EDITORIAL TUESDAY 03.11.09.
Up until now it has appeared as if the federal government has been impervious in the opinion polls. Nothing has seriously dented the popularity of either the government or the Prime Minister. The initial goodwill after being elected was reinforced with the widespread approval of the largely symbolic gestures of immediately ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, and then staging the public apology to the stolen generations. Work began to dismantle the enormously unpopular work choices regime, which has recently come to fruition with many of the new arrangements now in place, and the modernized awards due to come into effect in the New Year. And the National Health and Hospital Reform Commission began its work formulate the much promised reforms to the health system.
Then the Global Financial Crisis hit, and attention was turned to saving the economy, and protecting Australian jobs. In the face of the dramatic collapse experienced in other parts of the world, the Rudd Government implemented a stimulatory policy which has proven to be both broadly popular, despite some hiccups, and apparently effective, despite concerns from the opposition that it was too costly. Throughout everything, through every challenge which has emerged so far, the popularity of the Rudd Government has remained extraordinarily buoyant. Until now.
The latest Newspoll shows that the primary vote for the Labor Government has fallen 7 percentage points in the past two weeks. At the same time the primary vote for the coalition has improved, so that both parties are now at 41%. This is the first time since the election two years ago that the government has not been ahead on the primary vote count. It is too soon to say that this is a turning point, as it may yet prove to be nothing more than a temporary blip, however it is a watershed moment in the life of the government. Although Kevin Rudd remains preferred Prime Minister by an enormous margin, this is the first serious dent in his armour.
So, what has changed? By far the most visible issue in the past fortnight has been the question of asylum seekers. It has been on the front page more often than not, and the opposition has clearly made an impression with its claims that the surge in boat arrivals is directly attributable to the Rudd Government’s policies. Another poll, the Essential Media poll, has found that most voters blame the Kevin Rudd for the surge, two thirds believe that the government is not doing a good job on border protection, and more than half believe that there is a real prospect of terrorists being on board the boats masquerading as asylum seekers.
Sadly, what this really indicates is that large numbers of Australians have been deceived by the opposition’s grubby campaign to capitalize on peoples’ natural fears for cheap political advantage. Opposition front-bencher Tony Abbott has even gone so far as blaming Kevin Rudd for the deaths of those asylum seekers who have drowned this week, before withdrawing and “clarifying” his remarks. It is a scandal that political advantage is being placed above human rights, and it is a tragedy that the polls seem to indicate that significant numbers of Australians have fallen for it.
The truth is that there is no border security crisis. There is only a humanitarian crisis, and a moral crisis. The truth is that the opposition’s politically driven campaign to “get tough on boat arrivals” is broadly akin to a policy to “get tough on Girl Guides knocking on our door selling biscuits”. We may not want them to ring our bells, we may not wan to buy any cookies, but most of us are not going to answer the door with a shotgun in our hands. Instead, we recognize their right to knock on our door, and we smile and encourage their enterprising actions because we understand that if it was our kids out there doing the same we would expect them to be treated appropriately.
Australians know the truth about the oppression and persecution that takes place in other parts of the world. That’s why our nation signed the United Nations Charter on Refugees in the first place. That’s why our military forces have been deployed to places like Afghanistan, Iraq, and at one stage East Timor. The same Essential Media opinion poll showed that a clear majority of Australians know the truth that asylum seekers are fleeing countries where violence and persecution has escalated. Yet for some reason, the blatant misrepresentations about border security seem to be finding an audience.
Kevin Rudd has made a mistake in attempting to orchestrate a so-called “Indonesian Solution”. His government’s popularity is suffering anyway, regardless of the “tough cop” approach. It would have been far better to stand on principle from the beginning, and make a clear distinction between the government and the opposition, rather than trying to outbid them in some sort of auction of empty rhetoric which focuses on a non-existent border protection crisis, and ignores the genuine humanitarian and moral crisis at hand.