The Rudd government’s new PNG solution to the asylum seekers problem is aimed at shutting down a filthy trade run by cynical and low-rent opportunists who exploit the hopes and fears of the most marginalised for commercial gain. Yes, we’re talking about tabloid editors.
There are two dimensions to the refugees issue. One is managing the problem itself – a relatively marginal one for a rich economy that leads the developed world on most economic metrics. The second dimension – and the trickier one – is the theatrics around the issue, a charade kept alive by attention-seeking sections of the news media and the frightened politicians they goad into one piece of policy knee-jerkery after another.
The facts of the refugee situation – however many times they are raised – don’t seem to register. What matters for the dying institutions of our news media is that this issue is an emotive, eyeball-grabbing one, encompassing age-old fears of brown skinned hordes shattering our cosy, white bread suburban lives. As such, it’s tailor-made for endless rejigging on the front pages of the Tele and the Hun.
So in the tabloid Murdochcracy, it just becomes a question of choosing from a range of instant outrage buttons to push – from “OMFG, The Refugees Will Destroy Our Way of Life!” to “Lax Security is Letting Terrorists Through the Net!” to “Those Bludgers Are Living in Luxury on the Taxpayers’ Tab!” to “Refugee Solution Will Blow Budget Surplus!” and, finally, “Won’t Someone Think of the Children!”
That the tabloid anger pendulum swings so shamefacedly from fanning fear of refugees to pleading for their humanity to calling for security crackdowns to castigating the government for the cost of security is neither here nor there. What’s important in media terms is that this story is easy fodder for fulmination and vein-popping outrage in dead trees media and on talkback radio.
Meanwhile, the refugee issue is manna for political parties desperately seeking to differentiate themselves and cover up the fact that most of the major issues we face are beyond the control of nation states acting on their own (climate change, the structure of the financial system and the global movement of people).
As with ridiculous questions about “who is best able to manage the economy” (as if Canberra is able to do anything about the global economic cycle other than to ameliorate its effects), it suits the political class to fake Churchillian “we shall fight them on the beaches” postures over asylum seekers
The truth is the global movement of displaced people across borders, fleeing failing or repressive states, is a global problem and requires international solutions. It also requires a debate in the Australian media, including the presentation of actual facts, about what is driving the movement of people.
For instance, the single biggest source of refugees last year was Afghanistan, a country in which Australia has had troops fighting for more than a decade in our single biggest international military commitment. Where is the media and political debate about the wisdom of that deployment? Neither side of politics seems willing to actually pose the question of whether our efforts in that quagmire are in our long-term interests.
Yes, the number of boat-born asylum seekers has increased. But beyond the tabloid-driven fear campaign, the actual impact of this influx on the vast majority of Australians is fairly limited. Keep in mind that Australia ranked 49th last year in the list of countries hosting refugees, accounting for 0.3% of the total.
None of this is to claim that finding policy solutions to the seaborne drift of asylum seekers is easy or that there are not costs involved – strategically, financially or morally. But it would help us all if we were spared the self-serving screeching of the popular media and the grandstanding of populist politicians who jump to its orders in the vague hope of appearing relevant.
(By the way, remember The Tampa back in 2001? Of the more than 400 mostly Afghan refugees who sought asylum in Australia, about a quarter ended up in New Zealand. Here they are.)