Influence of Populism on Australian Asylum Policy

Australia has traditionally relied upon expressly crafted asylum policy in a bid to control numbers of individuals seeking to be acknowledged as legitimate refugees. One of the most prominent aspects of the current immigration policy involves only accepting eligible candidates into the country while holding illegal aliens in immigration detention. This has proved beneficial to the country; allowing it to identify legitimate claims for recognition as refugees and the identification of non-citizens without proper documentation pending deportation. Initially, Australia had been viewed as a Pacific haven for migrants escaping social strife in their native countries. Indochinese immigrants were particularly keen making the treacherous journey to Australian-controlled Christmas Island in a bid to escape adverse reverberations of the protracted Vietnam War. By, 1975 the frequency of migrant vessels arriving on Australia’s insular island territories such as Nauru, Manus and Christmas Islands became a source of growing concern for policy makers alarmed by the influx (Cameron, Frydenberg & Jackson 2011).

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 For instance, the Port Hedland Immigration Reception and Processing center was overwhelmed by the migrant numbers in the early 1980s and called on the government to enforce mandatory detention orders for all illegal entrants. This eventually culminated in the promulgation of the inaugural Migration Legislation Amendment Act 1989 as one of the first immigration policies to be enforced in Australia. It was later bolstered by the adoption of a mandatory detention policy in 1992 by the Keating Government to guarantee rigorous assessment of migrants before being allowed to integrate with the Australian population. Citizen’s sentiments on refugees in Australia range from those who subscribe to the communitarian/partialist approach while others espouse imperialism popular among academics. These frameworks are now commonly used to review populism’s noteworthy influence on the overall structure and implementation of Australian asylum policy

Populism from an Australian Perspective

            Populism is a significant political bearing underscoring the notion of the “the people” often fighting forces controlled by the top tier of society. These elites represent an influential minority capable of influencing policies uniquely designed to benefit them at the expense of the general population. This ideation approach is often regarded as one of the most significant elements of the framework and the force behind a quest to desperately institute feasible changes in society. Over the years, populism has served as an important dogma key when aspiring to inculcate transparency and ultimately challenging different manifestations of moral corruption. This is done through the systematic dismantling of homogenous entities such as the so-called “1%” while seeking to clamor for an egalitarian approach focusing on the greater good of the nation while ensuring that their interests also take precedence. Aspects of socialism and nationalism have been combined in the Australian perspective when exploring the influence of populism within the society.  This elaborate “popular engagement” has brought together Australians from all walks of life to challenge modern-day debacles such as the refugee crisis as an existential threat to the society. Varied opinions have been adopted with respect to asylum policy in Australia.  The communitarian/partialist approach has long been implemented in Australia to highlight the relative importance of banding together as a community and speaking with a unified voice. Self-determination affords Australian citizens an opportunity to clamor for their individual well-being while subscribing to the overall sense of nationhood. On the other hand, imperialism is an idea which calls on governments to act in the best interest of its people. Australians have tactfully employed both approaches to address an increase in the number of migrant refugees in the country while calling on the government to subsequently address their claims.

Association between Populism and Australian Asylum Policy

            In a majority of instances, populism is occasioned by the idea that current economic hardships are the direct result of political decisions influenced by the elite. This rhetoric is also informed by a rather prevalent notion that decisions made by political elites are designed to benefit them solely and should be criticized to avert the possibility of inequality in the near future. Populism has, over the past decade, been on the rise in Australia after suffering the debilitating effects of the Global Financial Crisis (2007-2009). It has particularly taken hold among the middle and working class population in the country who felt swindled by fiscal service providers after the onset of the financial recession. This became an ideal environment for the development of parochial sentiments amongst a considerable section of the population who felt justified in calling for sweeping changes within the country. As a contemporary democracy, Australia has embraced nascent developments in society such as the rise of populism to allow citizens to voice their discontent on any given topic (Wear 2018). The centralist parties in the Australian political scene have experienced a relative period of dominance and success thanks to masterfully crafted policies by successive governments. Although a sizeable section of society has archetypally voiced support for governments of the day, this backing has been waning as a direct consequence of rising concern over topical issues such as immigration. The wide chasm and polarization among major parties has also created ideal conditions for the public to rely on right-wing politicians to amplify their claims to key policymakers. Australia’s rather shaky economy and rising youth unemployment is also associated with the recent rise in populism.  Immigration has, therefore, understandably taken hold as a relevant issue up for discussion based on the overall complacency and wiliness to grant asylum status to specified groups.  

