While the Labor Party debates their asylum seeker policy at their national conference this weekend, grappling with the task of finding a tenable position, a challenge that has plagued Labor Prime Ministers for the last 20 years, I would like to ask a question: can progressive voters debate this position without bitter accusations and name calling? I hope we can.
To try to encourage civil discussions, I’ve come up with an analogy for Labor’s situation which might help us to look at what I have previously described as a ‘wicked problem’, a phrase I note Labor’s Immigration spokesperson, Richard Marles also used to defend his argument at the conference.
Imagine you are the government, and Australia is your home. Your home is large, comfortable and well-resourced with plenty of food, air conditioning, many bedrooms and a communal kitchen with a huge dining table, perfect for dinner parties. The catch is, your home is on Kangaroo Island so the only way to visit is to either take a ferry from the mainland, or fly in a small plane. Nevertheless, since you have many friends and family on the mainland, you decide you would like to host a huge dinner party where guests are welcome to stay for the weekend. Planning this dinner party and weekend getaway is, however, fraught with problems.
Unlike the actual ferry to Kangaroo Island, which is expensive to catch, the ferry in this analogy is not only expensive but also dangerous. As far as people can tell, because not all accidents are recorded, at least one in ten ferry passengers fall off the ferry in stormy weather and drown. No matter how hard the authorities work to inform passengers of these risks, the ferry owner selling the tickets has a vested interest in hiding the dangers from his customers and therefore many people pay the expensive fare without realising the game of Russian roulette they are entering into. Would they really pay all that money to come if they knew? Would they risk the lives of their families too? But you know all about these risks, having lived on Kangaroo Island your whole life, so when you invite people to come and visit, you hate the thought of endangering their lives. Some residents on the island are more blasé about the risks, saying ‘let them come by ferry if they really want to’. But you couldn’t live with yourself if you encouraged people to take the ferry ride and you waited for them at the dock and they never arrived. Luckily, there is another option; a small plane. So you make sure that all your guests are going to be advised that the ferry is not a safe option, and instead you insist on them flying to visit you.
Once you have travel plans sorted, you need to have a serious think about how many people you can accommodate for the weekend. In a perfect world, you would put an open invite out on Facebook and anyone who felt like turning up would be welcome. But you know that’s not practical; you have over 500 friends on Facebook and there’s no way you can accommodate all of them. If you told them all to turn up if they feel like it, making no effort to find out who is coming in advance, you would run out of space on a first come, best dressed basis and would have to turn everyone else away. But how do you turn people away when they’ve made all the effort to get to Kangaroo Island? You’ve already put bunk beds in three of your bedrooms to sleep as many guests as you possibly can, and you’ll seat as many as you can afford around the huge dining table even if they have to sit on stools to fit. But there is a practicable limit, so you settle on a maximum number of 30 friends and family, 6 more than you were able to welcome last year.
Most of your friends can afford the cost of a flight, which is not only safer, but also cheaper than the ferry. However, some of your family aren’t well off and, although they too would love to come and stay, can’t afford the cost of a flight. But you really want to make sure these people aren’t left out of your dinner party plans, so just for those who can’t afford it, you offer to pay for their flights. It’s worth it to make sure they come safely and aren’t disadvantaged by their financial position.
When the weekend arrives, you welcome your 30 guests with open arms. Everyone sleeps comfortably and are well fed and entertained during their stay. By the end of Sunday afternoon, a discussion has started amongst a group of your guests who have decided they love Kangaroo Island so much that they too would like to live there. There is plenty of land on the island to build new homes and the local businesses would love the extra business from the growing population. One of your guests is a primary school teacher, and the island has a shortage of teachers, so her move is extra advantageous for everyone. You’re also thrilled to know you will have more friends living on the island, because it means next year, you will be able to invite 30 friends and family from the mainland for another weekend away, or maybe even more if you build another two bedrooms on the back of your house. And everyone lives happily ever after.
Yes, this is a simplistic appraisal of some of the wicked problems faced by governments designing a workable asylum seeker policy. But I hope it’s made you think a bit harder about the reality of these issues, rather than jumping to either the ‘let them come’ or ‘don’t let them come’ black and white ends of a very grey situation. I hope Labor can find a way to design an asylum seeker policy that it is both humane and workable, and as I wrote previously, doesn’t preclude Labor from winning government. Because we all know Abbott’s home might be just as large and comfortable as Labor’s, but since he’s banned house-guests and enjoys the support of many voters encouraging him to keep the door locked forever, it’s not the Australia we, as progressives, should feel proud to call home.