Leaders aim right to stop the boats that leak votes
Two things are crystal clear from yesterday’s policy shoot-out at the OK Corrale over asylum seekers.
One, that an election is now perilously close and could be called within days. The rate at which Julia Gillard is crossing off the problem areas suggests she wants to go to Yarralumla very soon.
And two, that Ms Gillard and Tony Abbott believe that election can be won or lost on this policy alone.
Stangely, their policies have come closer together. They both now favour third country processing for example. But don’t let that fool you. Politically the two rivals have wildly divergent aims. One to cool, the other to enflame.
Ms Gillard wants to neutralise a negative for the Government. Ideally, she would like it to disappear altogether so she can talk about other things. But that’s a pipe-dream. Labor’s own research has shown this issue is now red hot - especially in the outer-suburbs where many marginal seats are located. Her aim therefore is to mollify concerns and show wary voters that she is taking decisive action.
Mr Abbott on the other hand, wants anxious voters to remain that way. He wants to remind them that boats have been streaming in to Australian territory since Labor came to power and that Christmas Island is now overflowing.
Rhetorically, and practically, Labor’s shift is a step to the right. In its use of third countries, it adopts at least some of the logic of John Howard’s Pacific Solution.
Tony Abbott too has shifted right. He wants to add a beefed up ministerial right of rejection and a new presumption against entry to applicants without paperwork to his existing policy which includes a return to temporary protection visas, and a largely undeliverable promise to turn the boats back. But he will allow more refugees in via the UNHCR queue and via a new trial program to allow communities to sponsor refugees.
Overall though, both policies are deliberately bellicose and both would inevitably fall short of their claimed objectives. But toughness is in vogue right now.
In a brace of criticals seats, the election will turn on whether Mr Abbott succeeds in keeping voters angry or Ms Gillard succeeds in calming them.
Rightly or wrongly, the Opposition’s charge that Labor’s more humane approach has functioned as a welcome mat to opportunists and people smugglers, has cut through. Labor knows it and has given up trying to turn that perception around.
Now, in the race for what some on the left have dubbed the red-neck vote, neither side wants to address the telling irony that the biggest pull factor is not so much the effect of policy as it is Australia itself - a prosperous stable and tolerant democracy.
Tony Abbott gave a thoughtful speech early this year, in which he observed that the decision to take to ricketty boats was the triumph of hope over fear. Yet as the election nears, the debate has become the triumph of fear over fact.
All up, Australia took in 0.6 per cent of the world’s asylum seekers last year. As for the far smaller number entering on boats, it would take 20 years to fill the MCG at the current rate.
Speaking of irony, Julia Gillard, arrived in a boat herself many years ago.
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