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Australia: Playing Political Bingo with Boat People

An upturn in the arrival of refugees to Australia by boat has brought tragedy and controversy. The issue of border protection that dominated the 2001 Federal election has re-emerged with extra venom.

A refugee boat has exploded off the north west coast.Three people are dead, two are missing and more than thirty have been injured, some with very serious burns. Three members of the Australian Defence Force, which was towing the boat, are among the injured.

Western Australian police say three people are dead and two are missing following an explosion on board an asylum-seekers’ boat being escorted to Christmas Island this morning.

Three dead, dozens injured after explosion on asylum boat ABC News Online 17 April 2009

Allegations that the fatal explosion was caused by asylum seekers have also revived the political storm surrounding the children overboard affair.

Claims that fuel was deliberately poured over the small wooden fishing vessel before the blast will be the focus of inquiries by police and the Northern Territory coroner.

Sabotage fear on boat blast The Age 17 April 2009

A political stoush has erupted with Opposition parliamentarians accusing the government of causing the increase in boat people and encouraging people smuggling through its changes to border protection.

Bloggers are also taking off the gloves. Gary Sauer-Thompson at Public Opinion bemoaned the attempts to politicise asylum seekers again:

Doesn't the old hang on. The Liberals are banging the drum about border security, bad asylum seekers, boat people and soft on security. It is just like a replay of the old children overboard affair with undercurrent of Asian hordes invading Australia because they read The Australian and realized that Rudd Government has gone soft on the processing of asylum seekers.

The reality is that most asylum seekers arrive by plane, many are sent back, whilst the asylum seekers who arrive by boat are processed on Christmas Island. Children are treated more humanely, the so-called “Pacific Solution”, which had people sent to Nauru has been abolished and it has scrapped temporary protection visas, as well as reforming detention policy.

banging an old drum

Mark Thomson’s blog, Seeking Asylum Down Under, has a clear purpose:

Yes, we remember! Blame the victims for their own plight, extract as much sensationalism out of the role of people smugglers, put words in the mouth of ADF personnel who cannot answer for themselves, and then whip up public sentiment against refugees. Throw in dollops of confected outrage over your political opponents complete lack of preparedness to face down the ‘threat’ and you have the typical Lib's stock in trade response to the terrible plight of some of the most vulnerable people on the planet.

Oh, I forgot – then you set about making weak neighbouring countries complicit in policies that violate human rights!

Human rights in Australia – the fear & smear Liberals are at it again over asylum seekers!

Another progressive blog, Club Troppo, was more restrained:

Yesterday’s “boat people” explosion near Ashmore Reef west of Darwin, in which 3 people were apparently killed outright and many more seriously injured, has eerie if obvious parallels with the “children overboard” saga of 2001 which helped John Howard to his third successive election victory.

Returning to the present, there is a crucial difference between the situation the “children overboard” and “Tampa” asylum seekers faced and that of yesterday’s group whose boat apparently caught fire and exploded. The current group didn’t face being towed back out to sea, and they almost certainly didn’t face prolonged immigration detention while their protection visa applications were processed.

In those circumstances, WA Premier Colin Barnett’s claims that the asylum seekers deliberately doused their vessel and the surrounding waters with petrol doesn’t seem to make sense. There must be more to it than we’re being told, unless these particular asylum seekers simply hadn’t heard that the old Howard government “towaway zone” or ”lock ‘em up offshore and throw away the key” policies were no longer operative. There’s a lot more to be told about this story.

The old explosive asylum story reignites

The alternative view was put strongly by Andrew Bolt, newspaper columnist for Rupert Murdoch’s Herald-Sun and perhaps Australia’s best known and controversial right-wing blogger:

AT least three boat people now dead. So how much “kinder” do Kevin Rudd’s policies seem now?

John Howard was supposed to be the cruel one, said Labor. It was Howard when Prime Minister who put in the Pacific Solution, whisking illegal boat people to Nauru, rather than land them here.

Too harsh, said Kevin Rudd, and scrapped it. It was Howard who cut the legal circus that allowed illegal immigrants to play the system for years, until we gave up trying to deport them.

Too harsh, said Rudd, and laid on lawyers. It was Howard who cut the lure of benefits and then imposed on illegal immigrants the imminent threat of return.

Too harsh, said Rudd, and scrapped the Temporary Protection Visas, giving all illegal immigrants—including well-heeled ones fleeing no particular danger—instant access to permanent residency with all the tempting benefits and rights.

Too harsh, said Rudd. And enlightened opinion cheered. Now we were nice. Really? So how nice is it to have now lured at least three people to their deaths? To have not one child overboard—oh, what a confected scandal that was—but a whole boatload of 49?

Yes, indeed. This is a “people overboard” scandal, but for real this time.

People overboard, and the kindness than kills

Possum Comitatus at Pollytics did not show any restraint when condemning Bolt’s post:

… there is no larger magnet for outright bigotry than asylum seekers.

With refugees it’s literally Moral Panic Bingo; Islam, terrorists, race, xenophobia – refugees are the ultimate canvas upon which the shallow end of the public affairs pool can paint their own preferred pathological animosities. If you don’t believe me, then undertake an experiment:

Write down 9 favourite themes of the small minded nutjob set, not specifically about any given thing, any old generically bigoted idiocy will do – then pop on over to the usual creatures that prey on such feeble minded antipathy and read the comments sections on any post they have about asylum seekers. Every time one of your predicted themes is mentioned by a commenter, mark it off – you won’t have to read far before you’ll be shouting “Wingnut Bingo!”.

Of all the Wingnut Bingo halls in the land, there is none bigger than that hosted by The Undescended Testicle.*

He started yesterday with his sneering innuendo, of asylum seekers being “Lured by Rudd to their deaths?”. There really are no boundaries that Bolt’s hysterical Rudd Rage refuses to cross – although the only thing really being “lured” here are miscreants by the bucketful into Andrew Bolt’s site –herding the dross of the internet into News Ltd advertising by playing up to their shallow and spiteful little fantasies.

Why Andrew Bolt should be Sodomised with a Calculator – Part 142

Not the usual sort of criticisms we expect from a statistician and psephologist. For his data analysis you’ll have to visit Possum’s post.

It appears that most of those on the boat were fleeing Afghanistan, a country where Australian troops are currently fighting the Taliban.

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