Most nations have some shame in their history, Australia no less. The treatment of our indigenous people and the abuse of ‘orphans’ brought to Australia after the Second World War were shameful, and have only recently evoked an official national apology from our Prime Minister. Will the way ‘boat people’ have been demonized evoke a similar apology? That will occur only if and when that part of our history is seen as shameful.
Why is it that asylum seekers arriving by boat off our north-west coast have been cast in such a black light? Why do those seeking refuge in Australia by air or commercial vessel not attract the same condemnation? The thesis of this piece is that the dislike of refugees arriving by leaky boats is the direct outcome of dog-whistling to a nation that harbours racist elements ready to react to the whistle they, and often they alone, hear so loudly. It concludes with a plea for some statesmanship to counter this.
Racism seems to be an embedded characteristic in the human race, one that has been obvious for eons. Is it part of the evolutionary process of survival of the fittest? Is it based on the view that one’s clan, one’s tribe, is the best, the safest, the most secure, and that others are not just less worthy but to be feared lest they take what belongs to one’s own? Whatever it is, it seems possible, with good leadership, to keep it quiescent, under control. Conversely, with careless leadership or with deliberated intent, it is easy to inflame it, to allow it to get out of control. In this country overt racism from our leaders is seldom seen; instead dog-whistling is allowed to do its subtle and damaging work.
In Australia racist attitudes go back a long way. During the gold rush days the flood of Chinese as diggers or cooks evoked racial feelings. Europeans arriving post World War II from Italy, Greece and Yugoslavia in turn were berated as ‘wogs’, a term not heard much now. More recently arrivals from Vietnam were subject to racial taunts, and migrants from China, Africa and particularly India have been the focus of racial comment in very recent times. The White Australia policy, which cast such a shadow over our nation, was eventually repealed when the Fraser Government let more than 100,000 Indochinese refugees to immigrate at a quick pace. Notwithstanding the efforts of government, there remained though a residue of opponents to other than British immigration that fomented antagonism towards wave after new wave of migrants. The problem is not peculiar to this country. Britain has had damaging racial conflict with the migration of many coloured people there, and so have several European countries.
If it is our natural tendency to be antagonistic to immigrants, how should our leaders handle this to achieve a harmonious society?
This piece maintains that strong, courageous, visionary leadership can create harmony among people of all races. The reverse is true. Leaders can quickly excite racial passion with the subtle techniques they have mastered in recent years. And when one leader does that, it takes great courage for others to stand up against the racial feelings so evoked.
It was not all that long ago that Pauline Hansen began her campaign against both old and new arrivals. John Howard saw how much angst could be stirred up with racial talk. He saw the million or so voters who went along with Hanson, particularly in Queensland where her One Nation party won a swag of seats in the state parliament, as easy pickings for himself if only he played his cards correctly. Although she had been ejected from the Liberal Party because of outlandish remarks, he refrained from condemning her racist remarks, particularly about boat people. Was this because he shared her views, or simply because not contradicting them would leave the impression that he did, and thereby attract her voters to him? A million votes is a lot – Howard was never going to sneeze at them.
So in the 2001 election Howard used his oft-quoted phrase “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.” and thereby secured in that instant the votes of a large number of Hansonites.
Then the boats came in increasing number. Having uttered his threat to boat people, Howard believed he had to be seen by the public as the strong man who would stop the flood of boats. So we saw the Tampa affair, the excision from Australia of Christmas Island and other islands, the Pacific Solution, mandatory detention in remote camps complete with razor wire, and temporary protection visas. The flow slowed and Howard and his Chief Boat People Basher Philip Ruddock were lauded to the extent that Ruddock received a standing ovation at a Liberal Party Convention. He and Howard were heroes to their party faithful, and seemingly also to many in the electorate. ‘Border protection’ as it was tagged, became a catch-phrase for toughness in keeping out ‘the invasion of boat people that so threatened our shores and our way of life’. Isn’t that laughable? Yet it was so potent politically.
The Pacific Solution successfully reduced the amount of asylum seekers arriving in the Australian waters by boat. Arrivals dropped from a total of 5516 people in 2001 to only 1 arrival in all of 2002 after implementation of the policy. The low level of boat arrivals continued all the way through the Pacific Solution period. Since the abolition of the policy there has been an increase in boatpeople arrivals with over 2700 boatpeople arriving in 2009, and the hundredth boat since the election has just arrived.
Recourse to hard data about immigration to this country over the last several decades seems to have had little influence on the emotion evoked by the boat people debate. Although only 22,000 people have arrived in the past 35 years, amounting to just 0.1% of Australia's population, the emotion generated by these arrivals has been intense. Only 4500 have attempted to seek asylum via small boats in Australia since the Rudd Government was elected in 2007. But people seem to be not so concerned about the actual number, but about the manner of their arrival, unannounced and certainly not from an orderly queue.
