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Opinion

In Australian election, the facts have no place

Though Australia is a nation of "boat people", both main parties have demonised refugees and asylum seekers.

Last Modified: 04 Sep 2013 10:31
Sarah Harris

Sarah Harris, a 30-year veteran Australian journalist, is a former London correspondent and crime reporter for News Ltd newspapers, and is now a columnist and freelance writer.
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Australians are unimpressed with their choices for prime minister, writes Harris [AP]

In the period immediately following the French Revolution, an aristocrat and avowed monarchist observed that in a democracy, people get the political leaders they deserve.

Joseph-Marie, le Comte de Maistre, may have been a tad cynical, but there is a ring of truth to this aphorism. Imagine, then, the Australian electorate faced with a choice between a gaffe-prone, George W Bush-esque right-winger and a vengeful narcissist in the mould of Vladimir Putin.

The September 7 poll to determine the make-up of the 44th Parliament of Australia will come down to who is least unlikeable: the leader of the Liberal Party, Anthony "Tony" Abbott, or the incumbent prime minister and Labor helmsman Kevin Rudd.

The Australian electorate has always been a little susceptible to personality, but now there is virtually nothing to distinguish the two major parties. Political pragmatism has so completely overtaken ideology that the centre-right Liberal Party and centre-left Labor Party are more easily told apart by the size of the frontrunners' ears and the colour of their neckties.

Australians, who feel like they have been in election mode since the last federal poll in 2010 resulted in a hung parliament - when Labor and the Liberal/National Coalition each won 72 seats - are fed up to the back teeth with the lot of them. Around the country, the typical political conversation around the water-cooler or in doctors' waiting rooms will include the phrases "I just wish it was over" and "they are both as bad as each other".

Asylum seekers top Australia poll agenda

When the electoral media advertising blackout descends on September 4 at midnight, there will be a completely bipartisan sigh of relief. This election campaign and the interminable lead-up has been unedifying and unenlightening, punctuated by one-upmanship and me-too pork-barrelling.

After the minority Labor government introduced a popular parental leave scheme, suddenly the leader of the Liberal Party had a road-to-Damascus conversion and decided not only to embrace the measure but to pay women much more, for much longer.

The prime minister, previously an opponent of gay marriage, became - in the space of less than a year - an impassioned advocate for marriage equality to win back much-needed supporters.

But even those of us who more consistently support same-sex marriage cannot help feel that this is just a means to an end - that both leaders will say and do anything to win power, with more flip-flops than you could count on Sydney's iconic Bondi Beach on a summer's day.

The 'Tampa affair'

However, both parties do stand their ground on the issue of asylum seekers, also known as boat people. Ever since John Howard's Liberal government used the refugee issue to garner votes and stave off electoral defeat in 2001, boat people have become the chosen bogeymen of both parties.

In 2001, the Howard government refused permission for the Tampa, a Norwegian cargo ship that rescued 438 Afghans on a sinking asylum boat, to enter Australian waters. The Tampa affair became a turning point in Australian politics. It saw the Labor Party cut itself adrift from core constitutional values, including the "recognition of the inalienable right of all people to liberty, equality, democracy and social justice".

The subsequent excision of Christmas Island and Ashmore Reef - the northernmost points of entry to Australian territory - from the nation's migration zone meant that refugees who arrived there were in a legal no man's land. Men, women and children could be mandatorily and indefinitely detained in offshore prisons.

Justice Tony North of the Australian Federal Court eventually ruled that the Howard cabinet had breached the Magna Carta and the most basic legal principle: that no person, whether a citizen or non-citizen, can be held in detention without lawful authority. In granting a writ of habeas corpus for the immediate release of the refugees, he declared, "An ancient power of the Court is to protect people against detention without lawful authority".

Afflicted by our own general affluence and sense of entitlement, Australians are ready to believe the refugees desperately trying to reach our shores represent an invasion.

If only he had delivered that verdict on any day other than September 11, 2001. In a world reshaped by terrorist attacks in the United States our borders became sacrosanct, and the electorate rewarded Howard for his hard line.

Still, it is deeply ironic that Australia - itself a nation of boat people - should be so intolerant and hysterical about newcomers. Yet our political leaders tap into the electorate's deepest insecurities. In the politics of perception, the facts have no place.

Afflicted by our own general affluence and sense of entitlement, Australians are ready to believe the refugees desperately trying to reach our shores represent an invasion.

We allow ourselves to be persuaded that on any given day we are somehow worse off, although the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling shows the Australian standard of living has increased by an average of 2.6 percent annually since 1996.

Appealing to our basest nature

When politicians talk about our "porous borders", what they really mean is borders to the poor. They are appealing to our basest nature on a question that won't make one iota of difference to the quality of the average Australian's life.

According to the latest figures from UNHCR, the United Nations' refugee agency, 45.2 million people were in situations of displacement at the end of last year, including 15.4 million refugees, 937,000 asylum seekers, and 28.8 million people forced to flee within the borders of their own countries.

During 2012, some 7.6 million people became newly displaced, including 1.1 million crossing borders as refugees and 6.5 million as internally displaced people. This translates to more than 20,000 people around the world forced to flee their homes every single day - and this does not include the latest waves of millions of Syrians.

Put in an Australian context, 4,000 more people around the world become displaced on any given day than arrive as asylum seekers on our shores in an entire year. That is the true extent of our politically manufactured "boat people crisis".

So back to the Comte. Do Australians deserve the leader they get in 2013? As long as the majority of us are not prepared to live in the real world and accept our responsibilities as good global citizens, the answer must be yes.

Sarah Harris, a 30-year veteran Australian journalist, is a former London correspondent and crime reporter for News Ltd newspapers, and is now a columnist and freelance writer.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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