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Refugees and the myth of moral equivalence

For many Australians voting is our most potent and accessible form of political power. That means that we need to make sure that our votes are a true reflection of our political priorities. That can be a complicated calculation, even when you have a clear idea of your own political beliefs.

There are countless legitimate ways to determine who gets your vote.  Some people pragmatically assess what will be best for the things they care about. For others, votes are ways of expressing ideals and principles. And ultimately, we have to decide which candidate best matches the judgements we make.

Australia is famously politically conservative; we are cautious about who we elect. Voters don’t stray too far from the centre, which means neither do most candidates – at least, the ones who tend to be successful. Australians will accept change, but they want it to be incremental and they expect politicians to have to justify it.

But this doesn’t mean that electing one party is as good as electing another. Australia’s parties do no small amount of soul-searching to figure out just how much they need to moderate their values to make them palatable to a diverse public. Convergence is a product of voters’ conservatism, not a cause, and fundamental differences remain.

Labor believes in public health and hospitals, while the Liberals recently attempted to introduce a GP tax. Liberals believe wealth should deliver a superior education, whereas Labor supports access for everyone to high quality schools. Perhaps most fundamentally, Labor believes in collective action and rights at work while Liberals believe workers are better off unburdened by industrial protections.

Climate change, taxation, transport, public ownership of utilities – the list goes on. For most Australians these are the things that determine quality of life; these are the things they care about, and the things that make the difference.

There is one area, however, where you would be forgiven for thinking that the convergence has been total.

The Greens and parts of the progressive movement are outspoken about what they regard as a bipartisan policy on asylum seekers and refugees. It is common enough to hear some progressives lament that any and all good advocated by the Labor Party is undone as a result of an unconscionable capitulation on asylum seekers. As one commentator recently put it, “just how much negative gearing reform justifies torture?”

They are right. Indefinite immigration detention subjects innocent, vulnerable people to appalling, punitive treatment. Offshore detention offloads our responsibilities under international law onto our impoverished neighbours who are not capable of handling them, and guarantees that our duty of care to asylum seekers will never be met. And it hurts people. Kills people. Destroys people.

This form of detention produces a known harm and violates nonderogable human rights, and even if we don’t have a perfect alternative, we should at least reject that. Labor should reject that.

But Labor’s opponents are also wrong. Even in this case of convergence, there are important differences. Labor is an internationalist party which supports the Refugee Convention. It has a more generous foreign aid policy and wants Australia to adopt a higher refugee intake from the UN‘s resettlement body.

In government Labor signed OPCAT, an international instrument which would allow detention centres to be independently inspected, implementation of which has been stalled by the Liberals. It tried to initiate a regional solution which would have introduced into Malaysia an infrastructure for supporting and processing asylum seekers within the community.

And if the tragedy of women being raped on Nauru and needing abortions were repeated, Labor would bring them to Australia for care, instead of abandoning them.

These mitigating factors might not be enough to redeem Labor in the eyes of many who want the cruel bargain at the heart of this policy extinguished, and that is understandable. Sadly, polling and bitter political history suggests that, across the electorate, those for whom this is the case are in the minority.

A minority might be enough for alternative parties to take some inner-city seats from Labor. That may trigger the political vanity of the party and push Labor to the left. It might also push Labor to the right as they look for new electorates in which to compete. It may deliver government to less sympathetic parties, or it may have no effect whatsoever. Results federally and in Tasmania have been mixed.

Voters are capable of making that estimation for themselves, and I don’t mind what they decide. Whether progressive seats are held by card-carriers or fellow travellers matters very little in the scheme of things. Besides, democracy requires that citizens are accountable only to themselves when they cast their ballot and not only can I understand voting on issues of asylum, I can respect it.

But it does frustrate me when progressives are misled about who their allies are. It frustrates me when they are presented with a contrived equivalence between Labor and the Liberals, because it’s not true.

And the untruth of it makes it a cynical electoral tactic which puts progressive outcomes at risk.

Every election is important. This election is important for at least a couple of unusual reasons. It is a double dissolution election, which means that votes for the Senate will have an increased significance. And it is the first election since a new voting system was introduced which allows people to number multiple boxes for parties, above the line.

This new system has greater integrity than the one it replaces. Electors can be more certain that their preferences will go where they want them to go. But it also creates a risk of votes exhausting: of voters’ preferences running out and their vote not being counted at crucial points in the election.

Creating the mistaken impression that Labor and the Liberals are equivalent is likely to discourage voters from indicating their preference for progressive parties all the way down their ballot. It might mean voters inadvertently deal themselves out of the decision-making process, and give anti-refugee conservatives a helping hand.

Perhaps even worse, it risks damaging the respect that voters have for our democracy and the hope and energy they have to campaign to make change possible. Because even though this variety of cynicism might be dressed up in skinny jeans, it’s the same kind of scorched earth, us-against-the-establishment rhetoric Donald Trump has used in the US to blind people to moral complexity.

And it is when our morality hangs in the balance that we need the strongest grasp upon it.

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