Whatever happened to “Australia”?

Australia
Call yourself “Australian” and want refugees treated more harshly? Then I can’t see how you can call yourself Australian at all.

Image: Tom

Australia presents itself as a land of the “fair go”, “mateship” and equality for all. At least, that’s the PR spin, but the reality is different. Horribly, grotesquely different.

I’m on leave right now, and that means that for once, I actually don’t have to write a darned thing.

Yet I find myself writing this, because it’s burning around in my brain, refusing to let go; I may as well, I figure, let it out, if only for personal therapeutic purposes. This will be long, it will be rambling. You have been warned.

I’m Australian born, of Caucasian stock, as these things are measured. I live in Australia, and aside from three and a bit years spent living in London in the late 1980s, I always have done.

Mind you, while my nationality is on my passport, my “race” has never really bothered me one way or the other; while I’ve got my failings in the past, I’ve always tried to treat people as, well, people.

Largely because that’s what they are.

When I was a teenager, I was lucky enough to be living in London (a long story in itself) and able to see a production of The Merchant Of Venice featuring Dustin Hoffman as Shylock. His performance has stuck with me throughout the years, because he did a wonderful and touching turn around Shylock’s speech in Act 3, scene one. It’s the section that pretty much everyone remembers, where Shylock explains why he’s seeking his pound of flesh:

“Hath not a Jew eyes?
Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?
Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is?
If you prick us, do we not bleed?
if you tickle us, do we not laugh?
If you poison us, do we not die?
And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?
If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.”

Prior to that, I don’t think I’d though much about race — I’d like to think it was never a factor in my head, but the reality is that I just can’t recall thinking much about it at all — but that stuck with me.

And yes, I’m well aware of the issues around revenge that permeate that text; bear with me here.

People, in other words, are people. The random luck of your birth on this planet at this particular point in history can determine a lot of your fate and position in life, but we’re all still people. Human beings.

That should, to my brain, match rather well with the stated Australian ideal. I grew up in the 1970s, when the predominantly-white-Australia culture was still in full swing.

Some might say that it still is, and for years I’ve defended Australia as a complete entity against charges of absolute racism whenever it’s come up, simply because while I can’t ignore that there were (and are) racist elements of the society, the same is widespread across the world, and the ideals that Australians like to present themselves as being party to should be anti-racism. Not all Australians are bigots, and they shouldn’t be if they believe in

“A fair go”

“mateship”

“hard yakka” counting for the appreciation of what you do.

A willingness to “muck in” and help out everyone.

But no. Perhaps they were always myths — not that myths can’t have a power in shaping both the personal and national consciousness — but it seems to me that even if you did believe in such things in Australia in the past, the Australia of the present isn’t that kind of creature.

I’ve been growing increasingly depressed as I’ve watched the refugee question played out in Australian politics over the past few decades.

It’s long been an easy refuge of the scoundrel politician — very few really doubt that the manufactured Tampa Boat crisis saw John Howard’s government re-elected, for example, and it took Kevin Rudd only a few nano-seconds to try to out-bastard Tony Abbott (an achievement in itself!) by taking the refugee issue to higher and higher and more punitive heights in order to try to appeal to what was perceived to be the voter view on such issues.

I guess I thought that perhaps they were wrong.

It turns out that you can’t out-bastard Tony Abbott, or Scott Morrison, and that there are votes in being as cold-hearted as possible, as long as you don’t let people reflect on what it is to suffer as a human being while reducing them to being “illegal” boat people and always, always, ALWAYS ignoring the simple fact that you can seek refugee status by any means necessary by legal definition. There’s nothing illegal about using a boat, a plane — heck, if you can crack teleportation that’d be legal too, though it’d probably break a few of the laws of physics along the way.

Not that I didn’t think that what they were doing wasn’t wrong. It was, and it is, and it’s a matter that should, in any logical sense, be deeply disturbing to any Australian that thinks of themselves as any kind of reasonable and compassionate human being.

No, what I thought might be wrong was that the wider Australian ideal that I’ve touched on above might more actively fight back against this kind of thing, and as such, that it shouldn’t work as a popularity measure. It should be a vote loser, not a vote winner.

It seems I may have been wrong. A poll conducted by UMR Research for the SMH suggests that Australians aren’t embarrassed by treatment that includes humiliation of female refugees for being, well, female.

Or by medical treatment so poorly handled that even the doctors paid to administer it refer to practices as “gross departures from generally accepted medical standards which have posed significant risk to patients and caused considerable harm.”

No, apparently this isn’t enough somehow.

This, despite the fact that we’re by all sorts of measures one of (if not the) richest countries in the world, and between 70 to 97 per cent of those assessed as boat refugees have been found to be genuine refugees.

