Well, as expected Australian PM Julia Gillard has called an election for August 21, so that, less than three years after the last election and with a different leader at Labor’s helm, Australian voters are heading back to the polls to cast their (compulsory) votes. I’ve railed against Australia’s stupidly short terms of office on this blog before, so I won’t spend long supping from that particular rant can today, only to say I am so sick to death of the focus on politics at the expense of governance, and I think our fundamentally ineffectual blink-and-you’ll-miss-it terms of office exacerbate the problem tenfold. It’s all about politicking, not leading. Yes, it’s true we have two rabid political beasts locking horns now, and with this battle there comes the unmistakable, unpalatable stench of a hit-and-run trailing both their campaigns, with their separate convictions already left by the roadside to die. Neither one feels any compunction to stand for anything, it seems, but only beat their competition. The tighter they lock horns, the harder it becomes to tell them apart. It’s a most unedifying spectacle, and it’s putting me off the lot of them.
One of the things that’s turning my stomach is the way both leaders are allowing the issue of asylum seekers to dominate the country’s fear spectrum. Boat people in particular are the source of much frenzied pledging by Gillard and Abbott, and the contest around which one of them plans to set the most disgraceful example to the people of Australia is tight. Gillard and her new offshore processing centre, Abbott and his ‘I’ll just turn the boats back!’ supreme idiocy – I can’t quite decide whose policy is more inhumane and repugnant.
Do you know what really makes me seethe down to the core of my being? Australia commits troops to Afghanistan, we invade that nation, we contribute to its present turmoil and the growing death toll among civilians, and then, then we have the disgusting gall, the absolutely breathtaking hypocrisy, to turn away Afghanis fleeing their broken home in search of a new and peaceful life elsewhere. Boat people! We shriek. Stop the boat people! Panic in the streets! Lock up your plasmas! Refugees – however they arrive – are not the real threat to our way of life – we are. Any population so pigheadedly closed to the reality of what these people endure – and that’s before they take the utterly desperate decision to climb aboard one of these dodgy boats and risk their lives all over again – will frankly be its own undoing.
Our ignorance and lack of compassion – our peculiar hysteria and fear – toward refugees really takes some beating. To constantly criminalise and demonise people who have already suffered brutalities and losses truly beyond the comprehension of the average Australian – a well-fed, sheltered species who need not even work a day in their lives in order to secure a comparatively comfortable life – is utterly despicable to me. Those bumper stickers aggressively declaring ‘FUCK OFF, WE’RE FULL’ make me so ashamed I want to disown my country. If this is a common attitude, we have veered badly off course as a people. It is so cold, it is so ignorant; it is so selfish and unfeeling and false.
Last night we watched a documentary about the Sudanese genocide in Darfur, ‘The Devil Came on Horseback.’ It convinced me anew that Australians should be more exposed to and educated about the horrors visited upon civilians in other parts of the world, so that we might better grasp the gross extent of our own good fortune, and perhaps reach a place in our hearts in which we’re better able to extend it by opening our vast shores to others whose homes and lives have been totally destroyed. We seem to think people just want to flood Australia from elsewhere, that there’s a tidal wave of Others straining against the gate, but I think the truth is that most people in most of these shattered countries would prefer, if they could, to stay and rebuild their own home. ‘Home’ means the same thing everywhere, it’s a precious and irreplaceable site, and people generally don’t leave it lightly. Some of the images in this documentary are scarring, and that’s even just seeing them flash up on the screen from the cosy comfort of my middle-class lounge-room in my beachside home in my wealthy and peaceful city. So imagine for a moment – and it’s hard to stretch my own imagination this far – what it’s like to experience that world of relentless rape, torture, mutilation, murder, burnt babies and torched villages firsthand. Hell. On. Earth. That is what survivors of these and other atrocities have seen: hell on Earth. And what do we do, as a country? Treat the world’s genuine refugees as vermin to be avoided at all costs, as though their shattered lives were something they had deliberately cultivated and wish now to unleash upon us all.
There is something badly wrong with all of this, and all of us, that leads Gillard and Abbott to flick the panic switch over a few hundred illegally arriving boats by reassuring an anxious public that these asylum seekers won’t get away with it on their watch. One might have hoped we would get a leader who would try to settle the public unrest by speaking to the reality of the situation, by soothing the nerves with reference to the negligible scale of the number of arrivals, and by calming the public’s paranoid nightmares via dialogue with and education about those whose nightmares are real, but that won’t be happening this time. No, they won’t be saying, “Our petty concerns pale beside what these innocent people have already risked, lost and sacrificed” – none of it. These two “leaders” will be too busy promising to turn the boats back, or else promising to send these pesky refugees somewhere else, somewhere far, far away where we can simply forget about them, and continue closing our minds to the troubled world beyond our wilfully blind little bubble.
Do you want to hear something really scary? Patrick White was writing about certain of these Australian xenophobic attitudes some fifty years ago, and it depresses me beyond all reckoning to realise that so very little has changed.