Rudd's shifting moral high ground


When he was first prime minister, Kevin Rudd lost the support of the people when he put off legislation for a carbon emissions trading scheme. He'd shirked what he had identified as the 'greatest moral challenge of our time'. Facing that challenge was part of the mandate given to him by electors, who had also embraced Rudd's wider moral project, which included the apology to the Stolen Generations, the wind back of inhumane asylum seeker policies and the repeal of WorkChoices.

As we know, he was spooked by the Coalition's sudden populist change in direction on climate change, and lost his nerve. But three years later, he's back. Moral purpose has once again become part of the agenda, at least in the sense that he said in his statement on Thursday that he is 'resuming' with 'humility and honour' the task given to him by the Australian people in 2007. 

Commentary in the past week from Rudd supporter Maxine McKew suggests as much. She argues that, with regard to charting the course for the nation's future prosperity, Australians could well be ready for Rudd's 'moral dimension', and the burden-sharing and self-sacrifice that involves. 'The recent ready acceptance of a mandated levy to pay for the country's National Disability Insurance program suggests Australians are perfectly capable of signing on to sensible proposals that are seen to benefit the wider community.'

That is certainly consistent with the moral goodwill that was in evidence when the Australian people elected the Rudd Government in 2007. But it also belies the wisdom accepted by many political leaders that they must demonstrate a harsh attitude to asylum seekers or face an electoral rout in Western Sydney and elsewhere. 

This is reflected in an early clear signal of Rudd's new policy intentions. He told colleagues during the week that he would not 'lurch to the left' on asylum seekers. Subsequently, foreign minister Bob Carr was on message when he said on Lateline on Thursday that the situation has changed and most boat arrivals are now economic migrants rather than genuine asylum seekers. 

Policy advocate John Menadue immediately pointed to figures contradicting Carr's proposition. But the Foreign Minister appears deaf to such voices and has quickly adjusted his own rhetoric to conform to the Rudd moral purpose narrative. He is boldly asserting that the Rudd Government's moral credentials are intact, by framing boat arrivals as a law and order matter and not a moral issue. 'I say to those Australians who believe this country ought to distinguish itself by its decency to refugees, the problem in front of us measurably has changed.'

No doubt that is just what the voters of Western Sydney need to hear before deciding to give their Labor local members another chance. 

Significantly the 'change' has occurred in the interregnum between the two Rudd prime ministerships. Therefore it is possible to morally justify Rudd's 'lurch to the right on asylum seekers' now in a way that such a shift could not be sanctioned when Rudd criticised Gillard's apparent resolve to move in that direction on the night he lost office to her in June 2010.

Rudd skeptics such as the ABC's Scott Stephens regard the Rudd moral purpose narrative as a furphy. Time will tell whether he is right and Maxine McKew is wrong. 

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street.


Topic tags: Michael Mullins, asylum seekers, Kevin Rudd, Bob Carr, Julia Gillard, economic migrants, Australian politi



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Existing comments

What is truly deranged is that they are still bickering and being vicious during the biggest global refugee crisis in the past 20 years. Carr though has no moral compass and never did.
Marilyn | 28 June 2013

Why has Rudd come out with this campaign against Abbott over the boats? Because it worked for him last time. This time his desperate exagerated manipulation is seen for what it is and the media are not running with his deceit. Rudd is the risk. How dare he use this situation for political points.
Steve B | 29 June 2013

"Policy advocate" John Menadue? Not exactly an objective source, Michael. Thus: Menadue's sole bargaining point in the piece linked is that Carr is wrong about the refugees being mainly economic refugees because official stats show that 90% of refugees end up being classified as asylum seekers. Of course they do - it's very hard NOT to be classified an asylum seeker by the gatekeeper bureaucrats in DIAC and the RRT, given that many of them are former refugee advocate lawyers themselves and operate in a culture wherein they know they'll lose their jobs if they reject too many applicants.(Guess who stacked the tribunals this way? K Rudd.) Which is why we get the process accepting as asylum seekers for example: an Iraqi adulterer fleeing from the aggrieved husband whom he fears will kill him! It's not surprising then, that a wopping 90% of applicants (either at first round or appeal) are successful in Australia, whereas the global rate of approval of refugee status applications by the UNHCR is about 30%. Whether he's saying it out from moral intentions or not, Bob Carr is right: Australia is a soft touch. It's perfectly moral (specifically: prudent and just) to point this out.
HH | 29 June 2013

