Asylum Seekers, Foreign Aid, and Climate Change: A Failure of Strategy and the (not so simple) Way Forward

Australia has elected to change its government. Tony Abbott, once popularly derided as being ‘unelectable’, has become our new Prime Minister, and the fractious Labor Party has been left to lick its wounds while it faces, it would seem, a lengthy (and many would say deserved) stint on the Opposition benches.

At one level, there’s really not much to say about this. Australia has a system in place where its citizens have great freedom to vote as they choose, and the system itself is pretty good (despite some need, it seems, for a few minor adjustments in regards to how members of the Senate are elected). Australians don’t change government often, but when we do we leave no doubt about our intentions. This election, like those in the past where the government has been changed, was a decisive outcome.

Though I, personally, voted otherwise, I’m happy to concede that this is what the clear majority of Australians did vote for. Trying to pretend otherwise is ridiculous. In addition to this, we can reasonably expect at least 6 years under a Liberal-National Coalition government (given Australia’s general reluctance to throw out a first-term government), so it’s something that simply needs to be accepted.

Of course, this is not good news to the ears of those of us who care about asylum seekers, foreign aid, or the environment, for in each of these policy areas an Abbott-led Liberal-National government represents an ominous threat.

In regards to the environment, it is well-known that Tony Abbott himself is no true believer in the science of climate change (famously calling it ‘absolute crap’ at one stage). Though he seems to have softened his rhetoric over time, a significant part of his campaign for the election centred around ‘scrapping the carbon tax’ (and ETS, towards which the former Labor government was moving). Once this market-based mechanism (which he, at one point, seemed to indicate was the most efficient way to deal with emissions) is dismantled, he plans to implement a ‘direct action’ plan which has largely been panned both as less efficient and unable to actually meet the emission reduction targets. At this stage, Prime Minister-elect Tony Abbott has indicated that, even if the targets were not met, no more money would be going into the program.

In regards to foreign aid, the Coalition (rather cynically) released details of significant cuts to the ODA budget less than 2 days from the election, and after the ‘media blackout’ was in place (the time when paid political advertisements cease in the lead-up to election day). Though Mr Abbott himself had previously pledged his full support for increasing Australia’s aid budget to 0.5% GNI and for the Millennium Development Goals, and though being critical of the former government at times when it did not meet its pledges on aid (or when it siphoned off aid money to meet the costs of asylum seeker processing in Australia), the Coalition now plans to slash increases to the aid budget (which include actual cuts to programs for this financial year, which have not yet been identified).

In regards to asylum seeker policy, of course, the Coalition has relentlessly campaigned on the slogan of ‘stopping the boats’. With the Labor party engaging in a game of policy leap-frog on this issue—with each new leap towards harsher punishments for vulnerable people—the Coalition has landed at a point of almost unfathomable cruelty. Scott Morrison (who had been the Coalition’s spokesman for Immigration, and who will presumably be the new Minister for Immigration) has indicated his intention to remove funding for legal advice for asylum seekers (which will mean that more and more genuine refugees will be rejected due to the difficulty in following a complex legal process correctly without assistance), to remove the right for asylum seekers to appeal decisions, and to ‘fast track’ the removal of people out of Australia’s system (and, likely, in many cases, straight back to persecution, violence, or exploitation).

On each of these issues (and at least a couple more), a Coalition government is going to be bad news. But I’m not going to use this post to try to argue against the Coalition’s policy in these areas (as terrible and destructive as I think it is and will be). They won the election fair and square; they are not going to change these policies now. Though it breaks my heart to admit it, these policy directions are pretty much unstoppable in the short-term.

I’m also not going to use this post to berate the Australian public for their decision. As much as I do think that it was a bad decision (due to the policy areas I outlined above, plus a few others I won’t go into here), it is a decision that has been made—and one that’s been made decisively—and there’s no going back now (and no point whingeing about it). It’s a decision that does make quite a bit of sense, it has to be said, given the bizarre behaviour of the Labor Party and their shambolic leadership instability. The former government lost the trust and respect of the public, and they paid the price for their puerile behaviour.

