Comments on social media reflect the shame and heartbreak that many Australians feel over the Abbott government’s hard-line asylum seeker policies: the inhumanity of Manus Island and Nauru detention centres; the intransigence and belligerence of Immigration Minister Scott Morrison; and most recently Tony Abbott’s egregious inducement of $10,000 for detention centre detainees to return to their countries of origin.
It’s not just the Abbott government that has maintained its rigid stance on asylum seekers.
The federal Labor caucus recently squibbed its chance to set right Australia’s internationally decried refugee policy when it voted against WA MP Melissa Parke’s motion to abandon offshore processing.
Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd didn’t want to be seen as soft on asylum seekers either. He devised the “PNG solution” on the eve of the 2013 election, vowing to send all future asylum seekers to PNG for resettlement. “From now on, any asylum seeker who arrives in Australia by boat will have no chance of being settled in Australia as refugees,” said Rudd who three years earlier lamented that Australia’s asylum seeker policy would shift to the right under his successor Julia Gillard.
Under Gillard’s ill-conceived and unrealised East Timor and Malaysian “solutions” Labor’s asylum seeker policy did lurch to the right, but by the time Rudd returned to office last year, he declined to assert his much trumpeted Labor values.
To understand why Australia’s asylum seeker policy is so fixedly skewed on such an inhumane course, it’s necessary to return to the operative word in the opening paragraph: “many” Australians feel uncomfortable with Canberra’s treatment of refugees. But not most.
Since John Howard hit a rich electoral vein with his unabashed demonisation of asylum seekers, successive governments have dared not tamper (or Tampa) with his formula for political success. The deeply unpopular Howard government seemed set for defeat at the 2001 election, when along came the Norwegian freighter the MV Tampa and its cargo of 438 refugees rescued from international waters.
Tampa’s captain Arne Rinnan was refused permission by the Howard government to land the refugees on Australian soil. Within days the government introduced the Border Protection Bill to lend legislative confirmation to action which had been condemned internationally, and devised the “Pacific Solution”, whereby asylum seekers would be sent to Nauru for processing.
Howard’s “border protection” mantra
Right on cue followed the September 11 terrorist bombings in the US – which the Howard government used as vindication for its tough stance on Tampa; and in October came the “Children Overboard” affair, with senior ministers falsely claiming that asylum seekers intercepted by the Navy near Christmas Island had thrown children overboard from their stricken vessel in order to be rescued and taken to Australia.
Howard knew that his “border protection” mantra had struck a chord and that public opinion was on his side. “These are people we do not want, people who throw their children overboard,” said Howard at his most un-prime ministerial.
Howard stuck to the theme in the lead up to the November election. During his campaign launch speech on 28 October 2001, he delivered this infamous line, since parroted by the Abbott government: “[W]e will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.”
These events are a black stain on Australian politics, but they accorded with the views of most Australians.
The Howard government won in a landslide, John Howard the warrior PM was born, and the template was set for asylum seeker policy in Australia: “illegal immigrants” and “queue jumpers” were demonised as potential terrorists and any political party soft on asylum seekers was decried as a danger to national security.
Australia’s inhumane policy on asylum seekers has bipartisan foundations: the Liberal National Coalition, despite some internal disquiet, is at home with its warlike posturing; and Labor, in particular Bill Shorten, is too afraid to show leadership on the issue.
This immovable stalemate – a connivance of political will and political cowardice – has led to the unspeakable suffering, anguish, mental deterioration, suicide and unlawful death of asylum seekers in faraway detention centres. While many Australians feel disquiet, even disgust, most are prepared to look the other way.
Australia has the policy it does on asylum seekers because focus groups and polls tell the major parties that they are in sync with popular opinion. Or it may be just a collective wink of the eye – Tony Abbott would understand that signal – but it gives the government the confidence to proceed with its inhumane policy.
There remains a strong thread of xenophobia, if not racism, that runs through the community. Witness the current highly organised protest against the building of a mosque in the Victorian regional city of Bendigo.
Bendigo: Australia on show
What began as a grassroots campaign has attracted the organisational and financial muscle of various right-wing and anti-Islamic groups from around Australia. The CEO of Restore Australia, Mike Holt, is unapologetic about his support for the Bendigo stop-the-mosque campaign: “They use the mosques as a centre for jihad. These things are not like the tea and coffee churches,” he told Fairfax Media.
