Morrison and Nile – it’s just a lurch to the right

March 1, 2013

Some days, it doesn’t pay to log on and read the news.

It started when a 24 year old asylum seeker on a bridging visa was charged with sexual assault. It’s a serious offence, and not to be belittled or dismissed. Nor is it a situation where the facts are known, or a verdict obtained. Apparently the Opposition’s Shadow Immigration spokesperson, Scott Morrison, doesn’t care about that.

On the basis of this one arrest, Morrison launched into a speech full of deafening dogwhistles and rife with racism. Asylum seekers should have to conform to ‘behaviour protocols’ before being released into the community, he argued. Moreover, residents in the area should be informed before asylum seekers or refugees are settled there. While they were at it, there should be regular reports to police.

All on the basis of one arrest. No confession. No verdict.

It wasn’t long before Senators Eric Abetz and Cory Bernardi (infamous for his ‘halal by stealth’ comments) jumped in to support their colleague. Abetz thought it was all quite reasonable – after all, residents would find it hard to live next to someone who didn’t speak English well. In fact, he was prepared to go even further. We should make sure that police and health authorities be notified of an asylum seeker’s arrival into the community, just in case their ‘traumatised’ state led them to need intervention.

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott thought it was fair enough, and quickly pointed the finger at the government, using his patented ‘look-over-there-at-what-Julia’s-doing’ tactic. The media went along obediently. Even Malcolm Turnbull, who usually represents a voice of moderation in the Coalition, was silent.

Mind you, the government weren’t exactly quick to jump on the subject, either – not the Prime Minister, nor the Immigration Minister, nor even Kevin ‘someday-he’ll-challenge-again-you-betcha’ Rudd.

Of the major parties, only Opposition backbencher Russell Broadbent and Senator Doug Cameron spoke out against these sentiments, and they were voices crying in the wilderness.

Unable to contain her fury, Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young let fly at Morrison and those who supported his comments. Whether in the media (particularly when she held her own against some extremely provocative questions from Tony Jones on ABC1′s Lateline), or in the Parliament itself, she made it clear just how disgusting she found their ideas. She announced that she would be lodging complaints with ACMA, the broadcast regulator, and attempted to move a motion in the Senate condemning the vilification of asylum seekers.

Senator Sarah-Hanson Young

Senator Sarah-Hanson Young

Now, you might think that a motion like this would be a godsend for the government. Here’s a chance for them to get stuck into the Opposition, to paint them as completely heartless, and make even their own inhumane treatment of asylum seekers look better by comparison. Best of all, they didn’t have to bring it to the chamber. But no.

The major parties once more showed that – all evidence to the contrary – they are capable of bipartisanship – when it comes to silencing the Greens. The government joined the Opposition, and refused to allow standing orders to be suspended so that Hanson-Young could move her motion. They didn’t even allow the motion a full debate.

Later, one Coalition Senator in an Estimates Committee commented to Greens Senator Richard di Natale, ‘I suppose your colleague feels better now she’s had her say’. It was a blatant pat on the head to Hanson-Young, who frequently attracts criticism for being an outspoken, young woman.

So we’re left with this; a call for asylum seekers, who’ve committed no crime and are not even under suspicion of unlawful activity, to be treated worse than convicted sex offenders. Yes, worse.

You see, under Australian law, you can’t tell people if you know someone is on the Sex Offenders Register. Not even if that person is being asked to babysit your friend’s children. You can’t go door-to-door in a neighbourhood and tell everyone that a sex offender is moving in down the street. There’s no Megan’s Law here. But if Morrison had his way, innocent people would be subject to far harsher reporting conditions and invasion of privacy than those who commit sexual offences. Men, women, and even children.

All on the basis of one arrest. No confession. No verdict.

