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Sunday, 14 April 2013

'White Australia' lives on

Image via Senthorun Raj
Four hundred years ago boats began arriving in Northern Australia looking for sea cucumber, an animal still prized in Chinese cooking and medicine.

Fishermen from what is now Indonesia would trade with the local Yolngu people. When the British arrived in the area a hundred years later they encouraged the lucrative trade.

Four hundred years on and similar fishing boats coming to Australia's northern shores are being presented in an entirely different light.

Cynical politics has led both major parties to pretend that the country's borders are 'under siege' and 'at risk of invasion'. That is the sort of language deployed against the arrival on those fishing boats of refugees from the world's major trouble spots. Year after year, politicians vie with unworkable plan after unworkable plan to 'stop the boats', the latest being to spend over A$2b on drones to someone find boats in millions of square kilometers of ocean, when it is illegal to 'turn boats back' on the high seas.

The demonisation of desperate and frightened people was already awful -- a grub fight -- but has now reached a new low. The conservative opposition, very likely to be the next government, has taken one case of alleged rape by an asylum seeker in order to propose that all asylum seekers living outside camps (where they all used to be kept until the outcry got too loud over the conditions, particularly the impact on children):
.. are not to be housed near ''vulnerable communities'' - presumably children and, in the context of the alleged assault which sparked the debate, female college students.

They will be subject to ''behaviour protocols'', breach of which will carry ''negative sanction'', which might mean a return to detention, or perhaps criminal charges - it is unclear. The police must be notified and consulted at every instance. And, of course, the neighbourhood must be ''alerted'' to their presence.
Matthew Zagor writes:
Apart from the unavoidable equating of refugees with child sex offenders, there is a clear assumption that they are not to be trusted close to our Australian women, a classic racist trope with its undertones of the sexually threatening foreigner.

There is also a remarkable inversion and appropriation of the rhetoric of vulnerability: it turns out ''we'' are the vulnerable ones, the ones under threat and in need of protection.
Bianca Hall writes in The Age that, asylum seekers on bridging visas, released from detention, are 45 times less likely to be charged with a crime than members of the general public. Almost all these people are genuine refugees, meaning that they will be accepted as asylum seekers, though, as with the UK, there is controversy over increased removals of Tamils.

Since a third wave of 'boat people' began arriving in 1999 Australian politics has been like this, Labour and Liberal alike have played footsie with 'dog whistles' that hark back to Australia's explicitly racist policy history of stoked-up fear of Asians from the North, 'yellow peril', the 'White Australia' immigration policy written into the constitution and finally ditched by Gough Whitlam in the 1970s, with the last racist provision gone in 1978. Bahá'ís and Jews were amongst those also impacted by racist immigration policy.

When the first 'boat people' arrived from South-East Asia in the late seventies the reaction was "symptomatic of an insecure nation threatened by Asian penetration", writes Dr. Rachel Stevens. The numbers then, and in a second wave from the late eighties, were small but they remain small today.

In 2010 134 boats arrived unauthorised in Australia with a total of about 6,879 people on board (including crew). Most asylum seekers arrive by air. There are ten times as many people overstaying their visa, with the largest number of those being British.

Since the first boat with five Vietnamese men arrived in Darwin in 1976 Australia has spent countless billions and huge amounts of political focus on what, to outsiders, certainly to Europeans, is a non-issue. The numbers are tiny. In forty years there's been no 'terrorist threat'. There is no 'solution' to 'secure the border'.

Given how both elements of the media and some politicians have played up and played loose with the issue it's easy to think that Australians are merely reacting, like mushrooms in a cupboard being fed the proverbial. But this forgets the history, what is already out there.

'Atone for the hardness of heart'

It could change. A decade ago Indigenous issues divided the country with many accusing the then Prime Minister, conservative John Howard, of using division on issues like land rights and apologies for past treatment in much the same way that 'boat people' are being used now.

Now? Who said this?
One of the reasons why Aboriginal policy has been so unsuccessful, despite an abundance of official goodwill, is that few policy-makers have ever spent a night in an Aboriginal community or mixed with Aboriginal people except those who have made it into the middle class.
A hippie, liberal big city type? No, that was the extremely conservative likely next Prime Minister, Tony Abbott.

Indigenous issues now unite all the major parties, including the representatives of white and rural Australia, the Nationals. In February:
Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Opposition Leader Tony Abbott put aside politics .. as the lower house passed legislation to create an Act of Recognition of indigenous people.
In a bipartisan process just like that which led up to the 1967 referendum which first recognised Aborigines in the national census the plan is to further recognise the first inhabitants in the constitution. This is difficult as most constitutional change proposed in Australia has failed.
Mr Abbott said he and Ms Gillard were partners on this matter.

He honoured her work and that of other leaders who paved the way over the years.

'Most of all I honour the millions of indigenous people, living and dead, who have loved this country yet maintained their identity, and who now ask only that their existence be recognised and their contributions be acknowledged,' he said.

Australia now had an opportunity to do what should have been done 200 or 100 years ago.

'We need to atone for the omissions and for the hardness of heart of our forebears to enable us all to embrace the future as a united people,' he said.

'We shouldn't feel guilty about our past, but we should be determined to rise above that which now makes us embarrassed,' he said.

Mr Abbott said Australia was a blessed country.

'Except for one thing - we have never fully made peace with the first Australians.'
Maybe, one day, Australia will come together to apply the same logic to their treatment of another marginalised, maligned and dehumanised minority?
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