Our nation’s politicians have failed us again, and it is a failure of their own, cynical making.
Every time I write on the tragedy of asylum-seeker deaths, and I have done so now for more than a decade, I write in tears at the ideological intransigence of the main parties, at the cynical public manipulation of the issue, at the refusal of so many to accept that mass people movements are a global and unstoppable reality that requires realism and compassion.
There were also tears in Federal Parliament last week, as our representatives again tried to find a “solution” for unexpected arrivals. And by “solution” I of course mean not a permanent policy that treats desperate people with human kindness, and dangerous people with stern consequences. No, I mean a bit of a policy fig leaf that will play well to marginal electorates as appearing tough on what some call illegal arrivals (they are not: anyone has the right to turn up anywhere and seek asylum if they fear persecution), will give an appearance of “stopping the boats (it will not: the boats are travelling all around the world and will keep doing so), and will make this problem anyone’s but ours.
And of course, it will not. Australia will always be an attractive destination – that’s the “pull” factor, folks – because we are so fortunate to live in such a wonderful country. That’s why shadow treasurer Joe Hockey’s father wanted to come here. That’s why my grandfather came here. Back then they came because they made the perfectly reasonable assessment that this was a better place to make a future, raise their children, but that logic won’t necessarily get you into Australia these days.
Despite the tears – real grief and emotion that simply engulfed some members of the lower house – the politics that are now so firmly wedged into any discussion of refugees could not be removed. At the time of writing, Parliament had voted for a compromise deal that would re-open the processing centre on Nauru, and would re-introduce the people-swap deal with Malaysia that Prime Minister Julia Gillard brokered last year. But the bill looks set to be defeated in the Senate because the Greens will not agree to offshore processing.
I can see the Greens’ point about Australia needing to accept its responsibility to process those who make it to our waters, and it is probably the only elevated moral position in a discussion hopelessly mired in political expediency. But when desperate people continue to pay smugglers and climb on board leaky vessels and die at sea, even within view and reach of those who might save them, their moral purity is starting to look like blind stubbornness. I would not want to be Greens leader Christine Milne if, God forbid, there is another boat sinking some time soon.
I, like so many others, am despairing because I fear there will be. Asylum seekers will always be with us: they will “keep coming”, as they do to every Western country with a decent quality of life. We have no choice, particularly as a nation of immigrants, to accept that reality and to treat fair-minded, persecuted people well and find them a place in our society; and to treat those who are criminals or dangerous or liars with a firm hand and work with the region to send them back. It means our politicians have to talk more about opening doors and unlocking detention centres, where so many are so unreasonably held, and have the guts to look voters in the eye when they do so.
Our leaders won’t, of course. For when their eyes are not filled with tears, they are blinded and blinkered by raw, selfish politics.