Anger and Despair  

One Man's Web > Politics and Ethics > Australia and the refugees > Anger and Despair
Posted 11-8-2003

July 29 2003

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 unpleasant eloquence:

The 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

we 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."

"On hold" 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 circles. 

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?


One 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 seems.

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 exploitation.

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.

Anti Muslim Prejudice

Fear 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

Australian's 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.
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Ethics vs. Expediency

Political 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.


Greed and Class
"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 strong.

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.

Andrew Prior


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