Now that Kevin Rudd has regained the Prime Ministership, after a protracted battle, he needs to return the faith the electorate has shown in him by being the leader we so hope he can be. He needs to not only win the election, but win comfortably enough to implement significant changes - to asylum seeker policy and other great issues before the Australian people. A big ask!
Pam | 29 June 2013

Menadue is not an 'objective source' but HH is? Come on HH, you don't want any Muslim people admitted at all irrespective of whether they are refugees or not. You've said as much in previous posts.
Ginger Meggs | 30 June 2013

Carr is probably the most successful Premier of NSW electorally in recent history. He knows what works with voters, especially those in outer suburbia, much derided and discounted by the inner city progressives. Hence, when you say: "He is boldly asserting that the Rudd Government's moral credentials are intact, by framing boat arrivals as a law and order matter and not a moral issue. '' you have hit the nail on the head. Politics is not about morality but about reality as perceived and acted out. Success in some matters, like the end of apartheid, is where politics and morality successfully intersect. Sadly for them, the advocates of better treatment for boat people have not reached the target spot. I think the voters of Penrith and Melton are underwhelmed by talk about morality. Therein lies the problem: in a populist democracy, you must address the general populace.
Edward F | 01 July 2013

I urge ES readers to read John Menadue's dignified response to Bob Carr, URL-linked in Michael Mullins' essay. Menadue's essay implicitly poses the question - are the latest groups of refugees ultimately going to make any less of a contribution to our rich multicultural Australian society than previous groups of refugees since 1939 have done? I have no doubt of John's answer. It is the only possible answer for a civilised country.
tony kevin | 01 July 2013

Rudd is playing populist policy. Whatever it takes to keep him in the top job. Can't blame him for feeling aggrieved but to pay back in kind so close to an election has placed Australia second to the power grab of the ALP. This tactic will not work and will certainly bring no sane conclusion to the problem of boats risking the treacherous passage between Indonesia and Australia. Morality has to begin with the safe passage of all those genuinely in need of asylum! [including those stuck in camps in Africa and beyond]
Jackie | 01 July 2013

It is not so simple to distinguish between refugees and asylum seekers in places such as shi lanka and Iran. both are ruled by corrupt regimes with large numbers of people are unemployed and going through hard times. They will take extreme measures to leave the country.
John ozanne | 01 July 2013

Edward F you are spot on. Reality not morality is the key. I'm holding my fire on Mr Rudd until I see/hear/read what come out of his visit to Indonesia. If he squibs the asylum seeker issue like Abbott did, he's lost me. If he raises the issue and gets some sort of bi-partisan agrreement (even if only on a law and order basis) with Indonesia, he'll get a tick for Realpolitik. If he raises the issue and there is is no change, it's back to the crystal ball.
Uncle Pat | 01 July 2013

While the debate on the criteria for legitimacy rages let us all focus on a true moral outrage - holding children in mandatory detention. Kevin Rudd can demonstrate that he has an ethical perspective and that the country has a compassionate heart by directing that, as his now Treasurer Chris Bowen promised before he left the position of Immigration Minister, that no child would be held in a detention centre. In the Northern Territory alone at this present time there are 500 children in detention. I have seen babes in arms behind the wire at the Airport Lodge detention facility in Darwin. I'm sure these tiny humans were not in a position to determine whether, as they jumped on a rickety boat, they were economic migrants or asylum seekers.
Mike Bowden | 01 July 2013

GM, I oppose possible or actual terrorists and other identifiable undesirables from any background being allowed into Australia. Thus I would have opposed any IRA member, or anyone with loyalties to them or to the Stern gang in decades past. On the other hand, there are relatively peaceful Muslim cohorts who might well be considered as candidate immigrants, all other things being equal. BTW I have no objection to Menadue expressing his sincere opinion (though I disagree with it) - it's just that the article here cites him as if he's someone who transcends the political hurly-burly, which of course he's not.
HH | 01 July 2013

Does Bob Carr believe the present wave of asylum seekers are overwhelmingly NOT Hazaras and Rohingyas and Sri-Lankan Tamils. Or does he believe (or pretend to believe) that Hazaras and Rohingyas and Sri-Lankan Tamils are not persecuted minorities in their native lands. How could an educated man hold either view? Only the persecutors could agree with him.
Gavan Breen | 01 July 2013

