By Michael Kennedy

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“Asylum Seekers, Refugees and Boat People are used as a way to release pressure from the real immigration debate”.


It seems that recently Australia has  rediscovered its obsession with asylum seekers.  News stories now abound of how more boats are on the way, of how asylum seekers (always by boat, not by plane) are given first class treatment, shacked up in luxury accommodation while “working families” struggle to pay the mortgage.  One only has to load up the website of Victoria’s most popular rag, the Herald Sun, and sure enough the issue is mentioned, as it is pretty much every day in the more neo-conservative publications.  “Now I’ll fix the boats: Gillard “1 says the headline.  Since when has Labor taken a strong stance against boat people?  Since it’s been a popular vote grab.  The “Tampa” election showed that its a hot button issue, even bigger than environmental degradation through salinity, emissions, the housing affordability crisis and unsustainable population growth.  

When Howard was elected in 1996 he cut the planned immigrant intake to 68,000, but by last financial year he’d more than doubled it. His planned intake for next financial year is almost 153,000 – plus 13,000 under the humanitarian program. To that you can add about 24,000 New Zealanders – who don’t need visas and will be arriving to join the 470,000 of their fellow country-persons who are here.  Last calendar year was the eighth straight year of net immigration (that is, net of permanent departures) in excess of 100,000.The media slyly links ,not explicitly, but implicitly, illegal refugees with a sense of being inundated with hordes of people.  From the opinion of many of the Australian public, that seems to be working.  Many Australians seem to believe that the country will be flooded by boat people alone, and make statements about how our infrastructure is already at capacity.  Nothing clears up the air like a bit of perspective, and nothing better brings about a sense of perspective than factual data.

In 2009, 5,000 asylum claims were lodged in Australia 2.  USA & Canada have over 80,000 claims and Europe close to 300,000.  That figure of 5,000 might seem high, but in reality, it is not.  Legal immigration exceeds this every fortnight.  This is half the number of assisted immigrants than arrived at the start of the 20th century, when Australia had a much smaller population.  According to Wikipedia, “Net overseas migration increased from 30,042 in 1992-93 to 177,600 in 2006-07. This is the highest level on record.”  In two decades, that’s a 500% increase, one largely brought about by the ‘conservative’ Howard government. Howard was an expert at making his Battlers believe he shares their dislike and distrust of foreign dominance, via sole opposition to boat people. Yet in the background on behalf of big business he ran the biggest immigration program Australia had ever seen including one where the proportion coming from non European sources is now greater than 50%.

Asylum claims therefore account for less than 3% of our immigration intake, a fairly unremarkable proportion.  Yet if you were to follow the popular press, this tiny percentage is going to inundate the country, that we don’t have room for that few percent, that if the government would just crack down and secure our borders against this few percent, we’d be a lot better.  It seems a silly position, one bereft of logic and proportion, but why are Australians so worked up about boat people?  Why did Tampa demand so much attention for the handful of people on it, when the population was increasing by thousands each week from planes flying overhead?  Why is it OK to suggest that refugees be blasted out of the water, with even the opposition minister Tony Abbott stating he’ll do “whatever it takes”.  “Whatever it takes” does not exclude some form of violent action. And why is there a strange paradox in the media, where it is permissible for paid commentators like Andrew Bolt to make all sorts of grandiose statements against them, when even suggesting that legal immigration be scaled back gets one branded a racist?

How is it that Nationalist Alternative is lambasted simply for advocating a political policy where the government would assist a greatly reduced level of international students and economic refugees (i.e. The huge ‘skilled intake’), a policy which hardly is inhumane, but the same media silently and selectively allows far more vigorous comments by neo-conservatives levelled against the small intake stream comprising boat people/asylum seekers/refugees.

You will note that none of these neo-conservative commentators speaks of removing Australia from the overarching United Nations dictates (1951 Refugee Convention) that impairs national sovereignty in the first place? They simply are not serious and only wish to defer public sentiment away from the real issues.

