Today, the High Court of Australia ruled as illegal a proposed “refugee swap” program between the governments of Australia and Malaysia, where new arrivals to the former would automatically be sent to the latter, and processed refugees from the latter be shipped over to the former.
Many have been capitalising on the little media storm this decision has created. For the government, this is a disappointment that a great policy has to be scrapped, for the opposition, this is another indicator of the government’s general incompetence in the offshore handling of asylum seekers (which by implication, the Coalition could do better once it is in government). For refugee advocates, it is a triumph in stopping the plight of asylum seekers from getting any worse. For legal scholars, this is a triumph of parliamentary law acting as a check on wonton executive power. And the list goes on…
In this flurry, many seem to have neglected to ask: why is it that we now have a situation where both major parties seem eager to send asylum seekers offshore when the capacities for processing them already exist on the mainland?
Strangely enough, a possible answer may lie in the deeply entrenched consumer culture in Australia, which has created a political dividend that politicians in general are tapping into as part of their strategy for gaining or remaining in power (and that goes for the minor parties too). Consumer culture, which celebrates the kingship of commodities, is a culture that engages in a cult of the surface and glorifies visibility.
This cult of surface and visibility has become so ingrained in the public consciousness that it even bears political implications. Those political matters that matter now are those that are given greater visibility. Conversely, those that lack such visibility are rendered powerless in shaping political discourses and policy. By shipping off asylum seekers offshore, both sides of politics are at one level removing the seeming inconvenience they seemingly pose to the smooth operation of our consumerist lifestyles, but at another level they are also attempting to remove the capacity of asylum seekers to lay claim on our consciousness.
If this analysis is correct, then this would explain not only the strategy of making asylum seekers invisible by shipping them out of public sight, but also other strategies that try to deprive vulnerable groups by rendering them invisible, such as the unborn, families, the unemployed, the elderly, the mentally ill, religious minorities and a raft of others. This is something that implicates all sides of politics, media players, interest groups and those heaving under the burden of so many shopping bags.