Refugee Policy: A Cruel Bipartisanship

ANU Press
Publication Type:
Double Dissolution The 2016 Australian Election, 2018, pp. 593 - 617 (25)
Issue Date:
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Facing the media after a reported 5.6 per cent swing against him in the Brisbane seat of Dickson, Australian Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Peter Dutton defiantly declared that the Coalition was ‘a victim of our own success’.1 ‘The fact that we stopped boats and got children out of detention’, Dutton asserted, meant the ‘issue’ of ‘border protection’ and people arriving in Australia unauthorised by boat to seek asylum ‘had gone off the radar’ (quoted in Hutchens 2016). The minister’s assertion was certainly provocative, if a little misleading. While Australia’s policies towards refugees and asylum seekers did not appear to feature prominently in the 2016 election campaign, this was largely due to a confluence of circumstances, not all of which were of the Coalition’s making. These circumstances primarily included the bipartisan support for the three key pillars of Australia’s increasingly draconian deterrence model (namely, boat turn backs, regional processing and the mandatory detention of certain asylum seekers) and the exceptional government censorship of information from inside immigration detention centres and the official secrecy surrounding the implementation of Australia’s military-led Operation Sovereign Borders (OSB). This meant that the Coalition and Labor had both orchestrated a situation where there seemed to be little political mileage to be gained from foregrounding the issue of Australia’s refugee laws and policies during the campaign. Instead, the election contest predominantly played out across more traditional issues of economic and social policy, such as job creation and the funding of healthcare. Despite being a highly volatile political issue, refugee policy could rarely be seen to determine the outcome of elections—perhaps with the exception of the Coalition’s major 2001 electoral victory in the wake of the Tampa affair. Since 2004, fewer than 10 per cent of surveyed voters have ranked the issue of ‘refugees and asylum seekers’ as the ‘most important non-economic issue’ in federal elections (McAllister and Cameron 2014: 21). Despite the lack of prominence given by the two major political parties to the issue of refugee policy relative to previous election campaigns, it nonetheless surfaced at key moments to reveal its political potency. For example, some minor political parties, certain media outlets and community activist groups were particularly vocal on the issue. This chapter argues that these moments attest to both the anxious nature of Australian nationalism and multiculturalism, and the increasingly prominent deep discursive linkages between asylum seekers, terrorism and the securitisation of migration and borders.
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