What this post is about, then, is where we went wrong. What follows are a few of my reflections about how those of us who care about the issues outlined above lost the fight, and lost it convincingly.

I’ve been discussing this point for a while now with some of my friends, reflecting on what I see as an almost complete failure on behalf of those of us who have been working towards more humane policy on asylum seekers, a more generous approach to Australia doing its ‘fair share’ in regards to foreign aid, and stronger action in combatting climate change. We have lost on each of these fronts. But, more than this, I think we have actually allowed things to get worse.

It’s not just that we are seeing regressive policy in each of these areas; it’s that we have allowed these issues to become grouped with other ‘bleeding hearts’ causes. Progressive attitudes on these issues, as far as I can see, have now been grouped in the minds of the majority of the Australian public as either irrelevant, as the idealism of young or naive people who don’t know how things ‘really’ work, or as some sort of communist conspiracy to erode our ‘freedoms’.

We have failed. We have failed almost completely.

And I think it’s because we just haven’t been able to wrap our heads around the political situation.

Many of us laughed at the idea of Tony Abbott becoming leader of the Opposition in 2009. But he did. Many of us laughed at the idea of Tony Abbott turning the tables on Prime Minster Kevin Rudd (who had thus far convincingly seen off former Prime Minister John Howard, and former Opposition leaders Brendan Nelson and Malcolm Turnbull). But he did. Many of us scoffed at the idea of Tony Abbott leading the Coalition to victory after just one term in Opposition. But he very nearly did. And many of us laughed (admittedly nervously) at the idea of Tony Abbott ever being Prime Minister. But he is.

Though it has been common place on the progressive side of Australian politics to mock Mr Abbott’s intellectual abilities (Paul Keating famously called him an ‘intellectual nobody’), he seems to have devised and implemented a cunning strategy that has ‘worked’ in a way that few could have imagined.

It’s a strategy that caught former PM Kevin Rudd off guard. Tony Abbott didn’t play the game like he was meant to, and it cost Mr Rudd his job. It’s a strategy that overwhelmingly frustrated Julia Gillard’s time as Prime Minister. The government that she led could not gain any traction with the Australian public, no matter how much policy they passed in a very difficult parliament, or no matter what that policy was. And it’s a strategy that has seen what many of us regard as incredibly important issues safely quarantined away from actual discussion.

It’s been brilliant! It’s been, as far as I’m concerned, opportunistic, devious and deceptive, but there’s absolutely no denying that it has worked, and worked extremely well. I thus doff my hat to Mr Abbott, who has done what so many thought was impossible. Well played, sir. Well played!

What Mr Abbott seems to have realised right from the very start is that this game of politics is all about perception. ‘Facts’ simply don’t matter as much as perceived reality. With this in mind, Mr Abbott went about setting up a framework of perception that has seen him gain the Prime Ministership.

He brilliantly(-but-deceptively) framed the issue of ‘budget crisis’, for example, playing on the seemingly ingrained belief of Australians that the Labor Party are just not ‘economically responsible’. This is almost completely ignorant of the facts, however, considering Australia’s extraordinary economic position under the previous government which set it up as one of the strongest OECD economies. But facts are not nearly as important as perception.*

He framed the asylum seeker issue as one of battling invading hoards, who were, perhaps, seeking to undermine ‘the Australian way’. Playing on the bizarre(-but-seemingly-inherent) xenophobia of white Australia, he and Mr Morrison were able to set up the perception that asylum seekers were flagrantly disregarding the ‘rules’ of seeking refuge; if they were willing to disregard those rules of ‘law and order’, what others would they disregard? In an extraordinary move, they were even able to co-opt the language of ‘compassion’, arguing that it could not be compassion that invited people to their deaths on the open seas (by not having strong enough punishments in place for those who did arrive by boat).

On foreign aid, he managed to exploit the tension between ‘helping them’ and ‘looking after your own backyard first’, as well as situating giving to foreign aid in opposition to the budget getting back to surplus (even while spruiking a vastly more expensive maternity leave scheme that well and truly favours the richer end of town). Thus, we might be able to do something in the future ‘when conditions allow’, but there are, seemingly, much more important issues to tend to.