The apparent hallmarks of anti-immigration attitudes espoused in Australian asylum policy are a direct result of the rise in populism within the society and a clear example of the salient nature of asylum in a nation-state context.  For instance, the decision to detain migrants and having them register with the Australian Protective Services was driven partly by a general urge to protect citizens from any external threat introduced by new elements. Though such intentions were noble, it certainly gave the impression that there was a possibility that a section of migrants being admitted posed a threat to the Australian people. This then created a domino effect and fueled social paranoia first based on asylum seekers posing material threat to native Australians (Essex & Isaacs, 2019). Granting legal asylum would require the Department of Home Affairs to cater for the immediate needs of such individuals such as housing and occupation. These endeavors are conducted using tax payer money and often criticized by conservatives who opine that these resources would be better spent on the Australian people. It is, thus, no wonder that candidates seeking to be elected to political office often use proper management of the Australian economy and fiscal policies as an apt approach to dealing with contemporary quandaries such as the asylum debate.  A major rhetoric amongst anti-immigration populist is that offering asylum to vulnerable refugees should not be done at the economic expense of the majority of hardworking Australians striving to eke out a living in these uncertain times.  This has, therefore, become a flashpoint of discontent among populists which has prompted the Labor government to adopt an uncompromising asylum policy designed to stem the flow of foreign entrants. This aims to maintain a semblance of normalcy in the country by averting the possibility of having to grapple with tensions between competing interests in society.

            Australia’s nationalist version of populism was expertly masked within the society’s basic fabric and only exposed when crafting asylum policy in the country. Unlike the authoritarian populism currently being witnessed in Europe, the Australian version is characterized by accepting a limited number of asylum seekers while subjecting them to stringent stipulations (Moffitt & Tormey 2014). This has also been as a result of nationalist populism developing as a distinct ideology in Australia determined to influence major segments of society, policy-making included.  Australian populists criticizing previous immigration policies on the housing of immigrant asylum seekers have often claimed to represent the general public in their sentiments. It is for this very reason that One Nation elected officials such as Pauline Hanson have called for an end to openly embracing populist opinions to inform asylum policies as it will present an ethical slippery-slope later on in the future. Proponents of populism in Australia such as Lauren South are regarded as some of the most influential figures in the movement and played a major role spreading conservative sentiments regarding the current state of asylum policy.  Such discourses are often criticized by liberals who regard them as a social time-bomb which may breed anger and a fear of multiculturalism (Martin  2015).  This threat to culture has prompted populists, through elected officials, to reach out to the establishment in a desperate bid to influence immigration policy with a special focus on asylum-related issues. An elaborate media campaign by the alt-right has further influenced such efforts by backing negative narratives of the threat posed by immigrants and the growing need to enact asylum policy to address such concerns. The ultimate politicization of immigration in Australia has occasioned a paradigm shift from the initial focus on the humanitarian aspect of the debate to the impact of asylum seekers on the Australian public.

            The asylum seeker institutional prearrangement adopted by Australia is one of the least friendly ones globally courtesy of a steady growth in national populism. This was initially set into motion by the arbitrary introduction of mandatory detention by the Keating Government in 1992 to curb the proliferation of Asian immigrants into the Australian hinterland (Pietsch & International Institute For Asian Studies 2015). National fervor witnessed in the late 1990s and now linked to populism is also linked to various gradations of refugees and asylum seekers. This created ideal conditions for the government to enact asylum policies which would result in the incarceration of certain categories of immigrants in various ports of entry. Populism had, inadvertently, forced the government to be signatory to an asylum policy that gave border control agents the power to forcibly return migrant boats or face imprisonment. This is now being equated to the now disgraced White Australia Policy which has often been associated with the xenophobia. The inherent absolutism of that has desperately sought to bar immigrants from settling in mainland Australia. It was during the Tampa Immigrant Crisis of 2001 that eventually prompted the institution of updated asylum polices based on radical populist-backed premise (Lusher & Haslam 2017). The most significant aspect of this particular development was boosting the capacity of border patrolling agents by guaranteeing the backing of the Australian Navy stationed in its far-flung maritime borders. By the end of 1992, it was now legal for Australian agents to return and escort migrant boats to their point of departure. This essentially prevented a scenario where the government had to contend with persons eligible for as asylum seekers to be granted temporary citizenship in the country. However, this has been a seemingly insurmountable challenge which has prompted the creation of robust offshore processing centers to help stem the increase in migrant numbers. One of the most apparent aspects of Australia’s asylum policy is indefinite mandatory and provisional protection which is in line with populist sentiments on immigration.

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The growing need for a fitting asylum policy in Australia is the culmination of a long-lasting quest to balance between fulfilling the country’s humanitarian objectives and addressing citizen’s sensibilities. Over the past two decades, the later has taken center-stage in Australia which has resulted in a growing influence of populism on asylum polices. Conservatives argue that immigrants pose an economic, material, and cultural threat hence the need to develop strict asylum policies to dissuade them from viewing Australia as a possible destination. Nevertheless, populism has had a far-reaching impact on the asylum seeker institutional prearrangement in Australia which is often regarded as one of the harshest globally.

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