Wake up to the real refugee issue, Australia

The problem in this debate is not people smuggling.

The drowning of hundreds of Australia-bound asylum seekers in Indonesian waters this week has highlighted, once again, the pressing need for Australian to rethink its refugee policy. Instead, political discourse has quickly degenerated to finger-pointing and vilification of people smugglers.

Tragically, the fact that Julia Gillard's government and the Coalition have harnessed the large-scale loss of life not as a catalyst for the immediate overhaul of the country's punitive treatment of boat people, but merely as further fuel for a relentless blame game, is far from surprising: Australian politicians have been trotting out this trick for over a decade.

It is hard to forget the Howard government's appalling behaviour as the SIEV 4 went down near Christmas Island a decade ago; with an election looming, then-Prime Minister, Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock, and Defence Minister Peter Reith repeated publicly the lie that the desperate travellers onboard had thrown their children overboard. Just weeks thereafter, the SIEV X sunk near Java, claiming 353 lives. While a nearby Australian warship could have attended the site within five hours, Australia chose to do nothing; instead,survivors clung to wreckage for 20 hours before being picked up by Indonesian fishing boats.

Many Australian Labor Party sympathisers, including myself, held out earnest hope that Howard's successor Kevin Rudd would reframe the refugee debate in more humane and sensible terms. Depressingly, Rudd seemed mostly intent on demonising people smugglers as the "absolute scum of the earth", before imposing a shocking freeze on refugee claims by Sri Lankan and Afghans amid heavy criticism from the UNHCR.

Then, in mid-2010, it was the Gillard government's turn. Despite promising announcements late last year about moving children and families into community-based accommodation, many left-leaning Australians were disappointed again with its proposed Malaysia deal, which sought to "swap" asylum seekers for refugees and flouted Australia's international law obligations.

The rejection of the Malaysia plan by the High Court in August this year presented the Labor government with a choice: it could either harness the opportunity to turn away from the well-worn moral low road, or continue engaging in the shabby dog-whistle politics to which the nation has become accustomed since Howard. The Gillard government, sadly, seems to have chosen the latter.

As under Rudd's leadership, the fingers in the current asylum seeker debate are mostly pointed at people smugglers. Immigration Minister Chris Bowen yesterday described the current onshore processing arrangement as a signal to people smugglers that Australia was open for business; shadow Immigration Minister Scott Morrison, not to be outdone, released a tirade against people-smuggling "criminals", who "seek to exploit vulnerable people for their own profit."

The fact is that desperate individuals, like the many Hazara refugees currently fleeing persecution at the hands of the Taliban in Afghanistan, will always choose to pack their family onto a boat bound for Australia rather than see them die at the hands of a tyrannical regime; moreover, there will always be a group of people willing to assist their passage. Australian politicians' tough talk and anti-smuggling legislation are less likely to reach the "big fish" behind these operations than they are the few Indonesian fishermen motivated to take an unsafe boat journey by their own desperation.

By framing the matter as a debate about people smuggling, Australian politicians are skirting the crux of the issue: the needs of the vulnerable people seeking protection from persecution. These people are asking for the nation's help. Australia needs to wake up to their grisly plight, and start facilitating adequate alternative pathways for their escape.

Photo: Getty
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The Liverpool protest was about finding a place for local support in a global game

Fans of other clubs should learn from Anfield's collective action.

One of the oldest songs associated with Liverpool Football Club is Poor Scouser Tommy, a characteristically emotional tale about a Liverpool fan whose last words as he lies dying on a WWII battlefield are an exhalation of pride in his football team.

In November 2014, at the start of a game against Stoke City, Liverpool fans unfurled a banner across the front of the Kop stand, daubed with the first line of that song: “Let me tell you a story of a poor boy”. But the poor boy wasn’t Tommy this time; it was any one of the fans holding the banner – a reference to escalating ticket prices at Anfield. The average matchday ticket in 1990 cost £4. Now a general admission ticket can cost as much as £59.

Last Saturday’s protest was more forthright. Liverpool had announced a new pricing structure from next season, which was to raise the price of the most expensive ticket to £77. Furious Liverpool fans said this represented a tipping point. So, in the 77th minute of Saturday’s match with Sunderland, an estimated 15,000 of the 44,000 fans present walked out. As they walked out, they chanted at the club’s owners: “You greedy bastards, enough is enough”.

The protest was triggered by the proposed price increase for next season, but the context stretches back over 20 years. In 1992, the top 22 clubs from the 92-club Football League broke away, establishing commercial independence. This enabled English football’s elite clubs to sign their own lucrative deal licensing television rights to Rupert Murdoch’s struggling satellite broadcaster, Sky.

The original TV deal gave the Premier League £191 million over five years. Last year, Sky and BT agreed to pay a combined total of £5.14 billion for just three more years of domestic coverage. The league is also televised in 212 territories worldwide, with a total audience of 4.7 billion. English football, not so long ago a pariah sport in polite society, is now a globalised mega-industry. Fanbases are enormous: Liverpool may only crowd 45,000 fans into its stadium on matchday, but it boasts nearly 600 million fans across the globe.

The matchgoing football fan has benefited from much of this boom. Higher revenues have meant that English teams have played host to many of the best players from all over the world. But the transformation of local institutions with geographic support into global commercial powerhouses with dizzying arrays of sponsorship partners (Manchester United has an ‘Official Global Noodle Partner’) has encouraged clubs to hike up prices for stadium admission as revenues have increased.

Many hoped that the scale of the most recent television deal would offer propitious circumstances for clubs to reduce prices for general admission to the stadium while only sacrificing a negligible portion of their overall revenues. Over a 13-month consultation period on the new ticket prices, supporter representatives put this case to Liverpool’s executives. They were ignored.

Ignored until Saturday, that is. Liverpool’s owners, a Boston-based consortium who have generally been popular on Merseyside after they won a legal battle to prize the club from its previous American owners, backed down last night in supplicatory language: they apologised for the “distress” caused by the new pricing plan, and extolled the “unique and sacred relationship between Liverpool Football Club and its supporters”.

The conflict in Liverpool between fans and club administrators has ended, at least for now, but the wail of discontent at Anfield last week was not just about prices. It was another symptom of the broader struggle to find a place for the local fan base in a globalised mega-industry.The lazy canard that football has become a business is only half-true. For the oligarchs and financiers who buy and sell top clubs, football is clearly business. But an ordinary business has free and rational consumers. Football fans are anything but rational. Once the romantic bond between fan and team has been forged, it does not vanish. If the prices rise too high, a Liverpool fan does not decide to support Everton instead.

Yet the success of the protest shows that fans retain some power. Football’s metamorphosis from a game to be played into a product to be sold is irreversible, but the fans are part of that product. When English football enthusiasts wake in the small hours in Melbourne to watch a match, part of the package on their screen is a stadium full of raucous supporters. And anyone who has ever met someone on another continent who has never travelled to the UK but is a diehard supporter of their team knows that fans in other countries see themselves as an extension of the local support, not its replacement.

English football fans should harness what power they have remaining and unite to secure a better deal for match goers. When Liverpool fans walked out on Saturday, too many supporters of other teams took it as an opportunity for partisan mockery. In football, collective action works not just on the pitch but off it too. Liverpool fans have realised that. Football fandom as a whole should take a leaf out of their book.