These groups, and the Bendigo residents who support them, are the public face of the secret focus groups that stiffen the resolve of governments on asylum seekers. Rather than show leadership on the issue – as perhaps Malcolm Fraser or Paul Keating might do – Abbott and his immediate predecessors govern with an eye on the opinion polls.
And yet something seems amiss here. Walk down the street of any capital city or major regional centre – including Bendigo – and it seems impossible that Australia’s official response to asylum seekers could be so brutal.
Every colour, culture, creed and ethnicity is represented on the streets of Australia, which is rightly held up around the world as a model of multiculturalism. To see the peaceful harmony and vibrant co-existence of people in all their diversity on our streets and in our workplaces is to see Australia at its best.
But Australia’s relationship with diversity has never been straightforward. From the unambiguous racism that underpinned the White Australia policy to the tolerance (if not always embrace) of immigration which has given modern Australia its multicultural hue, ours has been an ambivalent relationship with race.
The gold rush era of the 1850s was an early example of multiculturalism in Australia, in which many races and creeds lived in harmony on the goldfields. Yet there was unspeakable racism and violence against Chinese gold diggers; and while African-Americans were welcome on the goldfields, Aborigines were being dispossessed and exterminated.
Between 1901 and 1939 the first large movements of non-British Europeans to Australia began. However, these mostly Italians, Greeks, Yugoslavs and Poles were only reluctantly permitted entry as “white aliens”.
Australia opened its doors, if not its arms, to large-scale European migration after WWII, but always on the understanding that these “new Australians” would leave their histories and cultures behind and assimilate with the predominant “British Australian” population.
A question of leadership
It was not until the Whitlam government (1972-1975) that immigration was celebrated, as a matter of government emphasis, for its diversity and cultural enrichment and it was the Fraser government (1975-1983) that formalised and entrenched multiculturalism as a feature of Australian life, including the infusion of other “races”.
As well as increasing Australia’s immigration intake, with an emphasis on Asian migration, Fraser took a humanitarian approach to the Vietnamese refugee crisis and permitted nearly 60,000 Vietnamese refugees, including over 2000 “boat people”, to settle in Australia.
Fraser’s point has always been that if he had relied on popular opinion or focus groups neither his refugee policy nor his admission of large numbers of Vietnamese and other Asians to Australia would have occurred.
Which returns us to 2014 and Australia’s mean-hearted asylum seeker policy.
While the current policy may be in accord with the popular mood and racist attitudes – and not just of the white Anglo population – it does not excuse the absence of leadership on the issue. In fact, such leadership is all the more urgent.
The onus falls on our political (and community) leaders to respond with humanity and compassion to the refugee crisis. The primary issue is not how many refugees Australia can or should take, but how we treat those who seek refuge. And the responsibility falls on our political leaders to engage with the wider population not just on the issue of asylum seekers, but on matters of race, tolerance and harmony.
It may or may not cost taxpayers more to treat asylum seekers with decency, respect and compassion, but it is costing the soul of the nation dearly to lock these people in faraway detention centres and throw away the key by way of “sending a message” to other would-be asylum seekers.
But that is not the only message this policy is sending, as retiring Liberal senator Sue Boyce notes: ”I think the whole asylum seeker issue is…fraught with dog whistling.”
It is plainly too late to expect leadership from Tony Abbott on asylum seekers; he is more mindful of hanging on to whatever electoral support he still has than any desire to take a principled stand. And it is too much to expect Abbott, or Shorten, to visit Bendigo and urge residents to pull their heads in and show some decency towards fellow citizens who wish to build a place of worship in their community: they lack both the moral authority and political courage for such action.
Gough Whitlam, Malcolm Fraser, Bob Hawke or Paul Keating would have made the trip to Bendigo as prime ministers. They would have done so for reasons of symbolism, but also because they believed in a certain Australia and were prepared to stand up for it. They would have appealed to people’s best natures; they would have occupied a platform with Islamic and other community leaders; they would have spoken with vision and clarity about Australia as a vibrant, welcoming, open democracy.
That’s how much politics – and political leadership – has changed in Australia in such a short time.