I am rather sick of this topic. It is shameful that so much debate and time and energy is wasted on these illegal boat arrivals. To legitimize their lies, gross wrong actions is itself totally wrong. As an Australian citizen I am ashamed that we cannot control who enters Australia.
Stanley G D'Cruz | 01 July 2013

Woah! Stanley. We can control who enters our country. It happens at every entry control post. What we can't control (under our own laws and forces) are people who leave other countries (with or without the connivance of those countries' officials) and make their way towards Australian waters. In those waters The Law of the Sea becomes operative. I'm disappointed that our bilateral relations with our Asian neighbours are so poor that a humane solution to the world wide problem of refugees cannot be addressed in a humane and generous manner. I have toyed with the idea that Australia should do the people smugglers out of business by offering the host countries to transport the refugees at half the cost the smugglers are charging. Such an approach would be a win-win-win. Only the smugglers would lose. However it would mean turning international relations into a system of mutual respect and understanding instead of the current NIMBY approach.
Uncle Pat | 01 July 2013

Concur with Stanley but for different reasons. Until the refugee advocates apologise for calling Australians racists & rednecks as so many have done, there cannot be any change in public opinion. The public will not listen to refugee advocates until they do the honourable thing of saying they made a mistake. Once that happens the debate could really begin.
Angela | 01 July 2013

HH, Howard's gate-keepers were no less ready to classify people as genuine refugees than the present batch. If you are being critical of the refereeing process being in the executive wing of government rather than the judicial, then I'm with you completely. Surely a cleaner, more transparent, and more just way of dealing with people who arrive without prior permission (whomever, wherever, and however) would be to arrest them and bring them before the courts on the charge of being illegal immigrants. Those who pleaded not guilty on the grounds of being entitled to asylum would then be committed for trial/determination according to law and with due process and a date set for trial. The magistrate would then determine, after hearing argument from both sides, whether those charged should be held on remand or released pending trial. No one, and I mean no one, should be subject to detention for more than 24 hours or so without being brought before a magistrate who would then determine the matter. Detention by executive fiat should be definite no-no. Agreed?
Ginger Meggs | 01 July 2013

I support immigration, and even increasing our refugee intake, but we need to select our refugees, not allow them to select us. While much of the refugee industry is driven by genuine compassion, a very large part is driven by politics. The Left’s support for refugees has always been about politics, not principle. George Galloway, expelled from the British Labour Party, who planned to visit Australia this month at the request of Diaa Mohammed of MyPeace, was elected to parliament last year by appealing to young Muslim voters in Bradford. His hatred of the Judeo-Christian West was evidenced by his call for a global alliance between Islam and the Left, and he once said “the disappearance of the Soviet Union is the biggest catastrophe of my life.” Like Judas Iscariot who proclaimed his concern for the poor because he was really a thief (the ointment used by Mary on the feet of Jesus could have been sold for 300 denarii and given to the poor), so too, many refugee advocates dress up in the flattering robes of compassion, social justice and human rights which conceal their real political motives.
Ross Howard | 02 July 2013

I think you're pretty much on the money with this Ross Howard: "I support immigration, and even increasing our refugee intake, but we need to select our refugees, not allow them to select us." There was an excellent article, citing support from the Muslim community in this country for this sort of approach in today's Australian. I have no doubt that the people smuggling industry is a criminal enterprise run by criminals. Uncle Pat is quite right: the PM needs to bring the Indonesians on board on this one. That is the only way we will stop the boats. Increasing refugee intake through normal channels is fine. We do not need to demonise or ill treat illegal arrivals. However, this has become a major security and economic problem and we need to use both head as well as heart to deal with it.
Edward F | 02 July 2013

Sounds pretty constructive, GM, at first glance. I'll give it some thought. Ta.
HH | 02 July 2013

Hard to decipher reality on asylum seekers in the moral sludge. Is Rudd et al saying that when Hazaras were fleeing Taliban and Iranians fleeing following Democracy protests last time, that he was too slow to adjust Australia's barriers and as a consequence more asylum seekers arrived than he should have let in. Convoluted sentence but so is Rudds reframing of asylum seekers arrivals. The question is then- does our government no longer believe that asylum seekers have a right to flee persecution, execution etc? Does our government believe that they should stay put unless selected for rescue?
Pamela | 05 July 2013

From the Vatican: Australia studying critical UNHCR report . ,
Game Theory | 16 July 2013


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