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One Last Desperate Try at Using Asylum Seekers as a Political Wedge in Australian Politics

This post is part of a collaboration between Border Criminologies and Geopolitics that seeks to promote open access platforms. The full article, on which this piece is based will be free to access for the next month.


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4 Minutes


Rachel Sharples
Sociologist, School of Social Sciences at Western Sydney University
Kevin Dunn
Professor in Geography and Urban Studies, Western Sydney University
Thierno Diallo
Senior Lecturer Biostatistician, School of Social Sciences, Western Sydney University

Guest post by Rachel Sharples, Kevin Dunn and Thierno Diallo. Rachel is a Sociologist in the School of Social Sciences at Western Sydney University. Her research areas include displaced persons, refugees and migrants in local and global settings; the construction and projection of ethnicity, culture and identity; statelessness, citizenship and belonging; and spaces of solidarity and resistance. Recent publications include claims of anti-white racism in Australia, discrimination in sharing economy platforms and the concept of borderlands spaces. Rachel’s manuscript, Spaces of Solidarity was published by Berghahn Books in 2020. Kevin is a Pro Vice-Chancellor Research and Professor in Geography and Urban Studies at Western Sydney University. He has expertise in racism and anti-racism, immigration and settlement, Islam in Australia, and local government and multiculturalism. He is leader on the Challenging Racism Project, and has lead four ARC Discovery Projects, two ARC Linkage Projects as well as an ARC Linkage International Project, and been a Co-Investigator on five other ARC Projects. Thierno is Senior Lecturer Biostatistician in the School of Social Sciences at Western Sydney University. He has research skills in statistical analytical skills involving testing of latent variable models and related statistical methods, spanning across item response theory, structural equation modeling, mixture modeling and multilevel modeling. He has contributed directly to advances in statistics and his research focuses on the development and the application of quantitative methods.

Asylum seekers, Australia

Australia has emerged from yet another federal election campaign where asylum seekers were used as a political wedge to sway voters. On the morning of Australia’s federal election, the Prime Minister Scott Morrison went against his own government rule not to comment on ‘on-water matters’ a and announced the interception of a boat from Sri Lanka carrying people seeking asylum. As he emerged from casting his vote, he was quoted as saying: “I can simply say this. I have been here to stop this boat, but in order for me to be there to stop those that may come from here, you need to vote Liberal and Nationals today.” Shortly afterwards, the Liberal Party sent out robo-text messages to voters in marginal seats announcing the boat interception and encouraging voters to vote Liberal to keep borders secure. Now Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, accused Morrison of engaging in “…abuse of proper processes and disgraceful act from a government which was prepared to politicise everything but solve nothing”. Morrison’s election day tactics could be seen as a last-ditch attempt to use a populist wedge to gain votes.

In April, four weeks out from the Federal Election, Prime Minister Scott Morrison accused the opposition Labor Party of learning “nothing when it comes to border protection”. On the other hand, his government, he claimed, had “established one of the most successful border protection policies anywhere in the world. So successful that other countries ware taking their lead from Australia’s successful approach”. Morrison then made the pointed connection to boat arrivals and smugglers: “When Labor abolished temporary protection visas in 2008, the armada of people smugglers’ boats came to Australia and that was the launching point”. Morrison’s comments were in response to the opposition Labor Party plan to abolish temporary protection visas were they to win the election, a point that was also discussed in the final leaders’ debate on May 11. To be clear, the Australian Labor Party supports the turning back of asylum seeker boats, offshore processing of people seeking asylum and their resettlement in countries other than Australia, but they have labelled temporary protection visas as expensive, bureaucratic and unnecessary, and have vowed to do away with them should they be elected.

While asylum seekers have dominated public debate at the last seven federal elections in Australia, it might seem surprising that it has yet again become a battleground in the 2022 election. Asylum seekers arriving by boat have all but ceased. Prior to Morrison’s election day announcement, no boat arrivals had been reported since 2020. The number of asylum seekers remaining in offshore detention sites has largely diminished. There are 112 asylum seekers remaining on Nauru and with the Manus Island facility closing in 2017 and the arrangement with the PNG Government ceasing in 2021, there are estimated to be 105 asylum seekers who remain in the community in Papua New Guinea. Approximately 250 asylum seekers were brought to Australia under the short-lived Medevac legislation, most of whom have now been resettled in third countries. While Nauru remains an offshore detention site for the Australian Government, there is little appetite from either country to continue the practice in its current form. The conditions under which refugees and asylum seekers live onshore in Australia therefore remains one of the few points of conflict that politicians can use to weaponise the issue. Refugee Council of Australia CEO, Paul Power, called Morrison’s comments, “Electioneering at its worst”, suggesting a calculated revival of this long-used political tool to try to influence voter behaviour.

Asylum seeker rhetoric over the last two decades has been framed through a border securitization agenda that has tied irregular migration with strict border enforcement measures designed to protect national sovereignty and target people seeking asylum who are deemed a threat. This has been a highly successful strategy on both sides of politics, and is reflected in the majority of Australians’ (76%) supporting the government’s hard line policy approach to people seeking asylum. Our recent study shows that Australian’s are split into three groups when it comes to attitudes towards people seeking asylum. Twenty-four percent are pro-asylum seekers and think Australia should support refugees and asylum seekers. Twenty-two percent are anti-asylum seekers and do not think we should support refugees and asylum seekers and they support tough border policy. Fifty-four percent are pro-government policy but largely sympathetic to refugees and people seeking asylum. This last group provides some explanation for how successive governments over the last two decades have been successful in selling a tough border policy, though not entirely eradicating sympathy towards refugees and people seeking asylum.

While there has been a lot of talk of people seeking asylum and boat arrivals being a vote swinger, there is little evidence to support that government positions on asylum seekers influence voter behaviour. One study has found that people do not care enough about this issue to let it influence their vote. Nonetheless, political parties on both sides of politics have effectively constructed people seeking asylum as a threat and a problem, entrenching a now highly politicised policy disposition that is inhumane, costly and harmful. In addition to causing harm, government policy is politically and economically nonsensical, made up of practices that are not in the interests of many citizens, nor in the wider national interest. That these debates receive heightened attention around elections, suggests politicians use asylum seekers as a political wedge to distinguish the two parties, despite both parties remaining largely aligned in their position on asylum seekers. It is hard not to see this as a cynical political ploy that serves no other purpose than to perpetuate a prejudicial and ultimately dehumanising narrative of people seeking asylum.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

R. Sharples, K. and T. . (2022) One Last Desperate Try at Using Asylum Seekers as a Political Wedge in Australian Politics. Available at:https://blogs.law.ox.ac.uk/border-criminologies-blog/blog-post/2022/07/one-last-desperate-try-using-asylum-seekers-political. Accessed on: 26/05/2024

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