Xenophobic tail wags dog
This article was published in Living Ethics: issue 78 summer 2009
The shrill nature of the latest debate on asylum seekers showcased Australia as a mean-spirited and shallow-thinking country, writes Chris Rau.
Both Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull are better than this. It made me cringe to think these two so-called leaders are so frightened of the minority of xenophobes in our midst they would publicly scramble for ‘tough-on-border-protection’ rhetoric. Mine’s bigger than yours. It’s like revisiting every state election which has had law-and-order auctions while the protaganists remained silent on crime prevention and rehabilitation.
The same simplistic, populist, myopic arguments.
For Rudd to say – again – he finds people smugglers among the vilest examples of humanity is to deny all his earlier scholarly thoughts about professed role-models like Dietrich Bonhoeffer (who was executed in 1945 while resisting Nazism). Give us a break! Even the letters pages carried multiple comments from writers mildly pointing out perhaps rapists, child molesters and other people worthy of the term ‘vile’ might get a guernsey higher up on that particular list.
For Malcolm Turnbull to repeat John Howard’s line in Parliament: “It should not ever be controversial to state as a matter of policy and principle that Australians have the right to decide who comes to this country – our country – and the manner in which they come,” is a betrayal of his intellect. What was he thinking?
Both men know if they want to get tough on ‘illegal immigrants’, they should be targeting the 95% of unauthorised arrivals who are more moneyed, more white and less desperate, who arrive by plane and who overstay deliberately misleading tourist or student visas. Not these wretched people in the headlines who risk their lives and meagre ‘fortunes’ to arrive by leaky boat.
But, of course, seeing we’re in deja-vu mode, the humanity of these people doesn’t count in the theatre of politics. It’s all a game.
They’re just statistics.
Both so-called leaders also well know, if talking statistics, the numbers reaching Australian shores are miniscule compared with the numbers crossing the borders in already far more crowded European countries.
As The Sydney Morning Herald’s Annabell Crabb says, it’s a confected argument put on for question time, which sits uneasily with both.
My question then is: why bother? Why not say what you really think instead of letting the xenophobic tail wag the dog?
The difference between now and the Tampa affair in 2001 is we’re seeing people’s faces and hearing the voices of asylum seekers via the media, something which adds a human dimension to mere statistics. It makes political attempts to demonise them transparently inept, demeaning to both parties and insulting to most Australians.
When business and unions combined to express their unease at this return to dog-whistle politics, you got a sense the tide has shifted in the past five years.
In October 2009, the heads of the right-wing Australian Workers’ Union and the left-wing Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, Paul Howes and David Noonan, both argued for morality.
A week later, the Chief Executive of the Australian Industry Association, representing big business, Heather Ridout, also called for calm: “The whole community is completely confused; they want to be compassionate,” she said, asking for a bipartisan approach. Ridout said a return to divisive politics over asylum seekers was “the worst possible outcome.”
I’d contend we don’t just need leadership on this issue: what’s needed is statesmanship. Malcolm Fraser’s didn’t hesitate to provide a safe haven for thousands of Vietnamese refugees after the Vietnam war, much to the benefit of Australia’s economy and also its cuisine!
If Phillip Ruddock’s estimate is right and 10,000 people will be lured to our shores by ‘soft’ ALP policies, would they even be noticed on one night in a Melbourne Cricket Ground crowd? (The MCG has a 100,000 person capacity).
The sad truth is, the ALP’s policies aren’t ‘soft’ enough: people still face detention on remote Christmas Island; they still have to undergo rigorous health and character tests, they often have to endure years of loneliness before they can sponsor family members to join them and they can be deported at any time should they commit a criminal offence, under section 501 of the Migration Act.
Rudd and Turnbull are both idealists in their own way. Their natural instincts might be a bit bent and misshapen by the strictures of bureaucracy and the law, but surely those instincts are still lurking under there somewhere.
If we can’t find it in our hearts to provide asylum for a few thousand lost souls, then we risk losing our own collective soul. Sure, weed out the criminals and those with dodgy backgrounds. You’ll find those are fewer than 5%.
This isn’t a border protection issue: it’s a humanitarian issue spawned by hatred across the globe, causing the hated to flee, only to be spurned here. And we wonder why bullying in schools is so prevalent. It seems a lot easier – or simply lazier – to hate than to come up with far-reaching, lateral conclusions to superficial differences.