On the environment and climate change, he managed to shift the conversation to one about ‘trust’ of political leaders and to a constant focus on ‘cost of living pressures’. The perception created was that all and every cost of living increases were to be blamed on the price on carbon, and that this was ‘unfair’. Discussion about future generations and the extraordinary ‘cost of living pressures’ that will inevitably come due to current inaction on climate change were completely ignored.

He also managed, in all of these areas, to isolate Australia from its international context. Discussions about the economy and public debt were divorced from the GFC and the international situation, setting up the Labor government as ‘reckless spenders’. The discussion on Foreign Aid (or what little discussion there was) was divorced from wider international ramifications. Discussions about asylum seekers were limited to what it meant for Australia, completely ignoring international ‘push’ factors and the fact that these issues are faced far more directly by many, many other nations around the world. And discussions about action on climate change were reduced to what it meant for my back pocket.

It has been incredible to watch! It has been extraordinarily effective!

And, all the while, those of us who care about asylum seekers or foreign aid or action on climate change have been trying to use facts.

We sought meetings with MPs to discuss these issues, and to present them with the information they would need to help make good decisions. We created and shared countless infographics and memes with accurate information about the reality of the situation. We started ‘mythbusting’ sites and other information sites to try to educate both politicians and the general public on these matters. We spent countless hours entering into debates and seeking to bring change through the distribution of ‘accurate information’.

Nearly all of this was done on the assumption that most people, when presented with this accurate information (on any given topic), will have the ability and desire to change previously uninformed positions, make better decisions, and their actions would follow accordingly.

We were wrong.

We didn’t appreciate how much stronger perceptions of reality are than reality itself, and how vitally important emotion is in all of these discussions. We also misjudged how deeply ingrained self-interest is in our society. On any one of these topics, if it can be reduced to an argument where self-interest is pitted against doing something ‘because it’s right’, self-interest will win  pretty much every time. Self-interest, it seems, has become an enormously powerful force in Australian political discussion. To underestimate its power is to lose the argument from the outset.

Tony Abbott (and the Coalition) did not misjudge any of this. In fact, they understood it all perfectly.

So where does this leave us?

Well, I think it leaves us with a decision to make. Are we going to admit that we got our strategy wrong, or are we going to do something about it?

To try to play the game the same way will be to continue to lose ground on these issues. We will continue to face crushing disappointment when we realise that, once again, the things we are so concerned about are effectively ignored. We will continue to wonder how we have ended up so far from the centre of the discussions, playing our hearts out but getting no closer to a match on centre court. Though I do believe that what we have been saying is ‘right’, I must admit that, as a strategy, it has been totally ineffective.

So we need a new strategy, but this is where it gets a bit tricky for two good reasons.

1) Having done the same thing for quite some time now, it’s hard to change tactics without feeling the crushing weight of overwhelming defeat. To admit that we need to change our approach is to embrace the loss that such an admission entails. It’s like someone deciding to realise losses in the stock market, once they see that the ‘wait and see’ approach has not been working and that things are not going to get better. Taking it one step further, it’s like the gambling addict who, after feeding all their money into the slot machine, has to face up to the facts that the ‘big win’ is not going to come and they must go home empty-handed.

It’s depressing. It’s easy to fall into despair at the thought. But, if we are going to move forward on these issues, we need to embrace the mistakes and make sure we don’t repeat them. It’s time, somewhat ironically, to face the facts. Admit it, suck it up, and move on.

2) The other reason as to why this is difficult is that the method is just as important as the message. I am convinced that Tony Abbott and the Coalition, as clever as they’ve been, have relied upon some devious tactics, and even outright deception. As much as I feel the desire to ‘give them a dose of their own medicine’, there are some things that I just can’t do. To use exactly the same tactics as someone like Scott Morrison, even if they are used against him, is, as far as I’m concerned’ to share in his evil. I simply can’t go there. To defeat evil by using evil is impossible.

