The vexed issue of asylum seekers arriving by boat on Australian shores has dominated our political psyche for over a decade. Prime minister Kevin Rudd’s announcement shortly after returning to office that boat arrivals would never be settled in Australia - and instead be sent to Papua New Guinea - is the latest chapter in the story.
But with the federal election on September 7 in our sights, in which electorates will the asylum seeker question be at the forefront of voters’ minds as they go to the polls?
For David Bradbury, federal MP for Lindsay in the western suburbs of Sydney, the asylum seeker issue is one that may cost him his seat in the September election. First elected in 2007 and again in 2010, he has been relatively consistent in his view that asylum seekers are a national security issue.
The problem for Bradbury is that voters may be forgiven for thinking he is a member of the Liberal Party. He had hoped to neutralise the issue, adopting the Liberal Party position that asylum seekers are a threat to national security. This is why Gillard put Bradbury at the front of her 2010 East Timor offshore processing deal – a deal that East Timor quickly rejected.
But if Lindsay voters want a “stop the boats” response then they can vote for the Liberal candidate, deliver opposition leader Tony Abbott government, and in effect get former prime minister John Howard’s offshore processing and temporary protection visas policies reintroduced. Needing a margin of only 1.12% to regain the seat, the Liberals would be feeling confident.
This contrasts to the fortunes of Labor’s Michelle Rowland in the nearby seat of Greenway. Rowland won the seat in 2010 on a margin of only 0.88%, yet her chances of retaining Greenway seem more likely than Bradbury in Lindsay. Rowland has adopted a view that asylum seeker policies need to stop the deaths at sea. While not outright rejecting the national security narrative, her tone has been one that likely reflects voter distress generated by the media’s coverage of ongoing failed rescues and drownings.
The reason that Bradbury and Rowland have opted for a different focus on asylum seeker policies reflects their reliance on Green preferences to be returned. In the case of the Lindsay, Bradbury secured the seat with a swing of over 11% in 2007 and was elected without the need for preferences. Yet at the 2010 federal election his vote was reduced by over 6% and required preferences to be re-elected. The Greens’ primary vote in Greenway was 5.73% in 2007, and increased to 6.01% in 2010. With Labor only securing 42% of the primary vote in Greenway in 2010, preferences will matter.
The more compassionate approach of Rowland is likely to be pitched at Green voters with the hope of securing their preferences. While still needing preferences to survive, Bradbury’s narrative is likely pitched at Liberal rather than Green voters.
The seat of Melbourne, held by the Greens’ Adam Bandt, provides further contrast of how asylum seeker policies will likely be a factor in the election result. Attempting to become the first Greens MP to be re-elected to the House of Representatives, he has consistently argued for a more humanitarian approach to asylum seekers that accords with compassion and international law.
Bandt won 36% of the primary vote in 2010, however his success came on the back of a historical decline in the Liberal Party vote in Melbourne. In 2004, the Liberals secured 25% of the primary vote; in 2007 the Liberal primary vote dropped to 23%, and in 2010 it dropped again to 21%. While former Melbourne MP Lindsay Tanner was able to hold the seat in 2004 (on primary votes alone), he was taken to preferences in 2007. With the Liberals announcing they will preference Labor ahead of the Greens, this will put Bandt into a two party preferred count with Labor.
Bandt offers a stark contrast in his position on asylum seekers to that of the Rudd’s offshore regional processing model. Given that Bandt has been consistent on his humanitarian position, Melbourne voters may be likely to return him to office.
While Labor candidates have adopted “hard” (David Bradbury) or “soft” (Michelle Rowland) positions on asylum seekers for pragmatic reasons - and Bandt has adopted a more humanitarian position - a right-left analysis fails to conceptualise how asylum seekers issues play in the electorate.
Petro Georgiou, the former federal member for the inner Melbourne seat of Kooyong, adopted a liberal-humanitarian position on asylum seekers, challenging the conservative view adopted by Phillip Ruddock and John Howard from 2001 onwards. Georgiou won office in a 1994 by-election with Green preferences and was returned with around 55% of the primary vote in 2004 and 2007.
At the height of Howard’s “Pacific Solution”, Kooyong voters were prepared to support a candidate who advocated Australia fulfil its international legal obligations and accept moral responsibility for those seeking asylum, regardless of the means by which they came to our shores or the political climate generated by opinion polls.
Clive Palmer: the wildcard
As has happened in Australia’s electoral past, Queenslanders have had a habit of splitting the conservative vote. As the example of Georgiou proves, asylum seeker policies should not be considered as a left-right issue.
Palmer United Party founder Clive Palmer has adopted a strong position on the issue, arguing for Australia to accept asylum seekers on their merit, allow them access to a fair and reasonable legal hearing to make their claim and accept those who are found to be genuine refugees. This position may not accord with many who see Palmer as a right-wing conservative.
Palmer contends that the financial cost of offshore processing, mandatory detention, and policing of our ocean borders is fiscally irresponsible and unsustainable. The position has much merit, with the federal government likely to be in deficit for most of the next three years. How far-reaching Palmer’s message is remains to be seen, but it does indicate that asylum seeker policies cannot easily be defined within a geographical, demographic or ideological context.
The “stop the boats” and the recently announced “buy the boats” rhetoric of Abbott may not have the potency that Howard’s 2001 slogan that “we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come” did. Voters, however, will bring the asylum seeker issue with them to the polls on September 7 on regardless of how much politicians and the media want this to be an election about the economy.