Sunday, October 7, 2007

Michelle Grattan: What Was Andrews Thinking?

The ever-thoughtful Michelle Grattan had an interesting take on the African refugee quota issue in today's Sun Herald. I'm not quite as quick as Grattan to dismiss the "race card" explanation. Yes, pulling the race card in 2007 would be seen as a "cynical tactic" - by the people who are inclined to care about cynical tactics. This is a dishearteningly small proportion of voters, as the repeated reelection of John "Children Overboard" Howard attests.

But I think there's something in Grattan's emphasis on where the Africans Overboard issue would play badly. The Australian electorate can be broken down as follows: a largish minority of voters who abhor the race card in all its forms; a smallish minority of rednecks for whom stories about AIDS-ridden refugees serve as a call-to-arms to defend Straya from the imminent threat of damned foreigners; and the majority, who aren't mobilised either way on questions of race, preferring to vote for, say, whichever government will allow them to buy a bigger plasma screen. The first group would never vote Howard in a million years; the second voted for Hanson, then redirected to Howard when it turned out that Hanson was crazy, not to mention embarrassing; the third group is the one Howard needs to woo if he wants to hold on to government. And as Grattan points out, it's not 2001 anymore. That doesn't necessarily mean these people will see discussion of race as a political ploy, but I think Grattan is right to say they won't be mobilised by it as they were over Tampa. They are too busy wilfully ignoring the Government's plaintive defence of its IR policy.

Incidentally, it seems to me that much of the backlash against Andrews over this has focused on the fact that it isn't true that African immigrants cause more than their fair share of angst. All well and good: I have nothing against what Stephen Colbert calls "fact-based agendas". And it's always nice when you can point out to people that they are just plain wrong. But I haven't seen much objection to the framing of the question, thus: even if African refugees were disproportionately represented in crime, would that absolve us of our ethical duty to provide a home for those who genuinely - and, in the case of the Sudanese, desperately - need it? My strong feeling is no, it would not. The UN High Commissioner on Refugees agrees: quotas for refugees are supposed to be based on need, not on some notion - whether well-supported or not - of who settles most successfully once they're here.

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