Labor has won one federal election from opposition, and almost another, by bowing to a Coalition narrative about the menace of refugee boat people and by consciously adopting a policy almost entirely identical to it.
Even then, its refugee and immigration stance probably did not win Labor an extra vote so much as it denied likely Labor voters an excuse to vote against them.
In surrendering to the Coalition on the issue, Labor under Bill Shorten accepted that the Coalition, primarily under John Howard, had more accurately recognised the majority national will on the subject.
Their policies, however cruel, and in the view of many Labor people, immoral, were seen as working in preventing boat people from approaching our shores. Labor did not want a contest on a better or more humane policy; it simply wanted to neutralise the issue as one motivating voters to pick sides.
The Coalition under Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton insisted that Labor's conversion to its approach was insincere, and that it would always wrestle with ideas for weakening the policy. Any softening would be promptly noticed by people smugglers in Indonesia and elsewhere, and an invasion of unwanted foreigners, mostly Muslim, would start again. They seemed supported by Home Affairs secretary Mike Pezzullo and the odd senior military commander.
The military opinions may not have been purely partisan in that they incidentally served another military purpose, of enabling yet more Australian secretive military operations with zero public accountability.
Australians know more about SAS war crimes than they do about the sabotage of boating expeditions and repulsion of desperate people seeking refuge from the displacement of wars in which the military had been involved. Wars we had lost, at enormous and continuing cost to the civilian populations.
Over recent weeks, Dutton and the Coalition have completely outmanoeuvred Labor in the aftermath of the High Court's reversal of an old position that indefinite immigration detention was permissible under the Constitution if there was no country to which the government could deport a non-citizen.
First, they have left the impression that the decision was somehow the government's fault, as if the government lost the case by some neglect.
Alternatively, and somewhat more accurately, they have suggested that Labor was at fault for failing to anticipate the decision, or at least for failing to have a Plan B in case the High court reversed its decision of 20 years ago. In any event, it was the government's fault that it proceeded to release indefinite detainees, as though the government had some discretion about which High Court decisions, or orders, it could ignore.
The Coalition also suggested that there were now at large up to several hundred rapists, murderers, child sex offenders and other forms of violent and dangerous criminals, detained indefinitely because of the wisdom of previous Liberal governments. Every Australian should tremble in their bed, and should guard their sons and daughters, because of the threat.
The mainstream media - the ABC and the old Fairfax media as enthusiastically as News.com - took up the cry, particularly as some of those released were alleged to have committed new offences since they were let out.
From Dutton down, opposition speakers tried to induce panic and fear; Dutton even suggesting the crisis was such that the Prime Minister should cancel attendance at international conferences. No one was more panicked than the government itself.
They felt unable to resist the tide and focused on more and more measures for close surveillance of the former detainees, and the possibilities of getting them back behind bars.
They were dancing almost entirely to the opposition's tune. The opposition was, as usual, seeking continually to raise (or lower) the bar, proposing ever more fresh and unjust restraints and punishments, and seeming to find, as usual, that there is never a bottom to Labor ministerial cowardice and incompetence when manipulated mob fury is at its height.
Shiver runs up and breaks the Labor spine
It would be idle to pretend that the whole exercise was, from the opposition's point of view, merely a serendipitous opportunity to trot out its familiar positions that the sort of people presenting as asylum seekers are rapists, terrorists and religious extremists.
They were likely to put at risk the Australian way of life. But even from that vantage point, the timing could hardly have been better. The October 7 atrocities by Hamas had Dutton and others suggesting that Labor had not been whole-hearted enough in its condemnations. Some even seemed to imply that (very) slight evidence of government even-handedness on the rights of Palestinians had either emboldened the terrorism or proven that Labor did not care about the rights of Israelis.
Soon the High Court decision was added to a narrative of a weak, irresolute and wishy-washy Prime Minister who had created a terrible situation that could not have occurred under the firm and confident leadership of Peter Dutton, the experienced law-and-order man.
As it happened, Labor had been preparing a dossier designed to show that the carefully constructed image of Dutton as the guardian of our borders was an advertising and marketing construct.
Labor wanted to show that behind the tough talk had been enormous waste of public funds, serious security gaps that had been exploited by all the baddies, including terrorists, paedophiles and organised crime, a good deal of secretive lawlessness and malfeasance, and a lot of incompetent stewardship.
But this is, or ought to be material available for a sustained attack on the character and style of the Leader of the opposition, not some desperate mud to throw in a counterattack when Labor, by its own ineptness, was starting well behind. Its ineptness was not, as the opposition and the mainstream media said, the failure to anticipate the "crisis", including the confected panic, nor the failure to pre-prepare some other form of confinement that might pass High Court inspection, as well as keeping citizens safe. It was in failing to get on the front foot about the essential injustice of the old Coalition regime with an alternative system
Such a system would not be based on the idea of continuing (or indefinite) punishment and would respect human rights and the fact that the individual concerned had already served sentences for any crimes committed. It would be alive to the risks that such people, who had been marked for banishment from our society, might pose to members of the community by offending again. It would not focus on punishing them in advance for crimes they might commit.
