More than any other single factor, 12,000 Middle Eastern refugees have a heartbreaking image to thank for new lives in Australia. The pictures of toddler Aylan Kurdi moved public opinion, and that opinion, reflected through many on his own side of politics, shifted Tony Abbott.
It’s a reminder how politically potent graphic images can be, and also how much easier it is for governments to deflect attention from what is less visible.
No unofficial pictures – apart from the occasional clandestine one – and little information come from the Nauru and Manus Island detention centres where asylum seekers languish.
These detainees are shunned by the Abbott government, minimally mentioned by the Shorten opposition and neglected by the media who, with some honourable and notable exceptions, no longer have them top of mind except when something major happens.
This government and its predecessors have well understood the impact of information and images to sway public opinion. That’s why asylum seekers have been, as far as officialdom can do it, stripped of human faces and hidden from view. It’s why there has been a crackdown on leaks, including with a new tough law that threatens medical and other workers who might speak out about conditions.
There is bipartisanship on accepting displaced people from the Syrian-Iraq conflict, and bipartisanship on the ex-communicated souls on Nauru and Manus. Abbott sees a “world of difference” between the refugees to be accepted and “people who have done a deal with people smugglers to go way beyond the country of first asylum”.
When Human Rights Commission president Gillian Triggs called for the government to accept that Syrian boat arrivals held in Nauru and Manus should be treated equally to those coming from the Middle East, Labor spokesman Richard Marles said it was essential to maintain the policy that arrivals who went to Nauru and Manus would not come to Australia.
It is indeed important the smuggling trade does not re-start, and that requires deterrence. But we should also remember – even in the absence of haunting images – that it is disgraceful and immoral to keep people indefinitely in hell holes. Is the government envisaging they be there for a decade?
Abbott came slowly to embrace the refugee boost, but he has been raring to go on the other leg of this week’s announcement – the extension of Australian air strikes to Syria.
This is partly driven by politics – not that it seems likely to be that popular – but for Abbott there are two other strong motivators.
He sees the fight against Islamic State in moral terms – a battle against evil. And he has been frustrated by the lack of US progress and aspires, realistically or not, to exert more influence on the Americans.
But this week highlighted that the government has little idea of the road ahead.
When asked what peace would look like, Abbott said: “The outcome that we’re working towards, along with our coalition partners, is a Middle East comprised of governments which don’t commit genocide against their own people nor permit terrorism against ours … This is not an attempt to build a shining city on a hill, this is not an attempt to build a liberal pluralist market democracy overnight in the Middle East.”
He described the objectives as “achievable” and “in a sense modest”. Given the situation in Iraq and Syria, this suggests not only massive optimism but a fundamental failure to grasp the ethnic, religious and political complexities of the region.
Last month, with the air strike tick-off looming, Defence Minister Kevin Andrews was probed on what Australia wanted to see as the outcome in Syria beyond destroying Islamic State (IS, or Daesh).
“Well that’s a complex question beyond what we are considering at the present time,” Andrews said. “Our consideration is quite squarely on Iraq, on the defence of Iraq.”
The collective defence of Iraq is being used to justify legally incursions into Syria, as IS fighters go over a porous border.
Abbott says: “The decision that we have made is to target air strikes against Daesh in Syria. … We haven’t made any new decision in respect of Assad but, in common with the vast majority of countries, we think that the Assad regime should go.”
James Brown, from Sydney University’s United States Studies Centre, poses the question of whether the air-strike extension is a tactical or strategic move. If it is tactical it is not big deal, he says, but if strategic – about increasing Australia’s involvement in Syria – “where is the rest of the policy?”
The timeline for involvement in this conflict is into the never-never. Andrews on Thursday suggested two or three years, but also said “we’re probably there for a number of years”. Warren Truss, acting prime minister while Abbott was in Papua New Guinea, told parliament: “We are there to do a job, and we will be there until the job is finished”. Abbott fell back on the line that “they’ll be there as long as needed but no longer than necessary”.
Equally uncertain is how the Australian commitment might evolve.
Andrews on Thursday flatly ruled out putting in ground combat troops.
Abbott was less definitive on Wednesday. Asked whether eventually “boots on the ground” would be required, he said that while there had been “some disappointments and frustrations in the campaign against Daesh so far, there has also been a degree of success”.
“As to what might happen in the long-term future, it’s just not appropriate to speculate today, but we are continuing to work with our partners and allies to ensure that the response is prudent, proportionate and effective.”
Abbott always wants to keep the debate in the moment. Quizzed last October about the fact he had not ruled out operating in Syria, he said “could I counsel people against wanting to project too far forward here? Let’s focus on what’s been done today rather than speculate on what might be done in months or years to come.”
Now we have a Syria step. Assuming Abbott is still around, what Australia does “in months or years to come” will depend on what the US does. If America at some point deployed ground combat troops, you can bet that would mean an Australian contingent. If the US happened not to make a request, Abbott could be expected to discreetly seek one.
Some might wonder why Australia has a greater military involvement in this conflict than the UK, France, Germany or other countries more immediately affected. It is not just concern about our people becoming foreign fighters, or the threat of terrorism at home. It’s that, for Abbott, this is a crusade.