* * * * *

As if that’s not bad enough, New South Wales state politics took a sharp lurch to the far right of the Tea Party when Christian Democrat MP Fred Nile introduced a private member’s bill that would allow charges to manslaughter to be brought if the actions of another person caused a baby to die in utero, or be stillborn. It’s called ‘Zoe’s Law’ (Zoe was the name given to a NSW woman’s unborn baby who was stillborn after a car accident), and Nile claims it’s purely about protecting a baby from a third party – say, an abusive partner or a mugger. It’s not about abortion, he says: ‘This bill provides an exemption for medical procedures, which is the terminology for a termination or abortion’.

There’s just one problem with Nile’s claims. There’s nothing in the bill to prevent the pregnant woman from being charged. Nor is there any specification in the bill to say when a foetus becomes a ‘baby’. A woman who goes horse-riding and miscarries at 8 weeks could be charged. A drug-addicted woman who is in rehab, but even sober, cannot carry the child to term. A woman who falls asleep at the wheel. A woman on antidepressants or other medications that are necessary for survival, but which can pose a danger to a foetus. A woman on chemotherapy.

All of these women could be charged under the proposed ‘Zoe’s Law’. For all Nile dresses it up as some kind of compassionate protection for the vulnerable, this is no different to the tactics used by anti-abortion, anti-contraception, anti-choice groups in the US. There, a woman can be locked up in some states until she has her baby, and refused medication. It’s not a big step from charging a woman with manslaughter after the death of a foetus and deciding that preventative action is a ‘better’ option. It’s all hearts and flowers and cuddly babies.

And let’s just ignore the fact that this law would see women’s rights are abrogated to a completely unacceptable extent.

So, friends and neighbours, this is the double barrel we’re looking down. A Federal Coalition that – let’s face it – has a damned good chance of forming the next government. A notoriously conservative State government that, all too often, gratefully accepts Nile’s vote.

And a desire to criminalise the innocent in the name of ‘protecting’ Australians.

We’re supposed to be a society that enshrines the presumption of innocence. We’re supposed to protect the right to privacy and the right to live our lives. And we shouldn’t let flowery words and protestations of ‘compassion’ distract us from what’s at the heart of these proposals – racism, fear, and social control.


Gillard and the Bible – it’s all about the votes

March 22, 2011

By now, no one should be surprised to hear that the Labor government is firmly opposed to same-sex marriage. With the exception of a few outspoken mavericks, the message is pretty solid: no change to the Marriage Act. Add to that the fact that the Coalition have managed to gain traction – at least in some areas – with their accusation that the Greens are ‘really’ in power, and it was probably inevitable that the government would try to present itself as a distinct entity, policy-wise.

That’s exactly what Prime Minister Julia Gillard appeared to be trying to do on Sky News’ Australian Agenda last week. The result, however, was a series of incredible statements that delighted the Coalition as much as it enraged many Labor supporters and social progressives.

Gillard labelled herself a ‘cultural traditionalist’ – which is nothing less than a synonym for ‘social conservative’. Fair enough. There are plenty of social conservatives out there, looking to the past to provide guidance on how to live today. Many of them even acknowledge the fact that they need to set their personal beliefs aside when it comes to social issues. Not Gillard. Her loyalty to her ‘old-fashioned’ upbringing leads her to oppose same-sex marriage – even though the Marriage Act never contained an exclusively heterosexual provision until former Prime Minister Howard shoe-horned one into it.

Gillard’s newly-declared social conservatism is pretty selective, mind you. She’s staunchly pro-choice when it comes to abortion, a vocal supporter of women’s representation in the workplace and the rights of indigenous people to full participation in society. On the issue of same-sex marriage, however, she’s adamant.

But it was what followed this ‘cultural traditionalist’ re-badging that had jaws hitting the floor. Gillard – the avowed atheist Prime Minister – lauded the Christian Bible as a positive, foundational influence on ‘our’ culture. It is so important, apparently, that it is ‘impossible to understand Western literature’ – and, by extension, Western law and culture – without it. Not that she’s advocating religion, oh no – but coming on the heels of her avowed ‘cultural’ opposition to same-sex marriage, it’s not difficult to connect the dots.

