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Fence-sitters key to asylum seeker success


'Fencesittersf' by Chris Johnson shows a man on the high sees caught between boats representing the supporters and critics of Govt asylum seeker policy.Since writing last January about the need to rethink pro-asylum seeker campaigns, I have had people from both sides of politics share their frustration over the status quo. There is a consensus that nothing has worked, if the polls and government resolve are anything to go by. But it's hard to work out what a disruptive campaign looks like, other than getting non partisan figures as your spokespersons (say, sportsfolk and media personalities).

The complexity of the issue makes it difficult to prescribe policy outcomes. A push for a significant increase in humanitarian intake heightens anxieties around unemployment, infrastructure and 'special treatment' for 'illegal' migrants. A push for humane treatment of detainees gets entangled in arguments around deterrence, including that softening conditions would again increase the likelihood of deaths at sea.

Every proposal potentially hardens resistance. Even boycotts of companies that have profited from mandatory detention — though a legitimate, destabilising tactic — face the inertia of a disengaged public.

We are also at the point of this issue where consequent scenarios are difficult to resolve. If, for instance, the detention facilities on Manus Island were to be shut down as many have urged in the wake of the violence there, what is the feasible alternative? Where could detainees be housed and how would that affect the way their claims are processed, if they are to be processed at all? What exactly happens when no one — not PNG, Australia, a third country or even the country of origin — will provide settlement or protection?

Such questions make it difficult to mount a campaign. Pointing out that the irregular movement of people is an international issue or that Australia has humanitarian obligations have been shown to have limited appeal.

In fact it has constituted something of an efficiency problem for campaigns. After more than a decade of refugee advocacy, campaigns still cater to small 'l' liberals and progressives. They are of course critical to consolidating support for asylum seekers and sustaining political pressure. But they are inefficient in the sense that they appeal to those who are already receptive. This is far from adequate.

Change requires critical mass, momentum, tipping points. Targeting those who are natural supporters is as inefficient as trying to change the minds of hardliners. The relevant question is: how can a campaign reach out to the ambivalent middle, the superficially resistant? How can we engage them without alienating them?

In the January poll run by Essential regarding treatment of asylum seekers, 18 per cent responded 'Don't know' to whether the Federal Government was too soft or too tough. In the same poll, 10 per cent picked 'Don't know' as closest to their view among different settlement scenarios for boat arrivals.

Most poll readers skip past these figures, focusing instead on how Labor, Liberal/National and Greens voters viewed genuine refugee claims. But if the 10 per cent represents real uncertainty rather than reticence, then it is a potential tipping point. Given that 46 per cent believe that asylum seekers arriving by boat should be allowed to stay in Australia if they are found to be genuine refugees, then 10 per cent could be a game-changer.

This involves more than political engagement via rallies, letters to your local MP, petitions and op-eds. It requires accommodating everyone who shares the same concern, regardless of disagreement on other issues.

Yet the debate has become so polarised that it would seem as if the left has a monopoly on compassion. This is a serious campaign problem because it makes the space hostile to those who might otherwise be allies. I have heard first, second and third-hand accounts of Liberal Party members, conservatives and libertarians feeling the spectrum from discomfort to outrage. They are culturally resistant to traditional forms of protest such as 'not in my name' rallies, but this does not mean they are not trying to find ways to temper the Government's approach.

It seems to me that the tipping point will not be the Labor Party showing remorse for closing the books on seaborne asylum seekers. It will be consolidation of dissent on the right, with conservative figures in politics, business and the media emerging from the backrooms. It will go a long way toward 'socialising' dissent, giving others permission to speak out and — crucially — making the ten-per-centers think twice.

There is continuity when it comes to harsh asylum seeker policy and it demands disruption. We need a circuit-breaker. A campaign that targets the 'undecideds' in a sophisticated way and accommodates supporters across the political spectrum may be the start. Cathartic one-off campaigns have their place in this discourse, but we also need to consider what a long-haul movement looks like.

My guess is that it will require building relationships with unlikely allies.

Fatima Measham headshotFatima Measham is a Melbourne-based social commentator who contributes regularly to Eureka Street. Her work has also appeared in The Drum, ABC Religion & Ethics, and National Times. She tweets as @foomeister .

Topic tags: Fatima Measham, asylum seekers, Manus Island



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Existing comments

I think a big part of the problem are the hostility and dismissive intolerance and self-righteousness shown by members of the pro-asylum lobby. They don't believe in compromise and they insult their opponents. They have no respect for any other opinion, and thereby contribute to the hardening and polarization of opinions.

