"Fate Keeps On Happening": Australia, Boat People, And The Repressed Immigration Issue
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Australia's leftish Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has displayed a fairly formidable range of literary awareness, running the gamut from free market economist F. A. Hayek (whom he resents) to theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (whom he reveres). This daunting curriculum, though, appears never to have included Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

A pity. Because Rudd's current political plight calls to mind the maxim of that novel's intrepid but pragmatic heroine Lorelei Lee: "Fate Keeps On Happening".

The "fate" in question is the 2001 national election, which should have been a disaster for conservative John Howard, head of Australia's government since 1996. Opinion polls for most of 2001 had Howard well behind.

Then two things happened to save Howard's career.  Most spectacularly, 9/11 helped frighten the electorate into having doubts about the advisability of changing horses in mid-stream. But even before that, in August 2001, there was the MV Tampa affair.

The MV Tampa was a Norwegian cargo ship carrying more than 430 (exact numbers are variously given) Third World asylum seekers, mostly Afghans. Howard—fearful of an anti-immigration backlash led by Pauline Hanson, then at the height of her fame—refused to permit the Tampa to enter Australian waters.

This decision, of course, inspired profuse moaning from the commentariat, international as well as local, about Howard's "xenophobia". Such moaning increased in its intensity when he proclaimed: "We will decide who comes to this country, and the circumstances in which they come."

On Election Day, the opposition didn't have a prayer. Howard returned to office with an increased majority, the first of his country's Prime Ministers to manage this feat since Harold Holt in 1966.

No adult Australian, least of all in Rudd's Labor Party, has forgotten the humiliation of this defeat. It has burnt its way into Labor's collective soul, in a way that other, still more severe Labor losses (such as Gough Whitlam's landslide routs in 1975 and 1977) failed to do.

Consequently immigration hardly figured in the 2004 election campaign. Labor's leader that year, Mark Latham, was spectacularly erratic in many respects. But on a few themes he possessed a certain native horse sense. He compelled his party to accept a policy of increased penalties for people-smugglers and for those who overstayed temporary visas. No way was Latham about to tolerate accusations by Howard of being soft on illegals.

Suitably impressed by the resultant bipartisan front against illegals getting special privileges, most people-smugglers ceased attempting to ply their noisome trade in Australia's vicinity. 

Until now.

In 2009, an exclamation by the late Heather O'Rourke in Poltergeist II is newly appropriate to describe the advance of boat people: "They're baaack!"

On April 16, a fishing boat containing Afghan illegals caught fire, killing five people—not three, as originally reported—and injuring 40 more, many of whom were taken to Royal Perth Hospital. (For footage of the fire, see here.)

In the aftermath of this tragedy, the Rudd Government has been left looking much more rattled than at any time since it stormed to victory at the 2007 election. (At that election, it had deprived Howard not only of the Prime Ministry but of his own parliamentary seat in Sydney. Not coincidentally, Howard had not raised the immigration issue again.

The post-Howard "conservative" Liberal Party opposition, led by Malcolm Turnbull—a prize instance of the pseudo-Catholic pro-abort pol with whom Nancy Pelosi, Joe Biden, and John Kerry have made Americans depressingly familiar—has the scent of blood in its nostrils, for the first time since 2007. Turnbull is accusing Rudd and his cabinet ministers of covering up information about the explosion and its aftermath.

"They know full well what's happened", Turnbull insists. "They've known for some time. They should tell the truth. That's all we're asking them to do." [Rudd Braces For More Boat People, By David McLennan, The Canberra Times, April 21, 2009]

Turnbull's critique is purely technical, however. He has specifically repudiated the Howard era's border protection policies, which alone, if re-established, might have some chance of restoring the situation to the 2001-2007 status quo. In essence, he is emulating John McCain's shunning of the issue that hurt McCain so badly with the Republican base.

This is a problem, because while no-one in authority will confirm as yet whether the explosion occurred deliberately or accidentally, what remains indisputable is Prime Minister Rudd's personal anger at people-smugglers.

Such anger makes a conspicuous contrast with his usual public persona (periodically likened to Harry Potter) of cherubic blandness. But he recently called people-smugglers "the vilest form of human life" and hoped that they would "rot in hell".

Whereas in 2001 it was Labor which found itself trapped in a "damned if it does, damned if it doesn't" vise apropos illegals, now this unenviable victim status is firmly maintained by Turnbull's Liberal-National coalition. Turnbull's natural aggression means that he cannot be seen to agree with Rudd's policies regarding the illegals, or anything else. This aggression has made him publicly hated without being even remotely respected, a fatal combination in politics, as Machiavelli long ago explained.

Meanwhile, opinion polls (carried out, admittedly, before April 16) had Rudd coasting along on a 74 per cent popularity rating. Those who preferred to see Turnbull take over from Rudd as Prime Minister constituted a grand total of 24 per cent.

The same polls found that the usual mid-term blues had simply failed to occur. Rudd's own party has been not just unscathed but, rather, strengthened. Labor led the Liberal-National coalition by 58 per cent to 42 per cent. That was actually six points better than the result with which it won office two years ago. (A subsequent poll, reported on May 4, showed a slight decline in Rudd's popularity. Still, 64 per cent of respondents continued to prefer Rudd over Turnbull.)

So on present trends, Rudd is unlikely to lose the next election, due no later than 2010. Besides, incumbency gives a much greater advantage to first-term Australian Prime Ministers than it does to first-term American Presidents. 

To find an Australian national leader who lost office after a single term, à la Jimmy Carter or George H. W. Bush, we must go back to the hapless James Scullin, flung out of the Prime Ministry in 1931, during the Great Depression's depths. (For newsreel footage of Scullin, see here.) Even Whitlam, chaotic administrator though he was, secured for himself a second term, in 1974.

If the boat people issue continues for long enough to do Rudd serious damage, Australia's conservatives might have a chance at winning power. Or, who knows, they might even raise the issue of legal immigration, effectively kept out of politics by the usual bipartisan consensus since Hanson's implosion.

But probably, like the GOP in the U.S., they will opt to play the political game in the approved way—and lose.

R. J. Stove [send him mail] lives in Melbourne, Australia.

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