An Australian Day of Shame

Published July 20, 2013 by Fat Heffalump

Today I need to talk about something off my usual topic.  Because something so unbelievably shameful has happened in my country in the past 24 hours and I need to speak up.

Yesterday, the Prime Minister of Australia, Kevin Rudd, announced a new “hardline approach” to refugees arriving by boat in Australia.  This new “hardline approach” means that people arriving by boat and without a visa will be sent to Australia’s Manus Island facility in Papua New Guinea for assessment and, if found to be refugees, they will be settled in Papua New Guinea.

I find it so hard to put into words the shame, disgust and despair I feel at this announcement.  Today I am deeply ashamed to be an Australian.  I’m ashamed that our political leaders would behave in such an inhumane manner to vulnerable people who have every right to seek asylum in Australia, vulnerable people who are fleeing for their lives.  I am ashamed of the lies that have been spread by both those in politics and the media around “boat people”.

Before I go on, I want to make it clear that Papua New Guinea (PNG) is not some kind of rosy haven for people.  It is not a safe place for people who are already fleeing their own countries of origin for the very same reasons they are likely to be targeted in PNG.  Religion, gender, sexuality, political beliefs etc.  Our own government has issued a warning against travel to PNG because of the high level of crime, violence, disease and risk to women.  This is not some safe little nook we are tucking these already vulnerable people – it is a poverty and crime stricken third world country.  Australia even offers asylum to Papua New Guinean women because it is not safe there for many of them.

There have been so many lies spread about refugees in the media and by politicians.  Many of them are debunked here.  This slogan of “stop the boats” as played as a fight to end people smuggling, a dangerous and inhumane practice that preys on desperate people by charging them large amounts of money to be smuggled into Australia by boat.  I agree, people smuggling is a deplorable trade and needs to be addressed, because desperate people die at the hands of these people smugglers.  But don’t think for a minute that this is what “stop the boats” is really about.  It is not punishing the people smugglers who profit off of the desperation of refugees at all, it’s punishing the victims.  People who have nowhere else to turn and cannot remain where they are, who are forced into using people smuggling to attempt to get themselves and their families to the safety of Australia.  This does not stop people smuggling at all, it simply forces it further underground, makes it more dangerous for the refugees and makes more money for the people smugglers.

I am not fooled for one moment that this “stop the boats” rhetoric is about stopping people smuggling.  It’s a catchy dog whistle for the media and politicians to stir up the ignorant, the bigoted, the xenophobic of Australia.  The people who respond to the “stop the boats” dog-whistle don’t care for one moment about stopping people smugglers from profiting from refugees, they only want to keep people out of their country who they deem as unworthy.  They don’t care about stopping the thousands of people who simply don’t go home after having a holiday in Australia and decide to live here permanently because our quality of life is better than in their home country, because those people tend to be white people.  But those who are fleeing for their lives and are the tiny number that attempt to get here via people smugglers tend to be brown people, people of religions other than Christian and/or people who do not speak English.

Australia through most of my life has been known as The Lucky Country.  And yes, while we’re doing it tougher lately than we are used to, we are still extremely lucky.  We have weathered the global economic crisis better than almost anywhere else in the world.  We have a lot of privileges that many other places in the world doesn’t enjoy.  The climate is good and we enjoy most of the produce we need grown right here in our own country.

But we also have thousands of kilometres of empty space.  We are mostly affluent (though we could look after our own vulnerable people better, but that is a topic for another post) and we have political, religious and gender freedoms that many other places around the world do not have.

We also have an ageing population that cannot sustain itself.  The very people most complaining about the number of “immigrants” Australia has are those who are going to complain that there are not enough people doing the work that it requires to maintain the country.  We need more people with skills of every kind, and more people who will have children who can be given an education to grow into skills we need.

As I do every Saturday morning, I sat in my local park and had brunch.  I looked around at the people sharing the beautiful park.  I heard several languages floating across the green, coming from families feeding the ducks and turtles, showing their kids the eels swimming in the lagoon, enjoying coffee in the gazebo.  I saw every shade of skin and mode of dress I can think of enjoying that lovely park.  And I thought about all those people who were able to come here 10, 20, 30 years ago or beyond, who now live here and are part of our community.