Alex_D | 07 March 2014  

Where on earth does this consensus that "NOTHING has worked" come from? At this point in time, for many weeks and against all the predictions of the scoffing Left, Tony Abbott has stopped the boats, thereby preventing many deaths at sea. If nothing has worked, then those saved lives must count for ... nothing. Yet the Left "seem" to have the monopoly of compassion? Well, maybe ... to the Left. I rather think it has about as much compassion for human life as Greens do for creatures hacked to death by wind turbines.

HH | 07 March 2014  

Agree with some points but getting tired of people who criticise the people who are actually trying to do something. We have actually been through all this before. Sportspeople have spoken up, those on the conservative side have stood up, many Australians have run many different kinds of campaigns, over many years. Things would be considerably worse for refugees if it was not for those efforts and it is unfair to ignore the efforts of so many and not understand the "not always obvious" influence that has been exerted. But it is only when the boats have not been coming in great numbers that a wider shift in attitude occurs. There are no easy answers to this and those who think they have some answers actually need to take action themselves, rather than suggesting what others should do.

Deja vu | 07 March 2014  

What would be good is if people stopped prattling nonsense and get to the point. Everyone has the right to seek protection from persecution in other countries. This is not ambiguous, there is no wriggle room, there is no need to pretend it is complicated when it is not. Complications only arise when our parliament wastes their entire time trying to get around that simple bedrock humanitarian law that cannot be over ridden by any government to garner racist votes.

Marilyn | 08 March 2014  

LEADERSHIP. Politicians created the fear. New leadership with vision, cred & guts is needed in the tradition of Fraser & Hawke. Someone has to start blind, without thinking of electoral consequences only, to break the polarisation. The people will follow. LABOR MUST CHANGE, NOW before next election. Must acknowledge past mistakes. People are TIRED of all the deterrence rhetoric, the waste, the picking at the edges of it all. Easier to change in opposition. Multi pronged approach needed. Lobby MPs on both sides. That's what SERCO & G4S do. Shake the tree every which way until the rotten fruit falls.

Fabia Claridge | 08 March 2014  

Hi Fatima thanks for your article. Key to waking the nation is where you say "A push for humane treatment of detainees gets entangled in arguments around deterrence, including that softening conditions would again increase the likelihood of deaths at sea." Fatima asylum seekers are making the perilous journey by boat until they are intercepted by Operation Sovereign Borders. Death may still be occurring but due to the covert nature we just don't know. There will still be deaths at sea under OSB. We can talk humane alright. Nothing else they are doing is working.

Lou Dingle | 08 March 2014  

The present government's policy towards asylum seekers who arrive by boat is a multi-faceted one. It is possible to object to one facet e.g. offshore processing without objecting to others e.g. turning back the boats safely. There are people, such as the current Catholic Bishop of Parramatta, who support the taking of more refugees but advocate a preference for taking those already processed and accepted as genuine refugees by the UN and who are actually waiting to be accepted by host countries. The whole issue is a complicated one. There are concerns amongst the general public, such as one about accepting more Muslim refugees, because of the fear that some may be radicalised, as indeed some are. There are other issues, such as pressures on the federal and state health and welfare budgets, which, given problems of poverty amongst indigenous and other Australians, need to be faced. There is no "magic wand" solution. What is really needed is for more Australians to look at the issues involved seriously and make up their own minds so we don't have a large proportion of "undecideds" and a genuine national consensus. That consensus may go the way you advocate, it may not.

Edward Fido | 10 March 2014  

Thank you Fatima, for clarifying the political factors for us. What do we mean by “it works”? HH think it “works” if the boats stop and nobody dies at sea, at least in “our” waters. What if people are dying at sea and we are not being told? What if they die at sea north and west of Indonesia trying an alternative destination? Under this government we will probably never know. The other use of “it works” is that the demonisation of people stops, the dooming of people, especially children, to long-term mental ill-health. For that to work we need community placement of people. I notice that the Uniting Church is offering to house asylum seekers. I wonder if the government will take them up on that offer. So, some cheer when boats stop but asylum seekers live semi-permanently in degrading circumstances. Others will cheer when asylum seekers live with dignity. The $300,000 a year spent on each asylum seeker held on Manus Island or Nauru could surely be much better spent. For example, for that you could buy each asylum seeker family a house and that would provide jobs for the building industry.

Janet | 10 March 2014  

It seems to me that much of the comment above is more about shooting the messenger than debating the issues. It could even be said of some that over time it has become a deliberate tactic.

Brian Larsson | 10 March 2014  

This is a perceptive article. I agree with Alex D that the pro-asylum people are on the whole impervious to debate. However, those against the present policies often do no more than wring their hands over the plight of the asylum seekers (except for all involved in the Asylum Seekers Resource Centres) - without coming up with decent alternatives. We do need a circuit breaker - and I have no doubt that the stopping of the boats is only temporary. Africans have been coming across the Mediterranean for many years (and are not put into detention) - and people will keep coming over the Timor Sea for many years more, after the present lull.

