Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Guns,Germs and Spiel - The Coming Immigration Debate

Last week, a 30 year old Postmaster in Sydney was arrested with two others having allegedly illegally imported 220 glock pistols into Australia over the last three months. Police discovered the syndicate's activities after tracing one such weapon used in a shoot-out in Sydney in January of this year. It is believed that the pistols, manufactured in Austria, were being imported from Germany via airfreight into Sydney.The story entered national debate when NSW Police Commisioner, Andrew Scipione said, "this isn't just a border security issue, this is a national security issue", and the cause was taken up by the Coalition in Parliament.

Today's Daily Telegraph published an short Op-Ed piece penned by Scott Morrison, the Opposition's Immigration spokesman. In it, he linked the illegal weapons seizure in Sydney last week to reduced federal Customs funding, and in so doing aimed to attack the Government's border protection credentials. With Border Security returning to the agenda, Scott Morrison is likely to have an increasingly important role in the final year and a half of the 43rd Parliament, and his recent efforts provide insight into the flavour of the debate to come.

The Coming Debate

With the passage of the Clean Energy Bill (Carbon Tax) last year, and the MRRT this week, Julia Gillard allowed herself a moment to "go scoreboard", reflecting on successfully navigating two key policies though torrid political waters.

Irrespective of whether one supported these pieces of legislation, and there are sound arguments why both taxes will not meet their lofty aims, they have now passed in to law.  This will not hinder ongoing Opposition pressure on these issues, however, particularly as it plans to campaign at the next election on repealing both taxes.

Four months after the Carbon Tax has passed the Senate and three months before it its implemented, Question Time this afternoon was still largely given over to Opposition probes into the effects the Tax will have on small business. Tomorrow, a 'Global Warming Hoax Rally' is planned for the lawns of Parliament House to call for its abolition.  After implementation in July, the Coalition will no doubt seize every power bill increase and every job loss as a means to attack the Government over the Tax.

However, it will be Labor's hope that come July 2012, voters will find themselves adequately compensated for expected costs arising from the flow-on effect of the Carbon Tax and the issue will lose some of its political potency for the Coalition. Meanwhile, despite its high-profile detractors and a potential legal challenge, the MRRT is more broadly popular with the public and Labor will expect it to prove less vulnerable politically.

After years of fierce debate on these issues, there is a sense of an impending shift in focus toward other, though no less volatile, concerns; heralded this week by the Coalition's 49th attempt to suspend Standing Orders over the issue of  Border Security.

Border Security

The phrase has been appropriated euphemistically by both sides of politics when responding to voter fears surrounding illegal immigrants, most notably those who arrive by boat. Despite receiving a comparatively small number of asylum seekers by boat each year (in 2009 - Australia received 2726, and Yemen received 77310), the issue carries significant electoral weight, particularly in key marginal seats in Western Sydney and in regional Queensland. It is one of few issues that appears to ignite political passions in Australians, for better or worse, and is therefore a powerful tool politically.

To date, the Coalition has wielded Border Security policy far more effectively. It is generally recognised that John Howard's strong-man response to the Tampa incident helped save his Government in the 2001 election, and later his Pacific Solution consolidated his resonance with Howard Battlers on this issue. Opinion polls routinely continue to report voters trust the Coalition over Labor on border protection. This perception has not been helped by the early Gillard foray into Border Protection policy with the hasty and ill conceived East Timor Solution. More recently, the High Court overturning the proposed Malaysian Solution has left policy progression at a stand still, with all asylum-seeker processing currently occurring on Australian soil.

The major parties have been left circling each other with spurious attempts at compromise. Scott Morrison was busy in Nauru, and urging Gillard to "pick up the phone" to re-activate the detention centre there. Later, Tony Abbott offered Christmas Day talks with Immigration Minister, Chris Bowen over Manus Island; and finally, Bowen produced zealously over-budgeted Nauru costings which could only be rejected. At all times, the debate has been marred by vitriol and emotion, but has until recently, been on the back burner.

Morrison re-enters the fray

Morrison was embarrassed at the beginning of last year after it became public that he had been urging shadow cabinet to make political mileage from community divisions over Muslim immigration. It compounded an already tense situation for him arising from ill-timed questions in the House regarding tax-payer funded compassionate flights for relatives of the victims of the Christmas Island boat disaster. He was criticised by moderates from within his own party for perpetuating 'hysterical rhetoric' and the politics of fear and division.

Looking at Morrison's efforts from the beginning of this year, one can read that he has not changed his approach to immigration politics and that he is liable to once again lower the tone of already pretty tawdry political debate on this issue.


On the 27th of February, Morrison produced a press release entitled 'Typhoid cases on latest boats highlight the risk of Labor's border failures'. In it, he is quoted, "when illegal boats turn up in our waters there will always be the risk that people on these boats will carry serious communicable diseases. The more boats there are, the greater the risk of serious diseases presenting" and goes on to raise fears of an "outbreak on Christmas Island or the transfer of these diseases to the mainland". Finally he lists various diseases and the number of infections detected, including 4 cases of Chlamydia.

It is worth noting the incidence of Chlamydia has tripled over the last decade in Australia, though thankfully Mr Morrison does not attribute this to illegal arrivals. It is a poor reflection on the level of debate this topic engenders that this release was barely mentioned in the press, much less derided as the the grubby spot of fear campaigning that it is.


Question Time on the 14th of this month had focussed on the Sydney weapons seizures and how Government funding cuts had reduced X-ray scanning of airfreight coming into Australia. They drew on Andrew Scipione's comments that an influx of pistols into Sydney could not be stemmed at the state level, and that responsibility lay with the federal Government, where he described it as 'the elephant in the room'.

Indeed, there have been 60 shooting incidents in the year to February in Sydney, a number of hand-guns had been imported and all but one is still unaccounted for. Moreover, Customs was unaware that this had occurred until it was discovered by the NSW Police. At this level, it is a pertinent line of inquiry.

But when Tony Abbot rose to move a motion to suspend Standing Orders on the topic, it became apparent that the Sydney Glocks were a preamble to re-opening the Stop the Boats campaign. Both Abbott and Morrison, when he seconded the motion, concluded (as he did in today's Op-Ed) that "when you cannot stop the boats, you cannot stop the guns". On face value, the attack is focussed at Government funding of the Customs Service, but the implication of its words, reminds voters of the boat people issue and links the fear of guns felt in Western Sydney streets to fear of boat-borne refugees that may end up living there.


Painting refugees as vectors of disease, or implicating asylum seekers in Western Sydney shoot outs is not good policy debate. It will not go to creating a humane and workable solution to our role in a global refugee problem that balances Australians' general compassion with a need for control along our vast borders. As Border Security returns to the legislative agenda, the challenge for both sides of the House is to disavow Morrison's style of divisive politics.

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