Gillard talked about the necessity of understanding Bible stories. Which stories might those be? The story of how a man who threw out his concubine and their son into the desert because his wife was jealous? The story of how that same man was prepared to kill his remaining son to show his faith in God? How about the story of how a woman secured victory for the Israelites by first seducing, then murdering an enemy war leader?

The suspicion has to be, though, that Gillard – who’d just finished voicing her belief that heterosexual marriage had a ‘special status’ – had Sodom and Gomorrah in mind. You know, the story of the evil cities, destroyed by God because they were places where men had sex with other men?

But hold up a moment. Let’s take up Gillard’s recommendation, and really look at the story, which can be found in Genesis. There’s no indication as to why God wants to destroy the cities – just that there is an ‘outcry’ against them. The one instance where male-male sex is even mentioned is in a sequence where a group of men threaten to gang-rape two angels – and this happens after the descruction is decreed. And just incidentally, the sole ‘righteous man’ in the city tries to protect the angels by offering his daughters up as substitute rape victims. Not exactly the story most people tell, is it?

Gillard’s right – you can learn important things by reading Bible stories. In this case, you can learn that a story long used to deny same-sex attracted men equality is actually completely different.

Maybe Gillard was thinking of Leviticus, where there are a whole slew of laws set down for the ancient Israelite people – including prohibitions against male-male sex, punishable by exile. That’s fairly clear – but then why doesn’t Gillard have a problem with men who engage in sex with menstruating women? Or recommend that a man who curses his parents be executed?

Oh, maybe she’s just thinking of Paul’s letter to the Romans, in which he warns that those who engage in same-sex intercourse are evil and will suffer God’s wrath. But then she doesn’t seem equally concerned with gossips (read: leakers), who will apparently suffer the same fate.

All of which is a revolting display of cherry-picking, but ultimately, means nothing.

Why?

Because we are not a theocracy.

We are a secular nation. We have specific Constitutional prohibitions against any form of mandated religion. And make no mistake – for all Gillard’s claims that what she’s talking about is ‘cultural’, the reality is that she appeals to a religious text to justify her actions as Prime Minister in denying equal rights to same-sex attracted people.

Gillard is simply trying to hide behind a smokescreen, here. It’s not ‘religious’, it’s ‘cultural’. It’s not about exalting one religion’s doctrine, it’s about staying true to an ‘important part of our culture’. Classic spin – reframe the issue, change the language, and obscure the truth.

And it’s a fair bet that the truth, in this situation, is that Gillard is dogwhistling to the Australian Christian Lobby and similarly vocal conservative Christians.

It wouldn’t be the first time, after all. Despite Gillard’s protestations that she would treat people of all faiths equally, it’s very clear that the only faith she has any time for is that espoused by the most socially regressive lobby group in Australia. And why? Because it’s vocal. Because it consistently pushes the lie that it is representative of all Christians, who – when all sects are lumped together – remains the single largest represented religious group on the Australian census. In other words, it’s about buying votes.

This is hypocrisy on a grand scale.

It is absolutely nonsensical. There are no dire economic consequences foreseeable by removing discrimination against same-sex couples – in fact, a University of Queensland study suggests an economic boost from marriage licence fees and wedding costs. There are no dire social consequences foreseeable – the old myth that ‘kids need a mum and dad or else they’ll grow up to be juvenile delinquents or worse – homosexual‘ has been well and truly debunked. No one is seriously suggesting Australian society will shatter into tiny pieces because ‘Heather has Two Mommies’.

Labor’s oft-stated opposition to same-sex marriage always rang hollow. ‘We don’t want it because, um, it’s traditionally between a man and woman, and besides, the Marriage Act says so’. They hung their argument on legislation, and recently-amended legislation at that. Now, perhaps, we see what’s really at work.