Rodney Wetherell | 10 March 2014  

I agree in asmuch as some of the rhetoric is ont he extreme and not taking into account others views. Also perhaps some clarity between refugees and "economic refugees"- the latter aspect alienates many.

Barbara Mann | 10 March 2014  

The main opposition to asylum seekers seems to be the self-centred fear of some personal inconvenience, among a slight majority of voters, if the refugees are allowed to settle here. Perhaps this could change if an equally selfish policy were adopted of accepting only those who could be seen to be able to make an immediate and positive contribution to the Nation's economy.(Cricketers?). Once these were assimilated, there might be a realisation that others could also make positive contributions.

R>obert Liddy | 10 March 2014  

I think the lack of any alternative that is "100% acceptable" keeps many people in limbo. There ARE no easy solutions, just some that are (marginally) better than others. I believe the fence sitters are awaiting a "great" solution - I encourage them to help us find it. The more of us working on better outcomes, the more likely we are to see them.

Anne | 10 March 2014  

Commenter Marilyn is right, as always. One may claim that deaths at sea have been reduced, but only to have deaths and suicides by desperate and ill people in the concentration camps we have set up for them. Perhaps Australians need reminding of the enormous, gigantic cost of running these concentration camps - far cheaper to have mainland processing. (Tasmania would be my choice).

Russell | 10 March 2014  

Agree with Alex, and Marilyn's attack that those who oppose her are racists is the problem - it entrenches the views of those who disagree.

angela | 10 March 2014  

Janet, my contention is that the proposition "nothing works" is only true if the deaths at sea haven't stopped. If they have stopped, then SOMETHING is working even though the solution is not perfect in ALL respects. As Ann rightly observes above, there are no easy solutions, certainly none that have been offered on this blog, save for high sounding but unhelpfully vague rhetoric about "negotiated regional solutions". It is typical of so-called "pro-asylum seekers" (NB: I'm "pro-asylum seeker" too! And "pro-economic refugee". And "pro-totally uneconomic refugee" for that matter) that they refuse to acknowledge that a substantive good might be coming from the Coalition policies ... namely, the prevention of drownings at sea if considerable numbers of people - which I submit is a substantial plus, every human life being of incommensurable value. It is further typical that they hide behind conspiratorial theses (" there might be deaths going on the government hiding from us") which makes their position conveniently non-falsifiable on any evidence. Not a good look.

HH | 11 March 2014  

As an Australian I am left asking myself many questions. The first one I ask is 'What's it like to have blood on my hands'. Our Government does things in our name, my name. Someone dies. Everyday people die a little more inside. Ive found fight for so many battles ovrr a lifetime. Now I feel helpless and overwhelmed in the face of our cruelty. I ask what are we doing. Who are we. What is thus dark fear we have inside us. Are we afraid of our history. I feel a great sense of shame. How do I stop participating in my nations shaming, my own shaming. How do I resist, bring about change. I don't know the answers, just my questions.

john | 11 March 2014  

Once you take a matter out of the theoretical sphere into real life aspects of it which appear so simple in a discussion forum become complicated and defy simplistic solutions: this is the way the issue of the treatment of asylum seekers by our government has gone. I find the simple chant of "racism" by Marilyn and her supporters unhelpful, as I do John's seeming attempt to implicate me and everyone in this country with the deaths at sea, presumably on the grounds that "our government done it". Would we could wave a magic wand and solve the problem like that. This is, as I have said previously, an issue which needs to be debated in the public sphere with everyone in this country feeling their voice has been genuinely heard. Given the number of vested interests around that will be difficult but necessary. Your two recent articles on the subject have been a useful starting point, Fatima. I found them balanced and sensible and the way you wrote would not alienate anyone. It is a pity many who share your viewpoint appear not to have the wit to follow your example. They tend to shoot themselves in the foot.

Edward Fido | 12 March 2014  

Hello, agree with the general gyst/comments/observations of your article.Having been involved in highlighting Central American human rights issues in the 90s the small Sydney group I was involved with were able to develop links over the length & breadth of the political spectrum from churches to unions etc which proved to be worthwhile. Just to mention as an example we were even able to garner support from the heart of the North Shore which one would not have initially expected. Perhaps, just to speak very, very generally, a more conscious attempt to unify all those concerned with the asylum seeker issue may help, as well as devising awareness raising strategies that would appeal to a broader audience would also be useful. e.g. the recent candlelight vigil had a good turnout showing if the right form of 'protest expression'.can be devised where people from the general community feel more comfortable with showing their deep concern over asylum seekers may become far more publicly visible. (However, with such actions one may say there needs to be a far more co-ordinated follow up to build on such favourable sentiment). International pressure also needs to be seriously considered. All the best. Nicholas.

Nicholas Nicola | 14 March 2014  

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