Asylum seekers and the art of compromise

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When it comes to the asylum seeker issue, making incremental improvements in unsatisfactory circumstances may be the best we can hope for, says Victoria Rollison.

IN MY last post, I promised to explain my distrust of the way the media portrays the asylum seeker ‘issue’. A week is a long time in the blogosphere. Since writing that post, this so called ‘issue’ has been front page news as the Government tries reach a compromise, with the aim of reducing deaths at sea. I liked Jonathan Green’s article on ABC’s The Drum: Crying shame: tabloid cynicism over asylum seekers, as it was a satisfactory summary of how the mainstream media flips from one position to another (hatred to sympathy), with no acknowledgement of the anti-Government impulse that drives the change. I also liked Malcolm Fraser’s opinion piece in the Sydney Morning Herld a couple of weeks ago, which laid out the bare facts about asylum seekers — facts almost completely absent in the mainstream media.

I felt conflicted over the week, watching the Gillard Government trying to find an off-shore processing solution that the Liberals and Greens would agree to. I hate the idea of asylum seekers risking their lives to come by boat to Australia, only to be sent somewhere else as soon as they get here, as if they aren’t worthy to even set foot on our shores. I hate the fact that most Australians don’t understand the concept of seeking asylum and, urged on by the media, believe that we are at risk of being ‘flooded’ by ‘illegals’. We’re not being flooded. And seeking asylum is not illegal. I don’t understand why Australians don’t feel grateful to live in a place that is so great that others would risk their lives to live here. This makes me feel lucky. But most merely feel a sense of entitlement, enabling them to decide who else is allowed to share their good fortune. Off-shore processing is, therefore, a very unpalatable policy to me. But this week, I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that it’s not always possible to fix something completely. There really are ‘wicked problems’ that might be impossible to solve. My Dad loves to quote Tony Judt in this sort of circumstance:
“Incremental improvements upon unsatisfactory circumstances are the best that we can hope for.”

So, if off-shore processing, particularly the Malaysian Solution, does discourage refugees from getting on a rickety old boat and risking their lives on treacherous seas to make it to Australia, then maybe it is an incremental improvement worth aiming for. No doubt, life in Malaysia, or Nauru for that matter, will be a nightmare for these refugees. But at least they will be alive, and not watching their family drown. This is the horrible compromise we are left with. I’m also very keen on the clause within the Malaysian Solution that binds Australia to the promise of accepting 4,000 refugees a year from squalid Malaysian refugee camps. These are the people who don’t have two cents to rub together, let alone enough money to pay a people smuggler. Surely these are the people who need our help the most?

Compromising an ideal solution for a lesser solution, but one that is an improvement on what is happening currently, is not an easy decision. It’s the grey between the two extremes of the Liberals’ black – ‘turn back the boats’ – and the Greens’ white utopian universe – ‘quick onshore processing with no mandatory detention’.

It’s incredibly difficult for Gillard and her colleagues to make the tough calls that come with running a minority government in the current media landscape. Everything Gillard does is reported negatively, which makes it even harder for her to compromise. Look what happened when she compromised with the Greens to bring in the carbon tax. The best journalists painted this decision as ‘weak’, and the worst have labelled her a ‘liar’ ever since. But if saving the planet and saving refugees from death by drowning is all about the art of compromise, then maybe it’s time the mainstream media painted compromise as an achievement, rather than a fatal flaw.

(You can read more by Victoria Rollison at www.victoriarollison.com.)

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