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.

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder