Immigration Minister Chris Bowen has been in fairly good form lately, at least with the press and in the parliament. Confident, articulate and across his portfolio, he’s really forcing people to pay attention and listen to his arguments. Unfortunately when he makes people listen to him, they then listen to other people’s arguments as well. Obviously he can’t point blank refuse to debate the issue, but he and the Prime Minister would be well advised to channel their efforts into diffusing the argument instead of winning it.
The Gillard government is never going to convince advocates of tough, anti-asylum seeker measures, that the Liberal Party isn’t tough enough. It certainly won’t convince them that Labor is so much tougher on asylum seekers than the coalition that it’s worth changing your vote accordingly. What they might be able to do is convince them that this toughness isn’t really that powerful a force.
In contrast to Bowens claims that his policy is in fact better at stopping boats than Tony Abbott’s, Kevin Rudd used to describe the boat people problem as having “no silver bullet solution,”. Faced with a debate in which popular opinion favoured his counterpart, Rudd simply rejected the premise of the debate. He politely asserted that government policies had limited impact on the trafficking of boat people upon and in doing so diffused the issue. Granted there are voters who rejected Rudd’s claims but it’s unlikely such people would have ever accepted the arguments of a left of centre politician. Those who did take in the former Prime Ministers words came to view boat people as smaller issue. Their votes were less likely to be swung by boats and more likely to be swung by Workchoices, Climate Change and Health Care, things Rudd didn’t downplay but pontificated upon.
The problem with Bowen and Gillard argued so passionately about their policy on boat asylum seekers is they electrify the issue, the message they are conveying is that voters should place a lot of store in the likelihood of a government stopping the boats. Like the Liberal Party trying to make an election a referendum on Industrial Relations, this is playing to their weakness.
No doubt some polling has shown the government is learning votes over its immigration policy which was why Bowen was brought into Immigration in the first place. A robust debater who knows how to create headlines, surely he’d be able to sure up there asylum seeker credentials? Yeah maybe, but robust debate and headlines aren’t what the party wants on asylum seekers, they’d win more votes having them about the NBN, economic management or education. Instead they are letting the voters believe that there is a silver bullet solution, and if they believe that they might believe Tony Abbott has it.