Whether Gillard’s new justification is political expedience or an admission that conservative religious beliefs influence her far more than her atheism might suggest is irrelevant.

What’s relevant is that Gillard gave legitimacy to prejudice, and enshrined it in an appeal to a mythical Golden Age.

Maybe that will get her the votes she needs to govern in her own right at the next election. But those votes come at the expense of the hopes and dreams of Australians. In granting authority to a bigoted minority, Gillard has coldly dismissed the fact that she is condoning prejudice and perpetuating victimisation.

And who are those victims? They’re the people next door. They’re the people we work with, and socialise with every day. They’re the people who service our cars, fix our computers, stack our supermarket shelves and teach our children. They’re same-sex attracted people who simply want to enjoy the same rights as heterosexuals. They want to get married. As long as they are denied that right, the message is clear: they do not have ‘special status’. They are not ‘real’ couples. Their love is not worthy of recognition by the State. All in the name of votes.

And for that, Prime Minister Gillard, you should hang your head in shame.


A symphony of dogwhistling

February 17, 2011

Australian Federal politics hit a new low this week.

On February 15, funerals were held for victims of the Christmas Island shipwreck on December 15 last year. The media were right there to show us the terrible grief of the relatives, some of whom were detainees flown down to Sydney by the government. One was an eight-year-old boy who lost his entire family; only his father’s body was recovered to be laid to rest. It’s difficult to see how anyone viewing the footage, or seeing the pictures of a devastated woman wailing uncontrollably, could fail to be moved – and indeed, most of the commentary was entirely sympathetic.

And then there was Shadow Immigration spokesperson Scott Morrison. In a radio interview with Chris Smith on 2GB, he made it clear that he completely opposed the government’s decision to use public funds to fly the relatives down for the funerals, provide them with accommodation and then return them to Christmas Island.

He played the ‘waste’ card: ‘its only one of a litany of cost blowouts’.

He played the ‘lost control of the borders’ card: ‘as long as they will not stop the boats then these costs – whether its motels, or this incident, whether its excursions, whether it’s all the things that are taking place – none of that stops.’

He played the ‘community concerns’ card: ‘I think people would be, rightly from what they’ve heard, angry about this’.

And finished off with the ‘fairness’ card: ‘if people wanted to attend the funeral from Sydney, for example, who may have been relatives of those who wanted these funeral services, well, they could have held the service on Christmas Island and like any other Australian, who would have wanted to go to the funeral of someone close to them, they would have paid for themselves to get on a plane and go there.’

At every turn he was encouraged by Smith, who encouraged Morrison to ‘go hard’ to find out just how much taxpayer money was spent. In fact, Smith went even further, pointing out that no flood victim had been buried at public expense. Here, Morrison balked, but only for a moment. Together, they displayed an incredible amount of insensitivity and shameless exploitation of others’ tragedy.

The outcry was immediate from all sides. Yet the Coalition backed Morrison up. Fiona Nash said it was ‘entirely inappropriate’ to spend the money. Opposition Leader Tony Abbott refused to criticise, even going so far as to say Morrison had a point. Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey didn’t toe the party line, and even he didn’t directly address Morrison’s comments, saying only, ‘I would never seek to deny a parent or a child from saying goodbye to their relative’.

Even that mild criticism drew fire from within Coalition ranks, however. In an extraordinary attack, an anonymous ‘senior Liberal staffer’ charged that Morrison was only stating Coalition party policy, and that Hockey was guilty of manipulating the tragedy and grandstanding. The article went on to call for him to be sacked.

That’s right. Hockey, by saying that he would show compassion for bereaved relatives, committed an unforgivable act that should cost him his job. Morrison was entirely right to say it was a ‘waste’, and to insinuate some kind of special treatment that was denied to ordinary Australians.

Only Judith Troeth and Russell Broadbent – both of whom have frequently spoken out urging compassion and fair treatment for asylum seekers – actually distanced themselves from Morrison.

