Please can Australia have a mature discussion over refugees? No, didn’t think so

The Australian “debate” over asylum seekers leave ones thoroughly depressed. Both major sides of politics seem determined to dehumanise the most vulnerable people seeking assistance. Grubby and utterly pointless. No wonder nobody really respects politicians these days. Are we truly saying Australia can’t handle a few boats arriving on our shores?

Sigh.

The Australian’s George Megalogenis nails it well yesterday:

The political death-roll between Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott on asylum-seekers has been fascinating for its lack of basic manners.

Indonesia, Malaysia and Nauru are supposed to pretend our leaders aren’t using them as partisan pincushions. The Prime Minister says Indonesia won’t take back the boats, while Nauru won’t stop them. The Opposition Leader says the Malaysians are not fit to act as our holding pen for asylum-seekers.

Gillard and Abbott are the self-absorbed bogan couple arguing over which neighbour should look after their pet greyhound while they take a holiday. He says that family from Nauru seems nice. “Don’t be silly,” she sneers, “they’ll feed it doughnuts.” She says the Malaysians next door are safer. “Knock it off,” he yells, “they’ll beat the damn dog.” Everyone in the street can hear them fighting, but they look the other way and pretend to be grateful when the call comes to mind the pooch.

It would be funny if Gillard and Abbott were just playing politics. But no Labor or Liberal leader has been this unthinkingly parochial since the last defender of White Australia, Arthur Calwell. Gillard and Abbott would be appalled by the comparison. But what are the neighbours supposed to think, when our leaders trash the golden rule of diplomacy: subtlety.

We say we only want to take those who are prepared to wait their turn. Sure, but the debate gets bogged down on the merits of onshore v offshore processing, compassion v tough love. Neither approach works if someone has to catch a boat to get our attention.

The boats would not be coming at all if Australia built, and helped run, the five-star camps in Indonesia and Malaysia that public opinion seems to think already exist on Nauru.

Any half-smart government could sell this approach to Australian shock jock and Asian leader alike because it would create the queue that is a precondition for an orderly process. But it would better if this idea came from both government and opposition because Australia works best when it doesn’t play with the fire of race.