You know. The people — and they’re people, not some random menace coming here to take our jobs or threaten this so-called “Australian” way of life — that we should be taking in as a matter of not just legal obligation but a simple ethical standard that any kind of reasonable human being might aspire to.

But no. Apparently not.

Also, let’s ignore the fact that some of our biggest, and most successful “Aussies” were themselves refugees. Westfield’s Frank Lowy, if you like the business side of things and want to whinge “the cost” of refugees at me. Dr Karl Kruszelnicki if you’re into science. Ahn Do if you like comedy.

(I’m not a big David Koch fan, but he’s got a decent blog post talking about this issue that’s well worth a read.)

Now, I’m well aware that a poll can only suggest a trend, not state it as definite fact; UMR’s poll involved, according to the SMH report, a representative 1000 person sample for the purposes of evaluation. There are always margins for error.

But having looked at how the plight of people fleeing famine, persecution and execution has been used as a political tool to gain votes and create a culture of “them” and “us”, where it’s somehow seen as expedient to sacrifice “them”, or hide behind briefings that will try every despicable trick in the book to hide what our Government is doing in the name of each and every Australian, and how it’s succeeded, my faith in a humanitarian margin of error is deeply, deeply shaken.

I’m starting to wonder what it’ll take to turn public perception around.

Maybe comedy is the thing.

My mind drifts to the Goodies, that quintessential 70s comedy trio that I’m a big fan of. One of their more controversial episodes directly and pointedly attacked South African Apartheid policy at a time when South Africa was most definitely on the nose.

Australia is, by both encouraging the existing treatment of boat refugees, and even vaguely suggesting that measures should be more harsh, not just a bit on the nose. It’s totally bloody rotten.

Perhaps we need to be mocked, in order for more people to have that kind of moment of clarity where they stop thinking simply about themselves and realise the quantity of suffering that we’re not only implicit in right now, but seem to be encouraging and building into the national psyche. A national psyche that seems to abandon the aspirational Australian values in favour of a simple fear-bred “Them vs Us” discussion.

“Them vs Us” is dog whistle politics at its simplest, and I’m sad to say that it’s working.

So, I get back to my lead question. What happened to Australia?

The answer is that we happened. Australia’s just a big brown lump of land with a bit of uranium underneath it, but what happens to the human beings on that lump of land is down to those self-same human beings.

We allowed it to happen.

Still, I rather like the Australian ideal.

Mateship, a fair go, working hard and enjoying life. They’re fine ideals to live up to, but right now I’m not sure that presenting as “Australian” presents as anything that isn’t a horrible, torturing, self-centred racist bigot.

I’d like to think otherwise.

So here it is.

I’m happy to call myself Australian, because I’d like to aspire to the finer parts of the Australian myth and ideal.

I’ve already talked about what those are, but if you’ve lived in Australia for any length of time, you’d be well aware of what they are; beloved of both politician and advertiser alike any time they want our votes or to dip into our wallets.

But if you think that refugees should be treated more harshly, or that we shouldn’t live up to our obligations — both legal and moral — to refugees, then don’t call yourself an Australian around me.

Because you’re not being an Australian.

You’re simply being what an Australian wipes off their boots when they walk through a cow paddock.

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4 Responses to Whatever happened to “Australia”?

  1. Mike Ryan says:

    .
    Let “rule of law” be your guide.

  2. Anthony Caruana says:

    Alex – I agree with you 100%. My family arrived in Austrlaia 60 years ago (60 years and 6 days to be precise!) having been forced out of their country of origin during a political crisis that required them to change their cultural identity if they chose to stay.

    That cluster of 20 or so “forced immigrants” has given rise to a family of manufacturers, writers, engineers, factory workers, hairdressers, teachers, doctors, scientists and goodness knows what else. Whatever they cost the government for their entry into the country has been returned many hundreds of times over.

    We treat refugees (literally – those seeking refuge) in exact opposition of one of the central tenets of our legal system. We assume them to be guilty without trial and then imprison them (regardless of age or personal circumstance).

    Immigration is hard. But it’s worth the effort. One wonders what we could have done with all the money spent on “border protection” if it was used on helping people rather than subjecting them to substandard healthcare, psychological trauma, imprisonment and conditions that fail basic obligations under international law.

    I am both proud and ashamed to be Australian.

  3. Manoj says:

    Great piece Alex. I feel your despair, especially as a migrant to Australia – I left my country of birth precisely because I believed in that Aussie ideal of a “fair go” only to now see it evaporate in a heated climate of racist bigotry.

  4. Caspian Smith says:

    I am dismayed to see Australia reducing foreign aid and taking an increasingly aggressive stance against the world’s most vulnerable people when we have become one of the world’s wealthiest nations.

    I agree – diversity is what makes this country great. Each new wave of migration is associated with a new wave of fear and hatred in the community – but strong leadership can change this. We need stronger leadership right across the political spectrum. o

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