Surely comments about blasting women and children out of the water, who many consider could quite well be in ‘desperate need of refuge’ are indicate of a less ‘humane attitude’ by liberal standards, than comments about taking in less people to study and live here from overseas, people who are generally quite well off anyway (they have money) and are coming from countries which have a reasonable to high standard of living.

This state of affairs most likely exists because of one simple factor. Money.  Economic immigrants are skilled (at least some) and have money, or the capacity to earn money.  They will buy consumer goods.  They will put deposits on houses with over inflated prices to fund the baby boomer’s retirement and therefore keep that asset bubble inflated.  They provide labour to big business, and quite often, cheaper, that is, more ‘cost effective’ labour, as an increase in the supply of labour will drive down its cost, as there are more competitors in the race to the bottom.  Make no mistake about it, big business, the Real Estate industry and even smaller business love immigration.  The ‘ruling class’ in modern western society isn’t aristocrats, dictators, feudal lords, emperors, kings or seeming not even a democratically elected government.  It is big business, the corporations.  Anyone who’s been following the events regarding the Resource Super Profits Tax would only be too keenly aware of the clout that big business and corporations have in modern society.

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The Institute for Public Affairs have states that Western Australia needs more people to prosper.  A sentiment echoed by the mining industry. They IPA states  ?We are now in the largest boom in the State’s history. The challenge for the State is to make the most of the boom and getting more people to the State is the key to doing so.?  What can be gleaned from this, isn’t that population levels are crippling the state, but there is the potential for greater growth and greater economic gain (presumably only for those who are already well off), but that there simply is the opportunity for greater profits, if there were more people.

The IPA is a centre right think tank which advocates free market politics, trade liberalisation, climate change scepticism and limited government.  The attitude isn’t one of bringing in more people to fill a need, but a lamentation that there are potential further profits which could be gained if it weren’t for Australia’s restrictive immigration policy.  It is an attitude which suggests a lack of any form of restraint.  The last sentence states ?While more people will bring challenges, such as ensuring that there is adequate land for housing, schools, hospital beds and roads, it is the key to our future prosperity.?.  All that is written about how hundreds of thousands of Australians are going to cope with real and pressing issues they face each day, is mentioned in a throw away line at the end.  It’s pretty obvious that many who are calling for an increase in the intake of people, consider the trouble it causes for many Australia a negligible externalities.  Other companies benefit from skilled immigration.  Wages can be depressed by increased competition for jobs and bottom lines can be increased through finding cheaper sources of labour, and by lowering working standards and conditions.

What does this have to do with refugees?  Probably due to the fact that asylum seekers generally don’t have skills and don’t have as much money by the time they arrive onto the taxpayer’s payroll after sometimes exhausting thousands of dollars on people smugglers. An Afghan refugee isn’t soon going to be in a position to put a deposit on a house, or apply for a position in the IT industry.  In other words, they are less useful to big business.  Another big business, the media, relies on selling a product just like any other business.  The product that news media sells is not just news stories and information, but a guiding hand, a sense of representation for the average person.

It is no secret that most Australians think immigration rates are too high.  Many are concerned about how sustainable intake levels of 200,000 per annum are, how we can do this while water is becoming more scarce, infrastructure such as transport and health are bursting at the seams and competition for housing is high, with astronomical prices denying hard working young Australians the opportunity to own even a modest home

to raise a small family in.  Sentiment against misguided government policy, largely fuelled by a religious belief in ?growth? and rapacious and insatiable business who seems to resent any restraint is high.  This spills out into resentment against the immigrants themselves, though for the rates and social issues that have arisen as a result, Australians with their generous natures have been very accommodating and tolerant.  The sentiment is still there, and the media knows this and knows that it is a marketable product.  This leaves the media with a paradox.  They cannot steer Australians towards wanting lower levels of legal immigration because the media is itself big business.  Rupert Murdoch is not likely to kill off the inflow of people which is the golden goose for other plutocrats.  The Australian and the Herald Sun are not going to turn against the Real Estate industry and the mining industry, who buy valuable advertising space and milk Australia’s frustration at the unsustainable and rapid growth and change occurring.  How to use this sentiment, while at the same time maintaining the status quo?  The answer is simple.  Redirect the sentiment, which appears at face value to be exactly what the popular mainstream media has been doing.  With Australians concerned about growth, about the future of the nation and bewildered at the government constantly increasing the rate of population growth when most people believe the opposite is necessary based on their personal experiences, they want a media outlet which shares their concern.

