The long, red memory

The Labor Party never recovered from the Tampa affair. The episode caught it unprepared and the party has remained that way since. They formulated no meaningful policy in response. They took no position, which in politics is the worst position. Border protection cost them the 2001 election. 

From that day forward, Labor has been afraid of refugees – unable to advocate for them, unable to think about them as people. When they begin to consider the issue, they cannot see anything but how they lose. All they have is self-defeat.

This avoidance – the fear that for Labor always follows failure – meant the party was unprepared for the High Court decision on indefinite detention. They preferred not to think about it until they were forced to. 

As has always been the case, their platform was prepared not in response to the issue but to the Coalition. Three people drafted the legislation and one of them was Peter Dutton.

We are back now in the worst panic on refugees in more than two decades. Labor is still fighting with the Tampa’s long, red memory. Grasping laws are being drafted, criminalising freedom. They express overreach as a virtue.

These laws are unlike almost anything else in the world. The system is made with glue and paddle-pop sticks and there is room in it for every one of the clumsiest additions.

Judges will now sentence refugees for imaginary crimes. They will borrow from medicine the word “preventive”. They will be asked to invent foresight to replace the absence of it in our politics.

As in all panics, the old hatreds of the press have returned. Their dormancy has made them only uglier, like mushroom spores. On the front page of The West Australian are calls for ministers to resign. The headline reads “Everything is fucked”. The Daily Telegraph describes them as “Asylum creepers”.

To read the papers is to be told everyone released from indefinite detention is a paedophile or murderer. The government claims this unchallenged, because the opposition dared them to. The favourite phrase is “hardened criminal”. 

For Dutton, this is purely political. “The reason these criminals are in the community is because of the ministers’ incompetence,” he says. “Their decisions have resulted in further Australians being harmed. It’s a disgrace. No further excuses.”

Two decades ago, Labor could have begun drafting a compassionate policy on refugees. It did the opposite. At its national conferences, it avoided debating the issue. In a state of fear it attempted to project strength. It has been doing this ever since, inventing more and more elaborate punishments to save them from thinking about refugees at all.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 9, 2023 as "The long, red memory".

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