I thought about my friends and colleagues who came here as refugees.  From Vietnam, Poland, El Salvador, Eritrea, Iraq, Croatia and many other places.  I thought about their kids, who I have watched grow up from littlies running around to be young adults today who are getting an education, or who are already in the workforce.  I thought about what lovely people these kids have grown up into, how they all have such strong values of family, work ethic, appreciation for what they have.  I thought about my friends and colleagues who have enriched my life with language, music, food, and other culture that they’ve introduced me to as I’ve known them over the years. I thought about the number of great artists, musicians, writers and thinkers that have come from refugee backgrounds.  I thought about these people who contribute to making Australia such a strong, prosperous nation.  I’ve worked along side so many hard working people who came here as refugees, or are the children of refugees, who have participated in building communities that support each other and better the world they are in.

These are the kinds of people who we have just slammed the door in their faces.  Those who are fleeing their own horrors and looking for us to open our doors to them with compassion and humanity are the people who 10, 20, 30  years down the track will be contributing the way the refugees of the past are now.  These are the people whose children will get a decent education and become the doctors and nurses and teachers and engineers and librarians and farmers and architects and you name it along with Aussie born kids and make Australia strong and productive.  These are the people who will bring wonderful new foods, wonderful new art, music and writing, great thinking and learning with them.

Yet we as a nation have just slammed the door in their faces and told them that they are unworthy of joining us.  We have sent them off to further desperation and violence, yet we tell them they are not worthy of joining us.  How wrong we are.  We as a nation are the ones who are unworthy.

We need to make ourselves worthy of the greatness we have achieved, and have the potential to achieve again as Australians, regardless of whether we were born Australian or became Australian.  We MUST NOT be silent about this shameful declaration made by the Australian government yesterday.

I urge every one of you to speak up, no matter in what small way.  Whether it is sharing this post or other articles speaking up about the inhumanity of the government’s decision on your social media, participating in this campaign to contact your local Member of Parliament, writing your own post or letter to the media, participating in any of the rallies or walks that are springing up around the country, or simply just calling out the ignorance and lies being perpetuated by the people around you in your life.  If nothing else, put all of the political propaganda you receive in your junk mail in an envelope and send it to your local Member of Parliament marked STOP THE LIES.  Hell, even put it back in the post box (mark it “Return to Sender” in big bold letters) and let Australia Post deal with thousands of returned junk mail.  Even if they’re just recycling it, they have to report back to the political parties (who pay for them to distribute the propaganda) how much of the mailers “failed”.  Can you imagine the mess they’d have if we all did that?

You may think that you can’t make a difference.  But you can, and no action is too small.  The more of us who work together to speak up the more our voices accumulate volume.  Sign a petition.  Share some articles.  Tell people that you find xenophobia and ignorance unacceptable.  Just don’t be silent on this.  Silence tells politicians and the media that you agree with them.

Challenge “stop the boats” with STOP THE LIES.

18 comments on “An Australian Day of Shame

  • I know! as soon as I saw the title of the post I knew what you would be talking about! as a kiwi I obviously have a love hate relationship with you ozzies, but I couldn’t believe when I read the news… pardon the political generalisation, but it seems like an extreme right wing sort of decision! 😦 sad and cruel and unnecessary. kia kaha my neighbor, will be seeing what we can do to put pressure on our doofus of a leader, but I’m not sure his opinion would be different!.xxx

    • Rachel, the day that Tony Abbott, the ultra-conservative leader of the opposition praises a policy from the Labor party is the day you know that things are terrifyingly right wing in your country.

      Moving to New Zealand is looking more and more attractive every day (and it was already a pretty enticing thought anyway).

