One of my colleagues said
his wife is furious at what is happening in Australia at present. He said he
simply despairs. I alternate between the two. There is ample reason for
being both furious and despairing. Carmen Lawrence says why with an
vivid depiction on May 19's Four Corners
of life in the Woomera Detention Centre should remind us of the
institutionalised sadism that is the official Government policy on asylum
seekers. It has at its core the systematic degradation and torture of our
fellow human beings, treatment we would normally abhor.
And this is not in the
past tense, as Ruddock would have us believe. People are being brutalised
daily in all the detention centres. And like those at Woomera, many of the
staff responsible for their care will never fully recover from the
experience of carrying out their Government's cruel policy.
The ill treatment of
refugees is confirmed in a series of reports which have documented both
the breaches of numerous international conventions, to which we were
willing signatories, and the effects of current policies on those detained
as well as those on Temporary Protection Visas - the United Nations Human
Rights Commission, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission and
Human Rights Watch, to name but a few.
Why is this happening in
Australia? Surely it takes a deep bitterness, and utter hatred to perpetrate
these things! What is driving these men so that when the family court says
that the long term detention of children is unlawful, (we all know it is
immoral,) their first instinct is to appeal? More to the point, what apathy
and lack of compassion keeps so many Australians quiet that Ruddock and
Howard can get away with this? Will a future government ever have the
courage to bring them to account?
Carmen Lawrence says
must confront the immorality of this policy and its destructive
consequences and invite Australians to exercise their empathic
imagination, something which the Howard government has been at pains to
prevent us doing.
She is right. Everything
the government has said demonises refugees. And it keeps them far away from
ordinary Australians, constantly using inflammatory propaganda like "illegals"
and "border protection."
recently, I had the misfortune to be caught listening to commercial talkback
radio. The DJ was ranting about the "anglophobia" at large in
Australia! Pro refugee sentiment was really about people who wanted to
destroy our Anglo heritage. The government has been well aided by the right
wing radio hosts.
There are strong forces at
work in our society. Ruddock was once a Liberal 'wet', and a man to be
admired. Amnesty member, church member - his zealous prosecution of
government policy is out of character, according to rumour in justice
A very public statement
about this has been made about this by Phillip Adams. (See
my letter to Mr. Ruddock.)
Rather than only criticise Ruddock, we should also ask what might make a man
change like this. It might simply be ambition. Could it be some stronger
force in our corporate psyche to which he is also subject?
I don't think large and
sustained movements in society happen quickly or by accident. They have a
history and can be a long time coming. So although the current so-called
Liberal government is a willing and deeply culpable catalyst of what is
happening in Australia, it has not acted alone. Our willing co-operation
suggests it has tapped into deep moods within society. Understanding why
Australia has tolerated and supported the deeply inhumane policies of the
government is important, because discovering the forces that have developed
over time may offer the best options to confront them effectively.
Recent polling shows Howard
is seen by many Australians to have inadvertently or deliberately misled the
country over the reasons for war in Iraq. Yet oddly, his approval rating is
largely unchanged. Have we excused his wrong because we wanted war too? If
this is so, the underlying issue of our attitude to war is what needs
addressing. In such a situation there is no point in attacking Howard.
What wider, deeper issues
may be at work?
thing that has clearly changed since the experience when we welcomed
Vietnamese boat people, is that our natural defence of distance from the
rest of the world has been lost. We have been affected by a globalisation of
news reporting so that we watched September 11 as it happened. We have
become victims of terror with the Bali bombing. Our security of affluence
has been threatened by economic globalism and the shifting of industries off
shore, and long and bitter rationalisation of industries such as banking.
Apparently affluent Asian students studying in Australia have taken over
Swanston Street in crowds, while Australian youth are unemployed... or so it
Human beings have a
tendency to xenophobia and tribalism. The basic need to be secure is a key
issue in allowing the development of tolerance and compassion beyond
tribalism. Security has faded for many, along with their dreams of
affluence... however false those dreams may always have been. In an insecure
and dis-affected climate, our underlying phobias and tribalisms are ripe for
Added to this is the resuscitated
legacy of The White Australia Policy cloaked as "decent hard working
Australians" wanting a fair go. The phenomenon of Pauline Hanson,
harvesting insecurity and disenfranchisement of so many people has been a
fertile soil for Howard, who has always been reluctant to condemn her racist
policies. His failure to repudiate her was a major failure for Australian
democracy and tolerance. It was a failure for
It was a failure for
civility- we are less of a people.
of Muslims is as old as the Crusades. This has been added to by Australia's
WW1 experience in the Middle East and is complimented by the deep prejudice
reflected in characters such as Biggles. For many of us, tales of returning
service men, a suspicion of Turks after Gallipoli, and Biggles, are the
limit of our Middle Eastern and Muslim experience- except for the US movie
industry's constant and blatant portrayal of Arabs (which does not equal
Muslim in reality) as treacherous, barbarous, and incompetent in several
generations of movies. At best the Middle East remains an enigma for
Australians, with the waters muddied by the existence of Israel and Bob
Hawke's, and church, sympathies in that direction. Again, in reality, Middle
East does not actually equate to Muslim.
