Recently, the Federal Opposition spokesperson on Immigration, Richard Marles addressed a Refugees & Immigration Forum held at the Marymac Centre in Annerley. He cited the “appalling debate” we have had since the Tampa affair in 2001. He lamented Labor’s then failure to articulate its values - compassion, fairness and generosity.
So what next? "The right thing" and the "right politics" will follow, he counselled. Basically: continue to speed up community detention and get children out of detention centres; hold the government to account on the off-shore “hell holes”; and vehemently oppose the re-introduction of Temporary Protection Visas. But there was a tacit surrender to 'Stop the Boats', in a roundabout way, to "stop people from drowning at sea".
Katherine Gelber, Professor of Public Policy, spoke profoundly on our international obligations and ended her address thus: It was not a failure in the articulation of values, it was a failure of leadership (that gave us that 13-year appalling debate)!
Kim Beazley failed us in 2001, when Howard opportunistically severed bipartisanship with the Tampa affair. Beazley’s surrender on stage, with his hand on Howard’s shoulder and the words, "we are at one on this", has since become a festering legacy.
Compassion, Fairness, and Generosity. Did we not abandon these in 2001? Will jaded voters now hear these as motherhood and apple pie puff? At any rate, how do they stack up with the Manus Island “hellhole” we created, our “no advantage” deterrent that denies those in community detention the right to work; the trumped up nobility taped double-sided to the convenient prop of stopping people from drowning at sea, when cruelling these “despicable” people off our shores has all been but the political imperative?
Leadership means doing the unthinkable, or simply scruffing us back to the righteous path.
Malcolm Fraser with the Vietnamese boat people; Bob Hawke following the Tianamen Square tragedy; Ben Chifley giving the nod to Arthur Caldwell to break his trumpeted promise to bring in 'ten Brits to every Balt'. And there’s Gough Whitlam, calling the historic joint sitting of the two Houses, on the heels of a double dissolution, to get Medibank through.
Compared with the monumental obstruction to Gough’s Medibank, the Stop the Boats duplicity is no more than spruiking yesteryear’s hotted up xenophobic soup on a culturally bleak winter’s day. All the same, to stop offering “other” people as political scapegoats will exact much the same “ticker” from our present leaders.
Bipartisanship worked well before 2001. We need that moral vision and courage, more than ever, to stop “the fight between two bull elephants” when it is the reeds that hold their habitat together (or fortify our moral framework) that get thrashed.