  • Australia as a nation started with immigrants (not as a place, there were those natives, who got it hard now, but as a nation). Funny how those former immigrants, like the US-Americans, who started as immigrants too, tend to forget that once their ancestors came there for a better country, for a better future, for a place to live their lives. (OK, SOME were forced to come.)
    Once it was a colony, from those days stems the European dominance. Strange that now, that Australia is no colony anymore it wants to maintain the European dominance. Just like some people in the United States.
    I should not complain though – I am german, we have a history of xenophobia, not only during the dark years (33 till 45 last century), we still have a lot of people who are afraid of the difference .. sometimes I catch myself at it. I tell myself then, that must be the 3 % Neanderthaler-Genes in me – Neanderthalers were VERY xenophobic. Who knows, where that xenophobia of the Australians comes from?

    • Indeed franhunne4u, Australia as a modern nation (let’s remember that it was inhabited before white man invaded it) is built on the back of immigration. Unless someone is indigenous, then they are here because of immigration. And many, many of the immigrants through history have come here out of desperation and gone on to live rich, contributing lives.

      But one point – know where xenophobia comes from (and it’s not the Neanderthals, which were wiped out by humans anyway) – it comes from the wealthy and powerful who carefully cultivate a culture of xenophobia so that they can control people in general. People who are afraid of “others” – be they refugees, fat people, queer people, any marginalised people – will give power to those who claim to keep the “others” out. Who gains the most from that? Those who are already wealthy and powerful. That’s why refugees are being demonised by those in power here in Australia, and it’s why this decision was made – to win votes from the ignorant masses, not out of any real economic reasons.

  • Kath, this is truly excellent post. I mean, you’re always a good read, but this is just magnificent. I’m so angry at how the party that supposedly represents the average Australian is pandering to the xenophobic right wing. Maybe it’s just a vote buying exercise and it will vanish post-election, but to even say these things aloud. And even worse, what if they actually believe it?

    I’ve reached the end of my tether with mainstream political parties. The greens are looking like they are the least awful alternative, but this has decided it for me: I’m going to join the FREE party (stands for Facts Reason Ethics Engagement) and I’d encourage anyone else who is likewise despairing to investigate them.

  • I think the new policy is 100% deplorable. It is further proof of Australia’s horrible xenophobic nature and I am incredibly saddened by the current state of Australian politics. This whole ‘stop the boats’ notion was started during the Howard years and has been constantly perpetuated and spoken about by Abbott. It very much seems to be the only thing he is really interested in talking about.
    In saying that, Rudd simply had to come up with a policy for the refugee ‘situation’ (I don’t at all believe there is a situation. Seeking asylum is not illegal and comparative to the rest of the world, Australia gets very few of the world’s immigrants). Though the policy is disgusting, you cannot deny that Rudd has made an incredibly smart political manoeuvre. He has upset many of his own voters, but he has now made a firm policy on refugees that many in this xenophobic country will be satisfied with. I think the policy is aimed at the swinging voters. He’s also said that the policy is to be reviewed in 12 months. What do you think about the idea that this policy might just be a way to get him into government? I mean, honestly, I may despise Rudd right now and I think there are plenty of issues with some of the policies going around (like taking money out of education to fund education. who thought of that!?), but I would rather Rudd than Abbot. And it’s not like there are any other political choices that will get a majority vote.

  • I remember reading something years ago about how all of this “boat people” stuff was nothing but propaganda – blown way out of proportion as a means of deflecting attention away from more important and damaging issues within our own country. This new policy is just disgusting, a truly shitty way to treat people. I will never support anything that takes people fleeing a bad situation and puts them somewhere just as bad, or even worse than where they were before. It’s like if we took a woman fleeing domestic abuse and put her in a “safe house” with a man known to be violent towards women, then told her she should be lucky she even got a place to stay at all. (That’s a really bad analogy, but you get the picture.)

  • Thanks so much for your insight and for taking a stand. In the UK we are seeing a drift to the right too and I hope people here follow your example and speak up for justice and human rights.

  • I completely fail to understand this attitude! I’m Canadian, but our government is also becoming anti-immigrant. While we haven’t yet found an island to ship them off to, I’m sure they would contemplate that “solution” if they could. But they are doing other things to discourage immigration – like closing down programs that allow immigrants to bring in “less desirable” family members, such as parents. They’ve also shut down programs that brought in desperately needed workers to specific areas of the country. They are reducing the number of “acceptable” asylum seekers and getting harsher with people who make even tiny mistakes in the legal immigration process.

