Rudd’s Greatest Moral Challenge

Kevin Rudd has begun his second term as Prime Minister in much the same way as he ended his first, with back-flips and dog-whistles on immigration. Through his latest capitulation to Tony Abbott, Rudd 2.0 is providing more than just neat symmetry. He has left no doubt that win or lose this election, the conservative side of politics will continue to shape Australia’s asylum seeker policy. It’s an error that will have serious consequences for his party and our nation.

While it’s been in office for almost 6 years, many Australians are still unsure about what their Labor Government stands for.  Part of this stems from Labor’s inability to use the authority of incumbency to set the political agenda.

Governments are uniquely positioned to frame the political debate and therefore set the criteria against which their own policies should be judged. Yet, since the elevation of Tony Abbott to the leadership of the Opposition in 2009, it is he, not Rudd or Gillard who has set the terms of the political contest. In Abbott, Labor has confronted an opponent who cannot be out-manoeuvred. A rank populist and supreme opportunist, no matter how far they shift their policies to blunt his attacks, he shamelessly shifts the goal-posts beyond their reach.

The failure of Labor’s ‘neutralisation’ strategy is best demonstrated in its handling of immigration. Following years of political debate, upon its election in 2007 Labor dismantled the Howard era ‘Pacific Solution.’ In 2010, this came under sustained criticism as Abbott linked an increase in asylum seekers arriving by boat to Labor’s policy change. Rudd panicked and sought to neutralise the issue by suspending refugee claims from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka. In doing so, he legitimised the opposition’s attacks.

This was the first of a number of missteps by Labor as it sought to toughen its rhetoric and its policy. Under Gillard, it went even further conceding that its 2007 policies were wrong and framing off-shore processing as a humanitarian response. Locking asylum seekers up in island prisons was now necessary in order to prevent deaths at sea and “smash the people smuggler’s business model.”

This is a curious moral argument. While the exploitative behaviour of people smugglers is well documented, punishing the victims of their exploitation in an effort to deter others is a strange response indeed. Yet this is precisely the proposition Labor has sold the electorate.

Rather than defending its own policy, for which it received an electoral mandate, Labor has accepted the Liberals’ bizarre claim that a regime derided by the United Nations and a myriad of human rights organisations, is somehow humane. In conceding that offshore processing is a deterrent, Labor has ceded its moral authority to the Liberals and offered a retrospective endorsement of the Howard era polices it once opposed.

Despite this capitulation, the boats have kept coming and Abbott has kept upping the rhetoric. Rudd has upped the ante even further with his off-shore processing and resettlement plan. This latest salvo in Australia’s escalating ‘arms race’ on asylum seeker policy was predictably met with even more tough talk from the opposition. And so the race to the bottom continues…

Labor sympathisers will no doubt argue that circumstances have not suited their party, but principles are not just things that you defend when it’s easy or expedient to do so. Principles are the things that you cling to in the most difficult of circumstances. The conviction of your belief and a willingness to stand firm and prosecute your case is the ultimate test of moral leadership. It is a test that Labor has failed.

Electoral pragmatists suggest that in ‘the suburbs’ where the issue is really biting, a humane asylum seeker policy is electoral suicide for Labor. Implicit in this is a patronising assumption that those living outside of the ‘enlightened’ inner cities are captive to an irrational racism so powerful that it cannot be countered by facts or argument.

Given the huge amount of public money being spent selling Labor’s latest asylum seeker policy, one can’t help but wonder what could have been achieved with a public information campaign focussing on the reality of the refugee experience. At least questioning whether the boats can, or indeed, should be stopped would have been a good place to start.

Much like Howard before him in his misleading politicisation of interest rates, Abbott (and his willing accomplices, Gillard and Rudd) have now ensured that the success of governments are measured against their capacity to ‘stop the boats.’ In this, Labor has handed the conservative side of politics a monumental free kick. For as long as there is war, torture and persecution in our world, there will be people seeking to flee their country of origin. Shipping the problem off to developing countries in our region might represent a short-term electoral fix, but it is hardly a viable long-term solution.

Rudd has set himself a trap that promises more electoral pain, whatever happens on September 7. Should he triumph, he will be held to account for every boat arrival. Should he lose, in tying his party to Coalition policy he has locked Labor into an escalating bidding war as it aims to ‘out tough’ its opponents. Most distressingly of all, of course, it is the world’s most vulnerable people who will continue to pay the ultimate price for this lack of moral leadership.

This piece was first published on ‘On Line Opinion’ on the 9th of August 2013. 

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