The mainstream media has been doing this, by directing the ire, the resentment and frustration towards the most helpless and economically least advantageous immigrants.  Asylum seekers, refugees and boat people.  It’s always boat people too, as it conjures up images of dishevelled, dodgy looking opportunists scrambling ashore.   Asylum seekers who arrive by plane don’t look like they are doing anything illegal or dodgy, nor is there a stand off in mid air, so they are rarely if ever mentioned.  The spectacle with them just isn’t there.  With the mainstream media turning a blind eye to anti-refugee sentiment and never bothering to call the so called ‘racist’ dog whistle, they kill two birds with one stone.

Firstly, the papers sell.  Hyperbolic headlines with barely a scratch of truth about how refugees are arriving in vast numbers of boats and given luxury accommodation fuel the sentiment, and direct attention.  The attention is taken away from the vast number of people who use student visas as a back door, away from the large number of ‘economic’ migrants, and towards a relatively small, insignificant numbers of refugees.  The claims about luxury treatment, about harbouring terroristsand disease only serve to inflame passions, sell papers and sway government policy.  The government then sees asylum seekers as THE pressing immigration issue, and will act on that, rather than on population growth in general.  The other outcome is that the discussion moves towards the few percent of arrivals only, and not the bigger picture in general. The flow of labour and capital which serves big industry is no longer considered as part of the equation, and therefore is no longer threatened by discussion about immigration.  The immigration debate then is purely about stopping boats.  It has been effectively neutered.  The papers sell.  The Australian population think their concerns about growth are being attended to.  Growth continues unabated.

Australians deserve honest debate on pressing issues such as the environment, population growth through government policy, industrial relations and social programs.  But this debate is degraded and dragged into the gutter as a small proportion of the population twist the debate, and mislead the population, leading them to incorrect  conclusions and given them skewed perspectives.  Young Australians who may have only had one opportunity to vote in a federal election, or no opportunity deserve a better quality of discussion from the general public and the media.  This can only be done holding an accurate perspective, being honest about what is happening and not being led by hysteria.

In short, Australia cannot have any meaningful public debate about how immigration policy will shape the future of our nation if there is stage managed ‘contained hysteria’ about boat people. The media, which usually is so quick to hyperbole about parties who call for lowered immigration, turns a blind eye to anti-refugee sentiment , while grilling those who suggest that local students should be considered over cashed up foreign students or that the ‘legal’ migrant intake is way too high.  This is an absurd situation and one that Australia currently finds itself in.

There are of course legitimate questions and issues concerning asylum seekers, issues about processing, about controlling borders and how to differentiate between legitimate refugees (on Australia’s definition not the UNs..) from opportunists, but the hysteria is out of proportion to the problem.  If it is held to be humane to give refuge to someone fleeing persecution and possible death then it is by no means inhumane not to offer someone who has an education and a job, the opportunity to study here as a hair stylist to gain permanent residency so as to bring the rest of the family, simply because there is more space here, or more money to be made.

Australians deserve a better quality of discourse on this issue, especially younger Australians who will MOST be affected by these policies.

http://www.smh.com.au/news/national/triguboff-lets-trade-trees-for-homes/2006/10/10/1160246131958.html

1 http://www.heraldsun.com.au/news/new-pm-julia-gillard-vows-to-address-issue-of-asylum-seekers/story-e6frf7jo-1225887320708

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