In Australia Greek jokes are
'in,' and acceptable, courtesy of Effie and Wogs out of Work. Being
Greek is celebrated. In Adelaide, Designer Direct gives huge positive
vibes and media exposure to non-anglo Europeans. With regard to Asian people
we see Asian models, an Asian stars in Secret Life, Asian kids are
very visible and very cool, with flash hair, dress, and electronic gear.
Chinese girls, I understand, are seen as sexy by many anglo boys and men.
Muslim kids, as a group, are a bit invisible except if wearing a head scarf.
What makes them stand out is very easy to make a negative thing. It is not
cool, and can be associated with oppression and difference. Finally Middle
Eastern people are the last, that is, latest wave of immigrants so we
express more prejudice at them, even if many of them are not Muslim at all.
But we equate Middle East and Arab with Muslim, which is often incorrect.
Prejudice and insecurity
have been cleverly, and devilishly, melded by government and conservative
propaganda to heighten people's fear. Vietnamese boat people, very different
from us, were often painted as heroes who were victims of communist terror,
fleeing the communists. Today's refugees are portrayed as Muslim, probable
terrorists, simply making an economic choice. This is despite the fact that
many of them are not Muslim, and are subject to persecution on that very
basis, both in their own country and in our concentration camps.
political apathy and antipathy to politicians is legendary. In some respects
our laid back attitude is helpful. We do not live at a flash point.
Political riots and extremes are relatively rare. The
other side of this is that we do not react in a timely manner. This apathy
has poisonously combined with our prejudice. We tolerated lying and
electoral manipulation. The 'Children overboard' affair should lave caused a
huge outrage. The Government has got off 'scot free.' The effects of the
apathy have been building up a long time. Detention centres were a Labor
invention, which again, we tolerated and did nothing about. This is no
excuse for Howard, however. He showed he could build his own very quickly.
Use of Nicholson's cartoons is
free in a nonprofit situation. Please see his website http://www.nicholsoncartoons.com.au
Pragmatism, which could also be called expediency which threatens principles
and ethics has become a political doctrine. John Howard speaks of 'core' and
'non-core' promises. So when he began his electoral manipulation about the
children overboard, somehow not hearing what a large group of his
contemporaries did hear, Labor leader Beasley capitulated, and did not stand
for principle. This was a great betrayal for those who felt Beasley might be
a leader of principle. Our tolerance for expediency was shown again more
recently when the public clearly wanted Beasley back over Crean, despite the
appalling weakness he showed. Dr Carmen Lawrence, later the author of some
blistering critiques of the Howard government, stepped down from the Labor
front bench and was labelled as a deserter. Principle is not valued, and
this has helped clear the way for an unprincipled government.
"Eastern Suburbs" Australia often has a deep hostility to workers.
Even the most likeable employers burst out with deep hostility toward
employees, betraying an essential dislike and sense of superiority. There
are few partnerships. The people upstairs can no longer flaunt their power
in the old way. Workers are too mobile. But the old hostility is very
Refugees fit into the old
upstairs-downstairs divide by being placed in the cellar.
I find some employers tell
me "Refugees cost money and expect preferential treatment." One
observer commented about that a particular employer was "incredibly
compassionate and generous except about the things that really matter."
He was commenting about a hostility to refugees that seemed strongly based
on a perceived threat to the employer's financial position. The insecurity
of those upstairs adds a new dimension to prejudice. Already smarting from
being reduced to one overseas holiday this year, and the loss of the
Freedom-this year, and the loss of the "Freedom of Bali,"
employers are only too ready to buy the Government line. As the current
government's natural constituency, their attitude is critical.
Someone said to me that
"We face the terror of the brick wall when we try and influence our
government," referring to the stranglehold that it has on civility and
freedom at the moment. My understanding of the forces driving us in
Australia at present is limited. But I think some of the issues above
are what underlies our barbarity. In addressing these we may find a
way around the wall.