal the troops. Look I apologise for this but I’m very conscious that we need to end at 5 to 2. And it is only right and proper to ask the panel now to have some last comments and I will do it in the reverse order in which they spoke, so Robert …

Robert Manne:

Well, to the three Trotskyists and to many others. I don’t for a minute think what you’re doing is wrong, in fact, for years, as Julian knows, I was involved in as much advocacy as I could and I don’t for a minute think that opinion is fixed for certain. And I think advocate and activists should bring all they can to argue the moral case. I was trying to give a political analysis. I actually think … I suppose one thing that is important to me is that I’m linked to mainstream politics. And I believe that it’s extremely important that the present post-Howard state of the Coalition does not rule. And I am very fearful that the Coalition may rule on issues like this and I think that it’s very important that there’s an opportunity now to push the political culture in a post-Howard direction because Labor will have to rely on the Greens in the Senate from next July. And I think it’s possible that opinion might even shift on the asylum seeker issue, although I think that would be one of the hardest. Climate change is much more hopeful. But anyhow I don’t want to say … I’m not trying to discourage moral activism and moral vision. I’m trying to give a political analysis from what I think is a reasonably realistic point of view. From someone who believes and is still within the mainstream.

George Megalogenis:

I think whoever won the election and it came down to the two New South Wales independents in the end, but I think whoever won the election had to demonstrate control before they could address public opinion. And one of the reasons we’re having this debate again, and it was one of the reason that we were having strangely in 2001 because John Howard did not have control of the borders in 2001 until he escalated with the confrontation with the Tampa and then the introduction of the Pacific Solution. Neither party has a policy that establishes control of this question and before they can address public opinion they need to make something work. Now, the hypothetical I’ll pose here – if Nauru does sign the UN protocol, then what we might have is Julia Gillard telling Tony Abbott, well, it’s no different to East Timor, let’s use both. And if Tony Abbott says no, let’s just use Nauru, she might then say to him, hang on a minute, you’re just being bloody minded, mate, Nauru is on the same page as East Timor and I’d like to use the two of them. And it’s just a hypothetical but I think a policy needs to demonstrate some sense of consistency before we can address public opinion.

Julian Burnside:

OK, a couple of points. First of all if the question is border control, again I think the numbers are an important consideration. This year we’ll have about 5,000 unauthorised arrivals but the number of authorised arrivals in Australia this year is about four and a half million. Anyone who thinks that’s a lack of border control is just on a different planet. Calling it border control is just alarmism. And unfortunately not enough people are calling the politicians on their gross distortion of the facts. Second, after the three quasi-questions, I do feel inclined to support Robert. I need to defend him. I don’t like to see an underdog being attacked. I actually think the regional processing idea in East Timor is capable of working. It all depends on the detail and one of the crucial … the two crucial elements would be, they have to be treated decently there and the process has to be conspicuously fair, but secondly, there has to be a guarantee of re-settlement quickly. You can’t simply warehouse them there the way we did in Nauru, waiting for other countries in the world to put up their hand. But if re-settlement is going to be immediately available to people, mainly in Australia I suspect, and why not? Then that may make the whole solution politically acceptable to the public. It’s just a roundabout way of doing it. So as long as those conditions were satisfied I wouldn’t be in fact opposed to the East Timor approach. The third thing is, and this is perhaps the most fundamental point, whilst I understand Robert’s political analysis, are we a community that is prepared to say, oh well, the public at large have terrible moral views so we’ll just roll on with that. You know, we can’t do anything about it so let’s just cop it sweet. I have real trouble accepting that. I still believe that the Australian public are basically decent, they can be persuaded to see things differently if they get the facts and the real trick is to get the politicians to acknowledge what the true facts are. Because if they do, then I think they will start to lead instead of simply following populist misconceived ideas.

Marilyn Lake:

Yes, well I agree with that position. I talked about historical legacies and there are clearly historical legacies. But I’m not clear about Robert’s notion of a national psyche. I’m not quite sure what that is. And I do believe that attitudes can change and I think clearly one reason, this is not an original thought, that such a large vote went over to the Greens, defecting from the Labor Party, is precisely the perception that Bob Brown offers leadership in this domain. So I think we shouldn’t capitulate and that we indeed should seek to persuade the public that we’re in control, that we’re in charge of this, that we will have a processing system that is fair, whether that’s done through East Timor or whether it’s done on the mainland – I guess East Timor might be more acceptable to people – and I also think it would be wonderful if Julian Burnside was a politician. [laughter]

Julian Burnside:

Forget it.

Dennis Altman:

Can I just say to those of you who didn’t have a chance to speak, and to those of you I made sit down, I share your frustration. I’ve also sat here for an hour and a half not being able to express any of my views on this issue, but I do want to thank you for being a very attentive audience, to particularly thank our speakers. I think that what this panel has done is I hope open up a discussion that will continue for a long time and I know that when Robert and I talked about this yesterday, we both felt that this was an important event, not so much because there would be four people speaking today, but because we need to think very seriously about our political strategies for how we take these issues forward. And that was what today I hope really has achieved. So thank you very much. I think some of the panel will stay around briefly so you can come and speak to them and let’s thank our speakers in the normal accustomed way.