As much of the world turns right, Australia turns left

The public mood has shifted over refugee children on Nauru island. Politics will follow

Demonstrators march during a protest in Sydney to demand humane treatment of asylum seekers and refugees. Photograph: Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images

Demonstrators march during a protest in Sydney to demand humane treatment of asylum seekers and refugees. Photograph: Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images

 

After Trump in the US, Erdogan in Turkey, Bolsonaro in Brazil and gains for extremist parties across Europe, Australia might have been expected to follow suit and embrace a hard-right nationalism.

But given recent events, it increasingly looks like the country already had its hard-right moment when Tony Abbott was prime minister from 2013 to 2015, and is now gradually moving left.

Refugee children and their families are being removed, after five years, from what is called offshore detention on the Pacific island of Nauru by a government that previously refused to do so. And the country that slaughtered Labor in the 2013 election for bringing in a carbon tax now seems to believe it is not doing enough about climate change.

In August there were 119 children in detention on Nauru. All of them, with their families, will be brought to Australia before the end of the year.

The ruling Liberal-National coalition has not suddenly found a conscience. Children attempting suicide by self-immolation and refusing food and water did not change the government’s position. Nor did children suffering from “resignation syndrome” due to feeling their situation was hopeless.

But when the Murdoch tabloids highlight the plight of the children on Nauru, it is obvious the public mood is changing. A News Corporation insider said the publisher could see which way the wind was blowing.

New Zealand offer

On August 20th, Sydney’s Daily Telegraph ran a picture of a young boy, born into detention on Nauru, on its front page. Inside, over two pages, there were more pictures and stories of the lives of “stateless babies” living in mouldy tents, sharing dirty bathrooms, playing with donated toys on the “rocky remnants of a phosphate mine and staring through the wire fences of the camp”. The same piece ran in other Murdoch tabloids in Adelaide, Melbourne and Brisbane.

The Kids Off Nauru campaign, which was started by the World Vision charity, knew it had to move beyond preaching to the converted. “The offshore issue has been dealt with in a very comprehensive way by various serious media, but it becomes a bit of a circle, where the people who are reading about it are the people who already care about it,” Ruth Lamperd of World Vision told the Saturday Paper.

A poll published in the Sunday Telegraph showed 79 per cent of Australians wanted the government to transfer refugee children and their families from detention on Nauru and accept an offer from New Zealand to resettle them.

But this is where the plan begins to come unstuck. Even after all the children and their families are moved to Australia, there will still be more than 1,000 refugees and asylum seekers left on Nauru and Papua New Guinea. And what ultimately becomes of the families being moved to Australia has not been answered.

Before the recent byelection in Sydney, where the Liberals suffered a 19.2 per cent swing and lost a seat that it and its predecessor parties had held for 117 years, prime minister Scott Morrison indicated he was willing to take up New Zealand’s offer. But afterwards he said it wouldn’t happen unless there was a guarantee these refugees would never subsequently move to Australia – something impossible to enforce since every New Zealander has a right to live, work or study in Australia.

Sticky conservatives

One in four voters said they would be more likely to vote for the coalition if it agreed to resettle the refugees in New Zealand. Given every poll for the past two years has indicated the coalition will be trounced in a federal election due in May, it should be taking New Zealand’s offer with no strings attached in an effort to win back votes.

But Morrison is only prime minister because the conservative wing of the Liberal Party overthrew the moderate Malcolm Turnbull in August – the fourth time in eight years a sitting Australian prime minister has been knifed by his or her own side. And the conservative wing would seemingly rather stick to its principles than follow the votes to the centre.

Since the Liberal-National coalition won power in a landslide in 2013, Labor has regained power in the states of Queensland, Victoria and Western Australia. It also regained power in the Northern Territory and retained power in the Australian Capital Territory.

In the 2016 federal election the coalition lost 14 seats and was returned with a one-seat majority. Having lost the Wentworth byelection, where voters said climate change was the number one issue, it is now a minority government, reliant on independents to pass legislation. Australia is gradually turning left.

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