Eventually Morrison conceded that he might have erred – but not in the substance of his comments. He said nothing about his insensitivity, his shameless dogwhistling or his exploitation of a terrible situation. No, it was his timing that was at fault. This mealy-mouthed excuse for an apology was praised by Abbott as showing ‘a lot of guts’. And, lest anyone think there was an actual backdown happening, Abbott went on to say how important a ‘tough border protection’ policy was, even if they ‘went a little bit too far’.

A little bit?

That was just the start of a veritable symphony of dogwhistling this week. Senator Gary Humphries got his solo next, tabling a petition to Parliament calling for a moratorium on Muslim immigration and to give priorities to Christians. He hastened to assure us that he didn’t support the ideas in the petition: ‘Many muslims are my friends and I hope they’ll remain my friends’, he said. But he had an ‘obligation to fulfil or place before the Parliament points of view of citizens’.

Seems entirely reasonable, doesn’t it? It’s not that Humphries wanted to do it – why, some of his best friends are Muslims – but he just didn’t have a choice. After all, it’s important to make sure community concerns are brought to Parliament.

The petition was signed by three people.

That’s right. Three people are apparently enough to ensure that their views are brought to the attention of our highest elected representatives. What a wonderful democracy we live in, where even the tiniest of groups have such champions.

But it’s interesting how often this exact same petition, apparently the work of the Christian Democrats, seems to crop up – 48 times to date since 2007, according to the Canberra Times, by representatives from all sides of politics. Nor is it even the first time Humphries has tabled it.

Apparently Humphries thinks these three people have such an urgent and representative community concern that it warrants multiple submissions. And he has the backing of his leader.

The Coalition would have us believe they are just letting the voices of the community be heard, even if they don’t agree with the sentiments.

It begs the question – are the Coalition seriously suggesting that they table every petition they receive? When was the last time they tabled a petition calling for something they didn’t at least tacitly support? Let’s take same-sex marriage. There are dozens of petitions out there calling for marriage equality – yet a quick perusal of petitions presented to the House show that Coalition MPs (including Morrison) tabled only those opposing the idea.

So I suggest an experiment. Do exactly as the Christian Democrats have – get up a petition with three signatures. Call for the immediate release from detention of asylum seekers who are unaccompanied minors, either to extended family or fostering in the community. Send the petition to 35 MPs across the spectrum of Parliament. And see how many actually bother to table it.

The dogwhistling didn’t end with Humphries. Morrison got to make an encore performance, courtesy a suspiciously convenient leak to the Sydney Morning Herald. According to the unnamed source, at a Shadow Cabinet meeting last year, Morrison apparently urged his colleagues to ‘capitalise’ on anti-Muslim sentiments in some areas of the Australian community, particularly the ‘failure’ of Muslim immigrants to ‘integrate’. Apparently this drew sharp criticism from Foreign Affairs Shadow Julie Bishop and former Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock, who pointed out Coalition immigration policy was ‘non-discriminatory’. Ruddock, it seems, was particularly vocal.

Philip Ruddock. The man who oversaw the shameful conduct of Australia over the Tampa crisis.

Other attendees at that meeting agreed there was anti-Muslim sentiment, but thought it could be ‘misconstrued’ if they actively campaigned against Muslim immigration.

On the face of things, this looks like someone in the Coalition took advantage of the current situation to metaphorically hang Morrison out to dry. But then there’s Steve Ciobo’s comments on AM Agenda this morning. While he wouldn’t comment directly on the alleged leak – pointing out only that he wasn’t there so couldn’t say if it was true, he was more than happy to wax lyrical on the general question of immigration – and this is where the dogwhistles became deafening.

It was almost possible to play ‘dogwhistle bingo’ with what he said.

The Coalition are ‘listening to the voices of the community’.

There are ‘community’ concerns about migrants who apparently don’t want to ‘integrate’.

‘The Australian people’ have a genuine concern that people who come to our culture, which is ‘quintessentially Australian’, should ‘embrace Australian values’.

