Thursday, April 18, 2013

Refugee debate won’t be solved by oppositional politics

Ten days ago, I was staring at a dying man.  His lips were black; his head flopped; his eyes were empty.  He had not drunk water for three days and was in critical need of medical attention and fluids.
Coaxing him back to life and away from the edge of the cliff was not something for which I had been trained.  But instinct told me that I had to find a safe space for him to relent.  Telling him he was stupid, harming only himself or that I had better ideas – were not tactics that would work.
There was a conflict: he wanted to die to make a point; I wanted him to live – because death is final and hopeless.
He was a refugee who had been locked away for more than three years because of an adverse security assessment.
I had to rely on instinctive nous about conflict resolution: empathy, points of agreement, small steps, meeting needs, finding comfortable and non-threatening space to back away from fixed positions.
I focused on these: understanding his desperation; agreeing on small things – there are some good people in the world; it is ok to allow a drink – that is not giving up, dying is giving up; let’s just have one small drink and see how that goes.
Eventually, he drank a sip of water – and then an entire glass.
A softly, softly approach is rarely adopted in politics where oppositional battles are the very stuff of our democracy.  But for sensitive topics, where emotions run high and positions are fixed, conference, empathy, and small comfortable steps are the only way through.
This applies to the refugee debate in Australia.
The current Australian approach to refugees is an embarrassment on the international scene.  The countries that take in the most refugees and displaced people include Syria, Iran and Pakistan.  There are over 40 million displaced people in the world – over half of them currently have refugee status.    We declare our quota filled and claim we take in a large number of refugees per capita.  Our media fixates on a boat that takes an unusual route and we have 55 people indefinitely detained.
We are conflicted between generosity and control; security and individual rights; fear and acceptance; patriotism and global responsibility. 
Abbott’s and Gillard’s politics are entrenched on the side of control, security and fear.  These are clearly fixed positions.  Yelling, opposing, protesting and hunger striking will not move them.  The context of the federal election and Gillard’s tendency to mimic Abbott on issues of national security make it even less likely that berating will work.
So we need to find another way.  Tony Windsor had it right when in June 2012, he and others called for a cross-party collective to talk through the issue and reach consensus.  Unfortunately, his valiant efforts were abruptly cut short by the shot-gun Malaysia solution debate that ended two months later with the Houston Report  - a report that disappointed all refugee advocates.
We are left with the Greens on one side, occasionally joined by Wilkie, Windsor and Oakeshott and the other 140 plus MPs on the other side of the ledger.
As a member of the Greens, I am sometimes frustrated when the Greens butt heads with the Government on policy, rather than taking a more gentle approach.  I would not extend this to accepting the Malaysia solution – a plan that was too weighted on the side of boarder protection over human rights obligations. However, I think there is a futility in berating the dying government and expecting them to reach for the glass of water.
There is room for empathy: we all know the debate is difficult, the public perceptions skewed and that there are competing priorities.  There is room to identify the competing needs: human rights obligations versus fear, security and economic concerns.  And there must be an emphasis on creating the political and public space for leaders to move away from fixed positions. 
The Multi Party Committee on Climate Change was an example of politics at its best: conference, negotiation and respectful policy development.  We urgently need a similar approach to refugees: a collaborative approach to refugee policy where small steps are taken and conflicting needs are met.  Obviously, this has Buckley’s chance of occurring ahead of a federal election.  But like refugees in camps across the world, I live in hope.
Meanwhile, hunger strikes and oppositional approaches have little prospect of improving the circumstances of the 55 refugees in indefinite detention.  But this impasse is intolerable for a democracy with a commitment to fair trial and rule of law.
I implore one of the leaders, or key independents, to call for a multi-party approach to resolving the ASIO Refugee situation.  The Stone review process is insufficient – there are no timelines and Stone has no decision-making powers.
The man I coaxed back to life is now well, eating, smiling and hopeful.  However, while politics is robust, hope is fragile.  We need to talk our way out of conflict.

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