Labor must find its missing moral backbone

While Tony Abbott makes false connections between asylum seekers and homegrown jihadists, Labor remains silent. In doing so, it is dooming itself to political irrelevance.

"We have stopped the illegal boats. We will make sure we stop the jihadists as well."—Tony Abbott.

It is surely true that for many people in Australia, there is a connection between the millions of refugees in camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan and the home-grown Australian jihadists fighting in Syria and Iraq, some of them allegedly involved in war crimes of the most horrific sort.

Perhaps Tony Abbott did not deliberately set out to make this connection. But that he made it is not in doubt.

Some connection between terrorists and asylum seekers has been there for many Australians since 9/11 and most strongly felt (and feared) since the so-called Tampa election in November 2001. The threat of terrorism was real and raw and so little was known about the asylum seekers except that they apparently came from the same regions that the terrorists came from.

Now we have the added troubling fact that perhaps 150 or more young Australians, in some cases second and third-generation Australians, are in Syria and Iraq fighting for one or the other jihadist militias –if any of these gangs of chilling fundamentalists and in some cases mass murderers can be called militias.

Given that a connection between terrorism and asylum seekers has been there for more than a decade -- no matter how vague and undefined that connection has been at times -- the fact of the home grown jihadists has undoubtedly had an impact on how the asylum seekers are regarded in Australia. For many Australians, they represent an ill-defined but nevertheless palpable threat. 

The supposed connection between asylum seekers and terrorists is in fact a terrible fiction, but no–one in the Labor Party leadership thought it politically wise to loudly and persistently repudiate Abbott’s mentioning of `illegal boats’ and home-grown jihadists in virtually the same sentence.   

Only the Greens, with a sort of sanctimonious purity, criticised Abbott for talking about illegal boats and Australian jihadists in the same breath. But the Greens then sought to somehow underplay the threat of home grown jihadists. The downplaying of home-grown jihadists is something the Greens have in common with some sections of the left.  

Why do the Greens and others on the left want to discount the threat posed by Australian jihadists, a threat that on any factual based reckoning is real and difficult to meet?  In part it is a reaction to people on the right like Andrew Bolt, Tony Abbott’s good friend, who have drawn rather sweeping conclusions about Muslim immigration to Australia.

Or perhaps it is the other way around: Andrew Bolt is reacting to the sanctimony of the Greens and other leftists who are so committed to multiculturalism that they are prepared to label anyone a racist who raises (in Bolt’s mind) the question of whether multiculturalism has gone too far and, given the fact that there are Australian jihadists, perhaps Australia should reduce the number of Muslim migrants in its immigration program.

Most Australians I would guess are in neither the camp of the Greens or the camp of those on the right like Andrew Bolt. They are not ideological warriors. But it is the Greens on the one hand and the people like Bolt on the other that are, in different ways, re-enforcing the fictional connection between asylum seekers and terrorists and Australian jihadists.

Perhaps Tony Abbott really did not mean to suggest any connection between stopping `illegal boats’ and stopping jihadists from returning to Australia. But he did make the connection and has not since disavowed it.

The fact that the ideological warriors are loudest on this issue is in part because Labor has been virtually silent about the false connection between asylum seekers and homegrown jihadists. For a party of the left and for a party that is committed to multiculturalism, this is shameful.  

Labor has been reduced to silence on this issue and indeed on every issue that involves asylum seekers including the appalling reality of the detention camp at Manus Island.  That’s because Labor -- even though Kevin Rudd is gone -- is as much, if not more responsible for the disgrace of Manus Island as the Abbott government.

Labor is as responsible as the Abbott government for the language in which the world of asylum seekers is discussed. The language in the main is abstract, cool, measured and heartless. The world from which the asylum seekers come has 51 million displaced persons and refugees, more than the number of displaced persons and refugees immediately after World War 2.

When asked to comment about the fate of these people, Immigration Minister Scott Morrison said Australia was meeting its international obligations and doing its share of `heavy lifting.’ And it is true that Australia is doing comparatively more than most other countries in terms of its refugee intake.

Still, there was coldness about Morrison’s language when it came to responding to what is a cruel and uncertain fate for tens of millions of people that was chilling. There is no need for more sanctimony along the lines of what the Greens manage rather well. But no party of the left like the Labor Party can truly call itself a progressive party and ignore the consequences, for instance, of its policy to send asylum seekers to PNG.

The challenge for Labor is to not only change the language in which the asylum seeker issue is discussed. A change of language is not possible without a real change in policy. The fact is that the Abbott Government has managed to stop the boats. That needs to be acknowledged.

The question is: what now? When should Manus Island be closed down? Is it really right to condemn the detainees on Manus Island to endless detention or resettlement in a country into which they are unlikely to safe or accepted? Only when these questions, amongst others, are addressed can Labor begin to change the language of the asylum seeker debate.

That is when Labor could, with some sort of moral authority, start to convince Australians that there is no connection between asylum seekers and the real and disturbing threat of home-grown jihadists.  It could then wholeheartedly support any reasonable and robust effort by the government to deal with the phenomenon of Australian jihadists.

Only then will Labor be able to begin the process of rebuilding itself as a party of the centre-left. And not only on the issue of asylum seekers but on big issues like climate change as well. 

In a sense, a centre-left party that does not take positions that might, at first (and even in the medium term) be politically difficult is always going to struggle to articulate what are its core values.

Labor most likely will not win the next election whatever it does. But if it remains what it is now, an opposition party that is modeling itself on Tony Abbott when he was opposition leader, it dooms itself not only to lose the next election, but to something approaching irrelevance.

Kim Beazley nearly led Labor to victory in 1998 but not because Labor stood for anything in particular. In fact it is hard to say exactly what Labor was about under Beazley. It is true that John Howard nearly lost that election, but Labor gained nothing from getting close.

Getting close in a sense was worse for Labor than being trounced. Getting close led to years of Labor listlessness. Labor was simply waiting for the Howard government to fall over.

There is nothing much that Bill Shorten can learn from Tony Abbott’s stint as opposition leader. There is much he could learn, however, from Kim Beazley’s failed leadership of the Labor Party.

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