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Seeking asylum by boat or by plane

Nick Bryant | 14:54 UK time, Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Why is it that asylum seekers who attempt to reach Australia by sea provoke a very different political reaction from those arriving by air?

So far this year just over 1,700 unauthorised immigrants have arrived by boat, a tenfold increase on 2008. But the number is dwarfed by those arriving by air - over 50,000 who tend to overstay their visas, thus becoming unauthorised immigrants, and then avoid detection. These "plane people" hardly raise an eyebrow. Not so the "boat people", like the 250 or so Sri Lankan Tamils intercepted by the Indonesian navy following a personal plea from Kevin Rudd to the Indonesian president.

It's a paradox that demands explanation.

Perhaps planes have a civilising impact on public opinion. If you can afford a ticket to Australia, maybe the reasoning goes, then you have more of a claim to stay here. Perhaps it is because many of those who overstay their visas are white. Perhaps it is simply that the television cameras are not normally on hand to capture their arrival - unless they happen to belong to Channel Seven's Border Security, one of Australia's most popular primetime shows.

Certainly, the boat people tend to provide much more arresting imagery: their floating shanties captured on a long lens and set against the azure seas of the Indian Ocean.

Because the arrival of boat people lends itself to the dramatic requirements of television and newspaper front-pages, it can easily become the subject of political theatre. And certainly, there has been something slightly vaudevillian about the political reaction from Kevin Rudd and the opposition leader, Malcolm Turnbull. In the words of Phillip Coorey of the Sydney Morning Herald, they have "engaged in their own he-man contest over asylum seekers". In essence, they have tried to out hardline eachother.

Both seem to have learned from the 2001 "Tampa" election, when John Howard outmaneuvered the then Labor leader Kim Beazley over the asylum seeker issue. Nowadays, it appears to be received wisdom in Australian politics that you have to be tough on asylum seekers, and particularly boat people, if you are to remain politically viable. In America, supporting the death penalty is deemed a similar requirement for presidential aspirants.

So the political blows traded over the boat people have had the feel of a professional wrestling match, where the moves seem choreographed beforehand, the confrontation seems rather phony and the wrestlers are not so much playing to the grandstand as the cheap seats at the back. Two men who do not naturally articulate the voice of middle Australia are seemingly trying their damnedest to articulate the voice of middle Australia - and, to many, it sounds a bit forced and inauthentic.

So a question in what I promise will be the last race-related blog for the time being: does Rudd and Turnbull's rhetoric truly reflect the dominant strain of Australian public opinion on the boat people question, or is there something almost Pavlovian about their political posturing?

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