This piece begins with an election. Not the election you’re probably thinking of, but one which took place sufficiently long ago for its initial notoriety to have faded with time. We need to go all the way back to 2001, when the then Australian prime minister, John Howard, unexpectedly won re-election on the back of a campaign primarily based on the demonisation of asylum seekers. Howard infamously declared that “we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.” He also used military force to prevent a Norwegian vessel that had saved the lives of 438 asylum seekers from entering Australian waters. These asylum seekers were predominantly from Afghanistan. They were fleeing a repressive Taliban regime against which Australia was soon to fight a war at the side of the United States, yet relatively few Australians were sympathetic to their plight. Two months later, sensational claims that asylum seekers on another sinking vessel had thrown their children overboard were front page news. They were later revealed to be false.
Howard’s xenophobic tactics continue to define Australian politics to this day. In 2001, he introduced policies which saw asylum seekers attempting to reach Australia by boat detained in hugely expensive and extremely abusive offshore detention centres. These have been consistently described as “a living hell”, “a human rights catastrophe”, and “unlawful”, yet they still command broad support within Australia. Efforts were made to roll back Howard’s ‘Pacific solution’ when a centre-left government led by Kevin Rudd finally took power in 2007, but relentless right-wing attacks accusing his party of being ‘soft’ on migration proved to be a huge liability. Offshore detention would be re-established under a left-wing government, and the vast majority of Australian politicians have now spent most of the twenty-first century seeing who can yell ‘stop the boats’ the loudest. Howard’s approach to immigration continues to be cited as a model which is worthy of emulation by right-wing voices in many countries.
Read more here.