We have to remember that Tamil Tigers – terrorists who are known to target innocent civilians – came in ‘illegally’ on boats. And Labor made it easy for them to do it.

Well that’s my scorecard filled up.

At no time did Ciobo distance himself from Morrison’s alleged comments to Shadow Cabinet. Oh, he didn’t come right out and say he agreed, but then he didn’t have to, did he?

The ‘leak’ is convenient. It allows the Coalition to insulate the leadership and be seen to repudiate the most extreme statements against asylum seekers – and Muslims in particular – while clearly signalling their affirmation of the general idea. Morrison is a perfect mouthpiece for this; he’s already in trouble this week over his comments about the funerals, and is well-known for his hardline stance against boat-borne asylum seekers.

The fact that there’s no condemnation of Morrison is telling, as is the fact that so far, the only people to speak on the matter have been those who claim they ‘weren’t there’. Shadow Environment spokesperson, Greg Hunt, made the by-now familiar statement that the Coalition is all about fairness and equal treatment – but went on to say he endorsed the Coalition’s suggestion that government funding be cut to ‘Islamic’ schools in Indonesia. Why? Community concerns. ‘I think you’ll find that lots of people have very strong views,’ he said.

Interesting that the Coalition only seems interested in listening to those that are anti-Islamic and anti-asylum seeker.

This week’s events come on the heels of a slew of xenophobic comments from the Coalition. Kevin Andrews – the man responsible for the shameful treatment of Dr Mohammed Haneefwarning about the danger of ‘enclaves’ of Muslims who refuse to ‘properly’ disperse into the community, and force us to eat halal meat and we don’t even know it. Senator Mitch Fifield suggested Australia would become a nation of ‘parallel societies’ where sharia law reigned in some areas. Senator Cory Bernardi – the man who called for a ban on burqas because ‘criminals’ might use them to disguise their identities – thundered about the looming disaster of a ‘cultural divide’, and urged us all to do something ‘before it’s too late’.

‘I, for one, don’t want to eat meat butchered in the name of an ideology that is mired in sixth century brutality and is anathema to my own values,’ he said.

It’s worth noting that none of these comments received any criticism from the Coalition leadership.

Unbelievably, Fifield also went on to caution us against the danger of ‘rising ethnic hatred’ – which could be prevented, he suggested, by making sure that ‘everyone’ signed up to ‘mainstream values’. Presumably, these are the same values to which Ciobo referred.

And just what are these values?

According to Ciobo, they are: respect for the rule of law, tolerance, and equal respect for men and women.

Yes, you read that right.

Excuse me, I’m just going to check on the neighbour’s dog. I think her ears may be bleeding right now.

This is indefensible. It’s xenophobia of the most despicable kind – an inflammatory mix of lies, fear-mongering and appeal to the idea that someone else might be getting a better deal. As for the unmitigated gall of suggesting that immigrants are all basically bigoted, sexist criminals …

There have been calls for Scott Morrison to be sacked. But really, what’s the point? He’s just saying what most of the Coalition apparently believe (with the notable, and commendable, exceptions of Troeth and Broadbent).

If the Coalition claim otherwise, they should be pursued until they either completely repudiate the sentiments or admit that. This shouldn’t be allowed to die with the news cycle.

And they could do worse than actually practise their own avowed set of ‘Australian values’.

UPDATE: The article calling for Hockey to be sacked has been taken down from the Menzies House site. The editor claims this is because readers objected to the fact that it was published anonymously. And just who were these ‘readers’? According to Michelle Grattan, it seems that one of them was Cory Bernardi. Curious, that. It should be noted, however, that the original article was attributed to a ‘senior adviser to a shadow Minister’, and that the site had agreed to their request to remain anonymous.

Perhaps a copy exists out there, somewhere. In the meantime, thanks to @Andy_Downunda for finding most of the text quoted in the Ozpolitic Forum, about halfway down the page.