What this means, then, is that we need to be creative. We need to understand the situation—to understand that perception and emotion are far more important, at least in the initial stages of the discussions, than ‘facts’—and to build strategies that speak to that situation all the time without resorting to deception and untruth. We need to be conscious of the ‘story’ we are telling (with our words and actions), paying excruciating attention to the detail so that we don’t fall into the trap of using trigger words or actions that simply confirm underlying frames of thinking.

It’s going to be tricky! It’s going to take a lot of effort, and it means embracing the complex reality of seeking to change social structures. We need to get it in our heads that reality is far more complex than we might like to admit, and that it may not be a straight line to our goals.

I watched the movie Lincoln recently, and there is a quote that really stuck out to me. I have no idea as to how accurate it is, but the scene with Lincoln and Thaddeus Stevens (played by Tommy Lee Jones), where they are discussing the ‘compass’, is one that has not left me.

In discussing the way towards the end of slavery in the context of the Civil War, Lincoln gives the following example:

A compass, I learned when I was surveying, it’ll… it’ll point you True North from where you’re standing, but it’s got no advice about the swamps and deserts and chasms that you’ll encounter along the way. If in pursuit of your destination, you plunge ahead, heedless of obstacles, and achieve nothing more than to sink in a swamp… What’s the use of knowing True North?

I believe that what we have been saying in regards to asylum seekers, and in regards to foreign aid, and in regards to action on climate change is ‘true north’, but we seem to have fallen into a swamp that we didn’t see coming. We are right; what we are saying is ‘true’. But we’re now completely bogged in a swamp, and I’ve come to realise that most people don’t really pay too much attention to what swamp people have to say.

The road ahead is not going to be straight. We will need to take notice of the (many) obstacles in our way. It will be a zigzag rather than a straight line, and a marathon rather than a sprint. But, if we are clever, we can begin to present our message in a way that is actually heard (through the clanging symbols of public discourse in Australia at this time), all the while not losing our integrity in the process.

It’s going to be hard, but since when did we think it was going to be easy?


* Having won the election, the Coalition seems to have cooled much of this talk. Even their policy costing didn’t seem to treat the issue as quite the ‘budget emergency’ they had been insisting on. In speaking to a friend about these issues, and raising this exact point, I was met with the answer that, of course, things aren’t quite so bad now that the Coalition is in. Despite there being no substantial change in the underlying situation, the perception that the economy is in a ‘safe pair of hands’ has been enough, apparently, to remedy the situation.


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Josh Dowton

Student of history/theology/nonviolence/permaculture/missional thinking. Large of limb, red of hair. Semper in excretia sumus, solum profundum variat.

8 thoughts on “Asylum Seekers, Foreign Aid, and Climate Change: A Failure of Strategy and the (not so simple) Way Forward”

  1. Great work Josh. No pity party here, just a great assessment of the situation. Lets hope the like minded will unite and help overcome the non-truths, perception bending and self preservationist mentalitity of our nation!

  2. This is one of the best posts I’ve read Josh. I really like what you have to say. I feel hopeful reading it. And while it will be a long road I think a focused and united effort will be key.

  3. Josh, a great piece, and while I don’t have a solution strategy, I think I can help narrow down the problem. While both the Coalition and Labor have their underpinning ideologies, they are both confident that their traditional voters in their safe seats will always vote for them. They have both realised that they must win power at any cost in order to implement their ideologies, and that elections are only won in the swinging seats. So, they just poll the hell out of the swinging seats, and simply regugitate what they hear from this polling. I bet that for example, they hear from these swinging seats that they don’t like asylum seekers coming in by boat. That’s why we have witnessed the appalling tragi-comedy of each party’s tit-for-tat “We can treat asylum seekers worse that the the other lot”. It therefore seems to me is that our job is to help change the attitudes in the swinging seats, and the major parties will simply follow suit when their polling reflects the changes. I don’t have the answer to how to do that yet, but that’s where we would need to focus in order to effect change.

    1. I shall go back and remove some of the offending italics. I sort of just spewed all of this stuff out and hadn’t really been conscious of it, but it’s good to know.

      I admit to have been hoping for a deeper discussion of the content, but I guess it’s a pretty big problem if people are being distracted by the (clumsy) form and are therefore directed away from that discussion.

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