In February, Senator Christine Milne announced that the Greens would be unilaterally junking their alliance with Labor. The Labor-Greens agreement, which was formalised in September 2010, did the ALP a lot of political harm. So it is possible that the then prime minister Julia Gillard and her treasurer Wayne Swan were not displeased with Milne’s decision.
So the Greens publicly dumped Labor. But the ALP has found it difficult to distance itself from the Greens. Towards the end of her prime ministership, Gillard overturned Labor’s policy on asylum seekers and adapted a position closer to that held by Tony Abbott and the Coalition. Kevin Rudd embraced the Gillard position when he resumed as prime minister in June. He went on to renounce Gillard’s carbon tax, which he planned to replace with an emissions trading scheme. And then came Labor’s defeat.
As opposition leader in the aftermath of a devastating defeat, Bill Shorten faces obvious problems. Some commentators have been heard to suggest that, in the modern era, no opposition leader has taken over after a serious loss and gone on to become prime minister.
This overlooks Gough Whitlam, who took over as Labor leader in the wake of Arthur Calwell’s defeat in February 1967 and led the ALP to victory six years later. Whitlam and Tony Abbott are the most successful opposition leaders since the end of the Second World War.
It would be foolish to predict that, under Shorten’s leadership, Labor has no hope. Yet Shorten Labor clearly has serious policy difficulties. They mainly turn on the policy legacy of the Greens-Labor alliance: namely, carbon pricing and asylum seekers.
The latter issue presents obvious predicaments since it brings into play Labor’s diverse base. There are the inner-city working professionals, many of whom are dependent (directly or indirectly) on government funding. Then there are those who live in the suburbs and regional areas, many of whom are in the private workforce or self-employed.
Rudd Labor’s decision to wind back John Howard’s strong border protection policies appealed to many inner-city types but did not go down well elsewhere and was a factor in Labor’s near loss in 2010 and its bad defeat last month. If, under Shorten, Labor appears to embrace the Greens’ position on asylum seekers it is difficult to see how Labor can win back many of the suburban and regional seats it lost in the past two elections.
Labor’s chance of developing a considered and effective policy on asylum seekers will be enhanced if it is informed by fact rather than by sentiment. This requires that prevailing myths be challenged and demolished.
Myth one: the Vietnamese boat people came to Australia by boat. Not so. Q&A presenter Tony Jones made this howler last week when he confidently declared that “we took an awful lot of Vietnamese” in the 1970s and “they came here on boats”. According to Malcolm Fraser, about 70,000 Indochinese came to Australia during the period of his government – from November 1975 until March 1983. However, just over 2000 asylum seekers arrived in Australia by boat during the entire seven-year period of the Fraser government. The remaining 97 per cent arrived in Australia by plane with valid visas. This compares with an estimated 45,000 boat arrivals during the almost six years of the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd governments.
Myth two: people arriving in Australia by boat are fleeing persecution. Not necessarily so. The overwhelming majority of boats arriving in Australia unlawfully contain people who have made secondary movements. Many have travelled freely to Indonesia or Malaysia where they buy spaces on boats from people smugglers. Their immediate fear of persecution is no greater than that of established refugees waiting for placement in United Nations-run camps in Asia, Africa and elsewhere.
Myth three: until recent times, there was a bipartisan approach on asylum seekers. Novelist Tom Keneally made this point on 7.30 last week. Not at all. During his final year as prime minister in 1975, and as opposition leader in 1976 and 1977, Whitlam opposed Vietnamese refugees settling in Australia. Labor’s position only changed when Bill Hayden succeeded Whitlam. Moreover, since Labor changed its policy under Gillard, there is now a degree of similarity in the position of both the Coalition and Labor.
Myth four: only the hard-hearted lack sympathy for boat people. This is special pleading. At present rates, 4 per cent of boat people die at sea. The only way to stop the drownings is to stop the boats.
Labor’s best chance of handling the asylum seeker issue turns on its ability to demolish the myths and establish the facts. This will have the effect of distancing Labor from myth-loving Greens.
Gerard Henderson is Executive Director of The Sydney Institute.