Fear & buildings at the Press Club – the population debate

August 10, 2010

It was with heavy heart that I tuned in to the Population Debate held on August 5. With all the xenophobic dogwhistling from both parties, I fully expected that the ‘debate’ would actually turn out to be a series of arguments about whether Nauru or East Timor was a better place to put those dangerous asylum seekers, and just how many immigrants would be turned away. The presence of Scott Morrison – the Coalition’s spokesperson on Immigration – as the debating partner for the Minister for Sustainable Population, Tony Burke, seemed to confirm my worst fears.

So I was pleasantly surprised by Tony Burke’s opening argument. Immigration, he said, was only a short-term fix to the problem of creating a sustainable population environment. Making promises to reduce the total national number of immigrants does not address the real problem – that Australia’s infrastructure and population needs vary wildly all over the country. People in Western Sydney face intolerable traffic jams, people in regional areas face skills shortages. What’s needed is an approach that looks at decentralisation and regional solutions, not a one-size-fits-all solution.

He listed a series of government achievements: doubled roads funding, increasing funding for rail, decentralised housing programs. Then came a list of proposals to address the problem of our ageing population – increased superannuation guarantee, increased retirement wage and re-skilling programs.

Scott Morrison’s argument could not have been more different. Immigration, he said, has made us what we are today. When managed well it is a fair and orderly process, and the Rudd government inherited a program that ‘Australians trusted’. Then, out it came – ‘illegal’ boat arrivals.

Every boat that arrives takes the place of a refugee waiting patiently in the ‘queue’. Morrison painted the latter as bearing up with saint-like serenity while moustache-twirling people on boats took advantage of their purity for their own evil ends. These poor people in the queue are ‘orderly’, they deserve our first choice, Morrison said.

At this point protesters, who had somehow made it into the National Press Club, started shouting, ‘fair go for refugees’. Morrison’s response was to become louder and more strident, until he was nearly yelling to be heard. It was a stark contrast to Gillard’s calm, measured reaction to the protester in Queensland who broke in to her media conference on climate change.

At the top of his voice, Morrison laid out the Coalition’s plan for dealing with asylum seekers. Temporary Protection Visas for everyone, universal offshore processing on Nauru, and turning back the boats. ‘This is a battle of resolve and we intend to win it as we did before,’ he shouted.

Our population is rising, for which Morrison blamed the government. He gave no reasons to back up his statement. The problem is immigration; and infrastructure development won’t fix that. He finished by quoting Howard: ‘We will decide who comes to our country, and in what circumstances they come’.

Given the disparity in their opening arguments, it was predictable that many of the questions they faced would be about the asylum seeker issue. Asked about towing back the boats, Burke replied that although former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd had backed that idea, they now knew that ‘no country would accept a boat’, and that the boats would be scuttled. Morrison said a boat would be turned back if seaworthy, and pooh-poohed Burke’s response. It’s no great secret, he said, that people smugglers would ‘do and say anything to try to frustrate govt policy’.

When it was pointed out that a 1994 study on population reached 27 million, our quality of life would degrade sharply, Burke admitted that both sides had been way behind action on the issue, and that ‘we need to ‘fess up’ and address the issues. Morrison claimed he had raised the infrastructure issue as Shadow Minister for Immigration, but that the Minister had to decide how many people were going to come to Australia.

Burke also suggested that we should look at whether we can continue to put suburbs on top of our best soils, given our needs for food and water will increase. There was no response from Morrison.

Pushed to justify why asylum seekers were a threat to Australia, Morrison backed off. ‘It’s about the fairness and integrity of our immigration program,’ he said. The Coalition would rather see people from (for example) the camps on the Thailand/Burma border come here. ‘We’ll ensure the refugees come from the people in the greatest need’. Settlement in Australia was not guaranteed, he added; anyone in Nauru would be required to make applications for settlement in other countries. He went on to note that although the total number of acceptances were falling, people are still here because of the appeals process.