    We need immigrants for our country to remain vital! But we fail to make them feel welcome. Its like we resent them (maybe because we know we need them?). I’m not superior for having been born into a first world country, I didn’t earn my right to live here, I’m merely lucky.

    • The irony is sarah that most of us ARE immigrants (as in the descendants of immigrants) already. Unless we’re aboriginal, we’re all bloody immigrants anyway. And you’re so right about the birth lottery, it’s sheer luck, not superiority.

  • Here in the US, I’ve always been horrified by our anti-immigration stuff. Many people forget we are mostly immigrants ourselves and pushed out the Native Americans to boot. *sigh*

    Sometimes, humans really suck.

  • Ah, the ultra right-wing mindset! It seems that this way of thinking is all over the first-world. Here in the U.S., we’ve had our share of battles regarding such a thing. Pres. Obama (bless his heart) is at least trying to pass what is known as the “Dream Act” – which would allow kids of illegal immigrants to go to college and try to better their lives. It’s sad that even though we’re basically all the same, we focus on that tiny percentage of what makes us different (and use it to justify our supposed “superiority”): whether it’s what we look like, where we come from, differences in belief/culture/language, etc. And it doesn’t help when the powers that be try to use those differences to cobble together a convenient scapegoat that you can blame when things are going wrong in your life. (And unfortunately, it’s all too easy to fall into that way of thinking, although really there’s no real reason or excuse for it, since we ALL want the same things in life when you think of it). Here’s to hoping that the leaders see the folly of that way of thinking, ‘cuz if they can start scapegoating one group and saying let’s ship them off to the “island of the undesirables”, they can do it to ANYBODY!

  • This is so anger inducing that I don’t even know where to start to write a real comment. Thank you for bringing this to my attention.

  • First of all, I just want to tell you how much I love your blog. Honestly and truly, it makes my day whenever I get a chance to read it because I can relate so well with what you have to say. Having rights as a human being is universal – it doesn’t matter where or how you live, you deserve to have the same opportunities as everyone else.

    This then leads into my second point. This is an issue that is close to my heart. I am a first-generation American. My parents moved to the United States a few years before I was born in order to give my sister and any of their future children a chance at a better life (which worked out spectacularly for me and my siblings). Coincidentally, the choice of final destination was between the US and Australia. I could have very easily been a first-generation Australian. Anyway, here weren’t enough opportunities in Uruguay at the time so my parents left everything they knew to try to to make our lives as a family and as eventual productive members of society richer. There isn’t a day that goes by when I’m not grateful for their decision and multitude of sacrifices. It is because of all of this that I have what you called “such strong values of family, work ethic, appreciation for what they have.” It is because of my parents emigrating to the US that I can speak 3 languages, have 2 college degrees and am working on my third all while working a full-time job for a large software company that shall remain nameless. If the figurative doors of immigration had been closed to my parents or if they had been deemed undesirable, my life would be so very different. That is not a life I would like to envision.

    Speaking solely from my own experience, the US is a country that was built with immigrants, by immigrants, on the backs of immigrants. And that applies to pretty much every other majorly developed country as well. It is because of the mixture of different peoples that our countries have become what they are today. And shipping people off or putting them in camps or making them someone else’s problem is inhumane. But politicians forget this.They would do well to remember this at times other than when they are up for re-election. These same politicians also forget that there are good and not-so-good examples in every bunch. Yes, some immigrants can be a drain to a society and its resources. But you know what, so can natural born citizens!

    I think it was a poor decision on the part of the Australian government. I think it’s a poor decision from any government. It’s not the first of its kind and it won’t be the last (unfortunately). At least not without people educating themselves to know what’s happening in their neighborhoods, their large communities, their country and the world. People to need to educate themselves in their political systems as well in order to actively participate in their government. Each person can make a difference as long as they have the tools and the desire to make a change. And now I will get off of my soapbox.

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