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 TV stars MPs would love to be

Labour MPs dream of being Jed Bartlet.

In my latest book, A State of Play, I looked at the changing ways in which Britain’s representative democracy has been fictionalized since the later Victorian period. With the support of the University of Nottingham, we decided to turn the tables and ask MPs about their favourite fictional political characters. The results are intriguing.

All MPs were contacted, but with only 49 responding – that’s a 7.5 per cent return rate – I can’t claim the results are fully representative. At 22 per cent, women figured slightly less than they actually do in the Commons. But the big difference is in party terms: 71 per cent of respondents were Labour MPs – double their share in the Commons – while just 20 per cent were Conservatives, less than half their proportion in the Lower House. Maybe Conservative MPs are busier and have better things to do than answer surveys? Or perhaps they just don’t take political fiction – and possibly culture more generally - as seriously as those on the Opposition benches.

What is not subject to speculation, however, is that Labour MPs have very different tastes to their Conservatives rivals, suggesting they are more optimistic about what politics might achieve. At 22 per cent, the most favourite character chosen by MPs overall was Jed Bartlet, heroic US President in Aaron Sorkin’s romantic TV series The West Wing. Of those MPs who nominated Bartlett, every one was Labour. Of course Barlet is a Democrat and the series - dismissed by critics as The Left Wing – looked favourably on progressive causes. But it seems Labour MPs regard Bartlet as an archetype for more than his politics. As one put it, he is, "the ideal leader: smart, principled and pragmatic" For some, Bartlet stands in stark contrast with their current leader. One respondent wistfully characterised the fictional President as having, "Integrity, learning, wit, electability... If only...".

As MPs mentioned other characters from The West Wing, the series accounted for 29 per cent of all choices. Its nearest rival was the deeply cynical House of Cards, originally a novel written by Conservative peer Michael Dobbs and subsequently adapted for TV in the UK and US. Taken together, Britain’s Francis Urquhart and America’s Frank Underwood account for 18 per cent of choices, and are cross-party favourites. One Labour MP dryly claimed Urquhart – who murders his way to Number 10 due to his obsession with the possession of power - "mirrors most closely my experience of politics".

Unsurprisingly, MPs nominated few women characters - politics remains a largely male world, as does political fiction. Only 14 per cent named a female character, the most popular being Birgitte Nyborg from Denmark’s TV series Borgen. Like The West Wing, the show presents politics as a place of possibility. Not all of those nominating Nyborg were female, although one female MP who did appeared to directly identify with the character, saying: "She rides a bike, has a dysfunctional life and isn't afraid of the bastards."

Perhaps the survey’s greatest surprise was which characters and series turned out to be unpopular. Jim Hacker of Yes Minister only just made it into the Top Five, despite one Conservative MP claiming the series gives a "realistic assessment of how politics really works". Harry Perkins, who led a left-wing Labour government in A Very British Coup received just one nomination – and not from an MP who might be described as a Corbynite. Only two MPs suggested characters from Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, which in the past claimed the likes of Harold MacMillan, Douglas Hurd and John Major as fans. And only one character from The Thick of It was nominated - Nicola Murray the struggling minister. 

The results suggest that MPs turn to political fiction for different reasons. Some claimed they liked their characters for – as one said of House of Cards's Frank Underwood – "the entertainment value". But others clearly identified with their favourites. There is clearly a preference for characters in series like The West Wing and Borgen, where politicians are depicted as ordinary people doing a hard job in trying circumstances. This suggests they are largely out of step with the more cynical presentations of politics now served up to the British public.

Top 5 political characters

Jed Bartlett - 22 per cent

Frank Underwood - 12 per cent

Francis Urquhart - 6 per cent

Jim Hacker - 6 per cent

Birgitte Nyborg - 6 per cent

Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham. Follow him @polprofsteve.