Now if there was a queue, anywhere, and if those patiently waiting their turn for admission to this country were being turned away, held back because a boat person had jumped the queue, there might be a cogent reason for resentment by those so frustrated, even by some in the electorate. But there is no queue, none at all. If anyone believes there is one, please tell us all where it is. On Lateline last night Scott Morrison had an anecdote about three refugee journalists supposedly kept out because Australia’s quota was ‘full’ due to the arrival of boat people. That’s three; how many others are there? Nobody will be precise; vague innuendo will do. But, as Grog points out in his fine piece on Grog's Gamut: Big Australia, small minds, “...the term ‘queue jumper’ is now so deeply entrenched in our nation’s vernacular that some Australian politicians use it interchangeably with the term asylum seeker’.”
So we are not up against a logistic problem of accommodating the small number of boat arrivals; we are up against stark prejudice and hard attitudes entrenched by politician after politician telling us that ‘these people’, these ‘illegals’, these ‘queue jumpers’ are unworthy of a place in our fair country and should be dissuaded from coming unheralded in boats by whatever punishment or threat can be conjured up. The Howard Government was successful in developing these punishments, these threats, with its Pacific Solution and its TPVs. Yet despite the anguish these punishments created, despite the efforts to intimidate boat arrivals, most of those who did arrive were considered legitimate refugees and admitted. TPVs are widely acknowledged as being ineffective in stemming the flow of boats, but very effective in causing great anguish to those granted them because of the uncertainty about permanent residence they created.
The MSM has made a meal of boat people. It would take too much space to document all the adverse publicity it has promulgated. One example will suffice. The March 30 print edition of the Melbourne Herald Sun carried a front page headline Boat Bill Fury by Ben Packham and Steve Lewis (of Grech fake email fame) with a subhead: This is the hundredth boat to arrive since Kevin Rudd became PM – costing you $80,000 per refugee. I won’t torment you with the rest of the piece, but you can guess it was all negative. If you want to read the online version it is here.
It is refreshing that recently there have been some articles that take a very different view of boat people: Peter van Onselen’s article in the April 3-4 Weekend Australian: Who’s afraid of 4500 boatpeople?, Susie O’Brein’s A boatload of rubbish in the Herald Sun on April 6, Mirko Bagaric's article in today's SMH: Migration can end worldwide poverty and the editorial in today’s SMH: Red herrings and island fever. (Scroll down the page to see this, the second editorial). If only our politicians could be as upfront as this!
Do you have the impression that despite the continuous inflammatory headlines in print and the electronic media, the people may be getting tired of all the simulated drama? It’s only an impression, but there seems to be less attention given on radio and TV news items to the details of boat arrivals, as if they are ‘old hat’.
It is not the purpose of this piece to document all the facts and figures related to this matter that show how spurious is the demonization of the tiny number of boat people actually arriving, or to catalogue all the articles that are now in print on this and the subject of population to which it has been so inappropriately linked, as if stopping the arrival of boat people dead in their tracks would make a significant dent on immigration numbers. Read what Possum has said in his Pollytics piece: Net Arrivals - Cheap Populism and Export Destruction and what Crikey said yesterday morning about the linking of population growth and boat people by the MSM in The population debate goes boom.
No, the purpose of this piece is to urge our politicians to stand up as statesmen and take a humanitarian stance on the boat people issue, to tell the electorate that we ought to welcome these unfortunate people fleeing from persecution and danger, and not demonize them as ‘those people’, people who are ‘invading’ our shores, ‘queue jumping’ and depriving those in the imaginary queue their rightful place. There are adequate checks to keep out those with a bad record and return home those who are not genuine refugees.
The trouble is that the dog-whistling which the Opposition has used for a decade has persuaded such a large portion of the electorate that boat people are ‘illegal’ and therefore evil arrivals, that taking a contrary view takes great political courage. Kevin Rudd seemed to lack this when he condemned people smugglers as the ‘vilest form of human life’ and took a tough-guy stance, when he could have extended the more humanitarian welcoming approach he took in getting rid of the Pacific Solution and TPVs. By taking a more enlightened approach he could have exposed the inhumanity of the Opposition’s hard-nosed approach.
Possum's analysis on Crikey of this week’s Essential Research Report: Essential Report – House Prices Edition however will give Rudd little encouragement, revealing as it does that 65% of those polled believe the Government is ‘too soft’ on asylum seekers .
So will Rudd, will any member of the Government, have the courage to call the Opposition’s dog whistling for what it is, to counter the overt wedge the Opposition is trying to insert between the electorate and the Government?
Will he become the statesman we look for, and hope for in a leader? If he did so, he might be surprised how much support the electorate would give him.
What do you think?