Asylum Seekers in Australia
Asylum Seekers in Australia
One of my first assignments as a young reporter in
When Taylor and her then husband, Mike Todd, the Hollywood producer, told the press to sod off, they were dogged by negative publicity and their visit was, in show-business terms, a disaster. Something similar happened to the great star Ava Gardner, filming Nevil Shute's On the Beach in
She was duly unforgiven, and vowed never to return. These days, it can seem that nothing has changed. Foreigners (and expatriots) who smudge the picture postcard still excite an indignation unknown in New Zealand and Canada, especially in a press dominated by Rupert Murdoch, whose patriotism is distinguished by his abandonment of Australian citizenship in order to buy television stations in America.
For Godzone's political and media elite, based in
Alas, all those warm millennium feelings are long forgotten as the Government of John Howard has, at a stroke, demolished the national image with racist and inhumane policies, shamelessly and aggressively implemented, currently against desperate refugees.
There is a terrible irony at work here. Last October, as the "war on terrorism" burst on the world, flags bedecked the Murdoch tabloids as Australian troops were sent to join the great crusade. This was in keeping with a long tradition of going to war for great powers and colonial masters: from the despatch of Sydney Tramway Company horses to relieve General Gordon at
When a freighter, the
Those Iraqis and Afghans who have succeeded in reaching
A study has revealed that most had experienced terrible suffering before fleeing their homelands. "On many occasions," wrote Robert Manne, a professor at LaTrobe University in Melbourne, "the refugees had been required to visit the horror of such experiences in interrogations by ignorant officials who make it transparent they do not believe the stories they are told." In one camp, their life consists of daily musters and nightly headcounts, at and , under a regime of arbitrary punishments that range from the denial of visitors to solitary confinement and enforced sedation.
Howard and his ministers have promoted a propaganda exercise of fear and loathing among the Australian public. Such is Howard's cynicism that he has never explained to Australians that their country actually receives one of the smallest numbers of "illegal" asylum-seekers in the world: about 4,000 a year. Of these, three-quarters are eventually accepted, but only after mandatory and indefinite imprisonment in camps described by the former conservative prime minister Malcolm Fraser as "hell-holes".
The minister responsible is Philip Ruddock, a man who speaks in a strange, congealed jargon, usually with a smirk. Three years ago, Ruddock boasted to me that Aboriginal infant mortality was "only" three times that of white children. Ruddock's abuse of his victims has become his curious signature. Last year, he referred to a six-year-old Iraqi boy struck speechless by his experiences in a detention camp as "it". When an official of Amnesty International told him of the appalling conditions in the camps on the Pacific
The treatment of "white" illegal immigrants is very different. In 2001, there were 6,160 Britons who had overstayed the duration of their visas, and as many other Europeans. None goes to a detention camp and most are given a "bridging visa". It is said that Howard's "tough stand" against the combined "threat" posed by helpless refugees and international terrorists gave him his election victory last November. "Is
There is a correlation between this false hysteria and the "tough stand" also taken against Aborigines, a minority of around 2 per cent of the population. When an Aboriginal boxer, Anthony Mundine, remarked on television that Americans had "brought [terrorism] upon themselves [for] what they done in the history of time", he was all but lynched. He is a Muslim. Thanks to his "traitorous talk", crowed one of the media lynch party, "word is that his promising international career is over".
As Australia is entrenched as yet another colony of the "global economy", the tragedy for those seeking personal pride in the achievements of their nation is the suppression of a political history of which there is much to be proud, and whose wonderfully subversive stories are seldom told.
In my lifetime,
Last week, Pauline Hanson retired from politics, mainly because the Howard government pre-empted and absorbed her populism. Her openly racist One Nation party at its peak captured 10 per cent of the national vote: about a million people. Now they are Howard's people. She appealed not only to those left out of the consumerism that has taken over a society that once had the most equitable spread of personal income in the world and is now one of the most unequal. She also had middle-class support, though this is seldom mentioned. "Pauline, you made us more honest", said the headline over an article in the Sydney Morning Herald. The writer, Margo Kingston, who apparently thinks of herself as a liberal, waffled about "the unfinished legacy of the redhead from
In recent years, this "debate" has been influenced by a group of David Irving-style denialists who say there was no slaughter of the first Australians, no rapacious past. This chorus of windbags of the "lunar right" (a term used by one columnist who likes to pretend he is not one of them) dominates a press with a narrower ownership than anywhere in the west. Murdoch owns 70 per cent of the capital city press; and journalists and broadcasters who speak too freely must consider the consequences, especially those in the state-funded Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
It is more than 20 years since David Williamson's fine play Sons of Cain described this intimidation, and little has changed. Only a few, like the investigative writers Brian Toohey and Ken Davidson, have bothered to understand and consistently alert the public to vital issues, such as the secretive trade deal that the Howard government is stitching up with the United States and which will allow American multinationals to subvert much of Australia's fragile primary industry and manipulate its trade.
A great many Australians care about this, and express their powerlessness. Over a year ago, almost a million people filled the
For many, there is the spectre of comparison with apartheid