Burke tried to bring the debate back to infrastructure and decentralisation. Mining and agricultural areas need more people to fill skills shortages, while congested areas can’t handle what they have now. Encourage decentralisation, tailor the approach by the region and listen to what people on the ground need. Predictably, Morrison was having none of that. It’s about immigration, he said. Up to 30% of new immigrants settle in urban centres, and that won’t change in the short term. He also alleged that there would be no new infrastructure or services to deal with current problems.

Finally, in closing arguments, Burke stuck firmly to his ‘no immigration content’ plan. It’s not enough to say that it’s difficult to decentralise – ‘we can do this … we have to be willing to say we can deal with issues differently to how we did it in the past’. The mining boom, retirees moving to regional areas and the National Broadband Network will all assist decentralisation.

Morrison, too, stayed true to this theme. ‘Immigration has everything to do with it,’ he said. (Morrison’s emphasis). The Coalition would not surrender to people smugglers, it was committed to put Australia on a sustainable population path and had a real plan. He finished up by observing that Chris Evans, the Immigration Minister, was not there to debate him. Unsurprising, given it was a population debate.

So let’s break it down.

The Minister for Sustainable Population talked about upgrading Australia’s roads and rail, decentralising the population, looking at new suburban planning based on agricultural needs, better communications networks and a tailored, regional approach to the challenges of our diverse settlement patterns. He remarked that cutting immigration would do nothing to solve the existing problems or the problems of the future, and that asylum seeker policy was irrelevant to this debate.

The Shadow for Immigration talked about asylum seekers. And asylum seekers. And asylum seekers. He blew the dogwhistle so hard, and so often, that it’s a wonder we didn’t get reports of an outbreak of canine deafness in the immediate area of the National Press Club.

And what was he doing there, anyway? Who thought Morrison was a good match-up for Burke? It’s no wonder he didn’t speak to questions of infrastructure – his portfolio is Immigration (although you might be forgiven for thinking he was the Shadow for Stopping the Scary Boat People).

It was a completely mismatched debate. The question is, why? Did the Coalition not have anyone shadowing Tony Burke, who could speak on the issues? Nope – Cory Bernardi is the Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for both Population and Infrastructure. He would have been ideally suited to stand up with Burke.

Maybe Bernardi wasn’t available and they sent Scott Morrison along instead. Nope, still doesn’t make sense. Why would you send your Immigration spokesperson to take the place of your specialist on population and infrastructure? And if there was a replacement, why was it not announced as such at the start of the debate?

It certainly looks like the substitution was deliberate – as if the whole point were to drag Labor into an asylum seeker debate, so the Coalition could try to jam them up on the East Timor policy.

If so, it sends one of several bad messages to the electorate. Either: the Coalition has no policy for infrastructure and sustainable population; they have dismissed the issue as unimportant; they are unprepared to debate Burke; or they are trying to push this election so it is fought solely on asylum seeker policy.

And just on that last possibility? Today’s announcement of the Coalition’s communications strategy was overshadowed by an earlier media conference at which Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison announced the result of talks with Nauru about offshore processing of asylum seekers. When the broadband policy was announced by Tony Smith and Andrew Robb, the latter responded to forceful questioning by evoking – again – the spectre of the boats.

Add to that Abbott’s refusal to apologise for appropriating the image of an unseaworthy boat on which five Australian citizens died – not even an asylum seeker boat – for the Coalition’s scare ads, and the picture becomes depressingly clear.

The Coalition had a real opportunity to bring out some forward-looking policy. Instead, they chose to play the fear card. They could have looked at targeting immigration to areas looking for skilled workers – instead, they told us about Temporary Protection Visas and Nauru. You don’t do that unless you’ve got an agenda – and this debate clearly shows their hand.

The debate was a clear win to Tony Burke – and a big gain for Labor, since they showed they are able to separate asylum seekers from every other issue in this election.

It’s a pity the same can’t be said for the Coalition.


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