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.)

See also: ‘Captain Rudd Steers Australia Into New Depths of Shame’ – David Marr, The Guardian


Grumpy · July 22, 2013 at 5:46 am

The problem, is the tabloid media now extends from the ABC to the Hun and everything in between – it's wall to wall tabloid – with our public broadcaster well up with the leaders.

Tim Rust · July 22, 2013 at 8:36 am

Thanks, Mr D – Nice summary of the sad state of affairs in which we find ourselves

Anonymous · July 22, 2013 at 12:39 pm

OUr aunty journos keep telling me that vast reams of international and domestic laws are my opinion and then keep babbling the same crap.

aslsw · July 22, 2013 at 3:25 pm

Had me at the first paragraph!

Anonymous · July 22, 2013 at 5:56 pm

Everyone seems to forget that the largest number of asylum seekers arrives by plane. Boat-born asylum seekers are those who were unable to obtain a visa. It is much cheaper to fly to Australia then to purchase a place on a fishing boat from Indonesia. The solution would be to process asylum seekers in Indonesia and issue visas to those who qualify and advise people that if they don't qualify at the Indonesian processing site and take a boat then they will be transferred to PNG.
Transferring to PNG is only part of the solution – the key is offshore processing in the first place. To a certain extent that already happens – it's just a matter of obtaining a visa to arrive at an Australian airport.
As to the morality of the new ALP policy, it surely is unnecessary to say on this site that it has been driven by Abbott and Morrison – those who don't like it can vote for the alternative, because what is happening now would surely have happened under them.
We get the govt we deserve, and politicians will always lead from behind. Abbott and Morrison chose to exploit the modern-day equivalent of Menzies' “red under the beds” xenophobia of a western country in an alien environment. If those opposed to Rudd's cynical political cleverness are able to change the mindset of the mob in the critical marginal seats, then go for it.

mike · July 22, 2013 at 11:36 pm

Anonymous:I think it was Howard who really started exploiting this issue, although Labor had already introduced mandatory detention before then. Abbott and Morrison are just following in their idol's footsteps.

VoterBentleigh · July 23, 2013 at 7:03 am

Mr D., you have argued the case perfectly and concisely.

I also read David Marr's well-argued article for which he was immediately attacked by readers. The public have been served up falsehoods and propaganda by the media. I'm ashamed to say that I am one who initially was fooled by some of it – the border argument and the threat of terrorists entering. I am sympathetic to the views of Western Sydney, etc., as people in areas where there are less services often bear the brunt of any influx of population, but since our forebears came here for economic, political or social reasons, it is unjust to deny others the same opportunities. One of the big problems in our society is the refusal to admit that one is wrong. I was wrong and I am truly embarrassed by my past views. My only concern is how to people drowning at sea, but in terms of processing, I would be quite happy to see the asylum seekers processed here and given permanent residency. David Marr has suggested the issue needs to be dealt with more calmly and I agree. If that were to occur, then perhaps Indonesia and Australia could reach an amicable agreement about how to prevent deaths. Thank you to all the altruistic and intelligent people who have written comments or articles which changed my view.

Rolly Christian · July 24, 2013 at 2:33 am

The boat issue is back to a nice football for the new/old PM Kevin. Carpet bombing government ads on AM radio over the week with …”the rules have changed” has left no doubt who the message is really for.

Very big money $pent $elling a me$$age to buy vote$ in a fear $pin campaign. MSM is not to blame directly for this PR abuse.

I think the PM's cash for comment / PM interview for pro-ALP media bisa via “Naked” into youth media outlets was another disgusting abuse of the free press and perversion of our democracy by the PM.
Not happy Jan. Not happy Mr D?

I am also bewildered by the union movements new TV ads to paint workers bullied by business bosses. It's tough all round in a contracting market.

So many conflicted agenda's,
so much spin,
so little time (for fair free and open discussion Mr D).

Andrew K · July 24, 2013 at 3:26 am

the larger problem, of which the Australian experience seems a mere symptom, is the woeful delay in processing refugees.
Ive read that Canada manages an average of 8 days, (although Im guessing the complexity of their refugees is a lot different from undocumented arrivals from war zones) Indonesia seems to be Eternity, and Australia somewhere in between.

unmentioned in the above discussion is the 'que jumping' through various safe havens seeking either advantageous processing or residency.

As much as I abhor the dog whistling that has called it such, it does resonate, thinking of those left to rot.

Discussions on why people have to resort to emperiling their own lives to get ahead of their peers stuck in 2nd / 3rd world refugee camps is hardly mentioned by pollies or papers.

The PNG arrangemetns seem to deal with the advantageous setlement issue – in a manner characteristic of the handling of refugee arrivals by boat
– Weve found somewhere as unsafe as where youre fleeing- you can live there!

I look forward to the ammendment – 'have to wait until weve finished processing everybody else” policy, to be followed by; “cant have buildings if others are left in tents policy”, with the “no food if someone else is hungry” addendum.

Sadly, Kevin seems right on the money politically for Aus.

Just because people that are interested dont like it, dont think that people that dont know, necessarily care.

Anonymous · July 24, 2013 at 9:08 am

'That the tabloid anger pendulum swings so shamefacedly…'

I think that's 'unashamed', Mr D. I don't detect an ounce of shame in their gyrations from one POV to the complete opposite.

Anonymous · July 25, 2013 at 6:23 am

There is no such thing as off shore processing, people have to apply in a nation that has refugee protection laws. If people apply offshore and have protection they are refugees by law of other countries and not asylum seekers.

To seek asylum here people have to be here by law. We don't let them apply from any other country.

So we make a problem and then whinge.

Gillard started down the racist track again with her stupid Lowy speech and now Rudd is being driven by the hacks like Laurie Ferguson.

Anonymous · July 25, 2013 at 6:25 am

Drowning at sea is not the problem, 1100 people have drowned but 50,000 haven't and we torture and abuse them.

The patronising lie about people drowning shows how brainwashed people are.

That is a bit like telling Syrians to stay and die because they might get bombed on the road.

Roger · July 31, 2013 at 7:25 am

Mr. D,

In the Department of Parliamentary Service's document (, on p. 13), there is this claim:

“In 2008…Australia accepted the third largest number of refugees(includes refugees and other humanitarian entrants) for resettlement in the world (8742) after the USA (60191)and Canada(10804).”

I wonder how this squares with your claim that: “Australia ranked 49th last year in the list of countries hosting refugees, accounting for 0.3% of the total.”

Did we slip from 3rd to 49th between 2008 and 2012? Probably not, so I'm assuming apples are being compared to oranges here. Are you able to clarify?

Anonymous · August 8, 2013 at 7:17 am

And this is the sort of racism that happens. And Roger, resettlement is nothing to do with the refugee convention, it is a small voluntary hoax.

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