The starting off point for such a system would not be in establishing an alternative maximum-security jail, manned by brutalised and unaccountable guards, and services suspiciously meted out by accountants determined to maintain private sector profits. It would embrace not only those who had no place to which they could be sent, but the whole gamut of people at any one time subject under present laws to immigration detention. Like remandees awaiting trial in the criminal justice system, most are not detained as punishment for a crime, other perhaps than overstaying a visa. They are certainly not there in order that punishment be visited upon them.
Restrictions should be the least necessary to allow the law to take its course. In most cases, it need not involve confinement at all, let alone punitive and arbitrary movements of inmates from centre to centre. Monitoring devices might be appropriate if there is a risk of absconding, or of committing serious crimes, but this is far from the usual case. Even among those unable to be deported, most do not represent a threat to the general community. Some of those who have committed serious crimes should not be deported anyway, because they have grown up in this community, and we should take responsibility for them.
Australia, like the US, Canada and New Zealand has benefited enormously from immigration. In recent years, it has become unpopular in many parts of the community, not least in parts who have come to believe that they are in close competition with migrants for housing and public services. As ever in Australia, many of those currently coming in seem noticeably different in race, colour, creed or lifestyle from other Australians (including established migrants), and there are always those who declare recent groups unassimilable, unemployable or more prone than ordinary Australians to crime. As ever, the overwhelming proportion of new entrants quickly become net contributors to the economy, often bringing in fresh skills adapted to contemporary needs. It seems hard to remember that it was once said that Vietnamese, Indians and Chinese would not fit in, just as earlier, people asserted that Italians, Greeks and Lebanese would not.
Many believe that immigration should be restricted because of the pressures higher populations are placing on the economy, particularly the housing market, or the environment.
At any one time, about 4 per cent of the resident population are overseas students. Many others have been brought to Australia to provide labour said to be otherwise unavailable. The latter has revived some fears that employers are importing labour to break down industrial rights. With many of the imports coming from Asia, some of the campaigns evoke that fear of the different and the other that characterised our old White Australia Policy.
It's not a debate about immigration levels but hostility to race, colour and creed of particular immigrants and refugees
But beyond perfectly legitimate arguments about numbers is a resurgence of hostility in industrialised countries to waves of immigrants and refugees. The unwelcome are different - not least those from Africa and the Middle East, many from nations in conflict because of climate change, drought and wars of religion. The fear being aggravated is not so much about competition for jobs but about competition for resources, and the suggestion that local societies are changing because of the new composition of the population. Race, colour and creed are what stirs anxieties.
Brexit owes much to hostility to Eastern European labour and African and Middle Eastern asylum seekers. In Europe, the politics of some countries, such as Hungary, the Netherlands, Germany and even the Scandinavians are now dominated by nationalist groups hostile to immigration and the intake of refugees. Many whites in the US see their country as being invaded by Latin Americans and think this to be particularly undesirable because that, and the African-American population are diluting the political power of Americans of European background. These were apparently bestowed the country by God, at least after they killed off many of the native Americans.
In all these nations, including Australia, politicians are exploiting these concerns, including by inciting hatred and sense of difference. No one more obviously than Dutton, who has merged with it, suggesting that some immigrants are a threat because they are more prone to violence against "ordinary" Australians.
But Dutton is doing something more than trying to make political gains from dividing the population around immigration and refugee issues. It seems that for him this is a part of a political strategy in a war against Woke. Labor is politically vulnerable, he appears to believe, because it is dominated by people with sentimental and wishy-washy views about human rights and dignities, race, sex and gender. Woke ideas, supposedly particularly found in inner-city areas (including Teal seats) are held by people already living comfortable post-industrial lives. These are self-styled idealists who worry about social justice while ordinary and decent Australians are worried about the cost of living, and housing for their children. The constituencies of the real Australians, whether upwardly mobile tradesmen and small-scale entrepreneurs, or the old working class, have no time for political correctness, gender arguments, Aboriginals, self-styled victim groups, civil libertarians and social justice warriors and "advocates".
As Dutton supporters see it, the decisive defeat of the Voice was a victory for ordinary Australians against woke politicians who presume to tell decent Australians how they should live or what they should think. Persuading voters to be angry that we will all be raped or murdered in our beds could also be a way of reminding them that we don't want these others anyway. And suggesting that everything that is uncomfortable about our society, economy and community is a consequence of the manipulations of the woke. A distraction from the fact that old government, as we knew it, doesn't work anymore. In the Dutton world, the engine room of progress is resentment, fear of the other, and the discouragement of "visions" about how society, the community and the nation could be improved for the common good.
There was a time when Labor's best thinkers and best leaders could articulate causes, defend positions and lead, rather than follow the crowd. When it was not panicked into the lowest common denominator by media campaigns or street populists. When they explained their thinking and stated and restated their aims and their policies. When they believed that they had the policies right, they had the politics right, rather than the other way around. It may well be - perhaps should be - that voters have such a memory of the awfulness of Morrison, Dutton and others in power that they would, for now, cross the street to vote to return this weak and stumbling government, one virtually indistinguishable from its predecessor in many important policies and with little sticking power on its minor differences. As it happens, their very timorousness is the biggest threat. Labor can win only when it makes a difference.
- Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times. firstname.lastname@example.org