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Refugees stretched on token racks

2013 Jul 27

Kevin Rudd has not yet threatened that he will use hot pliers to tear out the fingernails from asylum seekers arriving in boats. Or that he will hand over their children to the fabled Papua New Guinean headhunters for cannibalism. But he probably will if he needs to. The more horrible and fearsome the punishment of being sent to PNG is made to sound, the more unlikely (or at least he hopes) it will be that asylum seekers will board the boats in the first place.

Neither he nor Peter O'Neill expect much of a transplantation of Persians, Medes or Bactrians to the Admiralty Islands, in northern parts of the Bismarck Sea. Nor do either expect that they will ever have to spend much money developing housing, facilities and services. The purpose of the exercise is not to make Manus Island a paradise, but to make it sound so awful that no one would want to end up there.

Perhaps Rudd could egg the pudding a bit by pointing out to the hapless would-be refugees that it was pretty much on the very site they will occupy on Manus that Australia carried out most of its official retribution for Japanese war crimes in the Pacific. More than 100 Japanese soldiers were hanged on the island.

The worse the possible horrors of life on Manus - to which can be added the terrors that asylum seekers inflict on each other as they are driven mad by the heat, mosquitoes, malaria, sand flies, inadequate facilities, isolation and the boredom of consciously organised concentration camp conditions - the more trouble professional people smugglers will have in getting people on to boats. And the less possible that Australia seems as a destination from Indonesia, the fewer the people who will fly to Indonesia from Iran, or Sri Lanka, or Iraq or Pakistan in the first place.

That, on paper, is the primary purpose of the Rudd government advertising campaign: to tell potential boat people that if they get on a boat they will never ever be resettled in Australia. On paper, it is not necessarily a bad thing that the propaganda effort is being waged in Australian newspapers: those who already have a foothold here are in communication with relatives and friends trying to get to these shores. Those already in Australia are also, of course, raising a good deal of the cash for the trips.

The advertising campaign is being observed with some interest abroad. One might imagine that a good many people overseas are appalled. But some in almost every First World country will feel some professional admiration. Most industrialised countries are flooded with would-be refugees, including people who will simply not stand patiently in the queue. This is, everywhere, the stuff of potent politics, as former Coalition adviser - now British Tory adviser - Linton Crosby can attest.

But Rudd is not preening himself for international admiration. His real campaign is purely domestic, and focused on pandering to a middle Australia whose sense of wellbeing is disturbed by the notion that uninvited trespassers are coming in by our back door. Like Tony Abbott, he follows the feeling: he will not lead.

One way or another, since 1788 a part of the population has worried about being overrun by foreigners. And one way or another, a part of the political establishment - historically mostly a Labor-oriented one - has been exploiting that anxiety.

It's a bit of a turnaround that the Coalition has led the anxiety-mongering over the past 13 years, but, Labor ''leaders'' who've known the potency of such campaigns have struggled to outdo the Coalition and to ''control'' the argument.

Controlling the argument is not about actually hurting any human being, at least on Australian soil. It's about reducing the argument's temperature so that it is not actuating many votes.

The arrival of boat people is misleadingly represented as an evidence of defence vulnerability, as an undermining of our sense of sovereignty, as a potential source of subversion, disease, drug-smuggling, dilution of our Judeo-Christian heritage, the breaking down of hard-won working conditions and for some

(dare one say it) even impact on our skin colour. Closely associated with it is the entirely confected fear that migrants or refugees (or Aborigines) get services or benefits that other (''real'') Australians do not get.

Many such people are, of course, hostile to the idea of any aliens coming here. Particularly if they are not like us, which for many who say it, means not of northern European or Anglo-Celtic extraction.

Once northern Europe was a code word for ''non-Catholic'' - and for some the wisdom of this instinct can be demonstrated by the fact that the countries in trouble in the European community are ''swarthy'' southern Europeans, such as the Spanish, Portuguese, Italians and Greeks - feckless Catholics, in short, not imbued with all of the Protestant virtues of hard work. Only on Friday veteran immigration scholar James Jupp was talking, on the ABC, of Dr Evatt's hostility to immigration from Catholic parts of Europe.

Once, the dislike for otherness extended to the Jews. When Australia, with marked reluctance agreed to resettle 15,000 German Jews facing persecution in Nazi Germany in 1938, there were many - particularly Labor members - who were hostile and who asked why Europe couldn't solve its own problems. At the conference settling the number, our minister for trade, Sir Thomas White, said Australia got all of the migrants it wanted from Britain and could not extend ''undue privileges … to one particular class of non-British subjects without injustice to others.''

In terms that might win applause these days from the CMFEU in its campaign against 457 visas, the Labor member for Kalgoorlie, Albert Green (a famous figure in Canberra history), pointed out that ''we have plenty of trades and business people in Australia now. Jews coming here will be of no help to a producing country like Australia. For every Jew given a professional job in Australia, an Australian will be shut out.

''Why is it necessary for the Jews to leave Europe? I have no anti-Jewish feeling, and no racial hatred. I recognise that the Australian-born Jew has as much right in Australia as ourselves. They have the same ideals as we have, but the Jew born in Argentina or Germany, or in the USA, is international in his outlook. Australian workers are being dismissed, their place taken by refugees … so far as Australia is concerned they are not required here.''

Luckily for people thinking like that, if not for the Jews, only 7000 got here. Sadly, a more generous attitude from Australians might have rescued some Jews who were murdered by the Nazis.

A similar hostility continued after the war. The Canberra Times itself provides a good example. A 1946 editorial, under the headline ''Not the chosen people for Australia'', said: ''Widespread public misgivings in Australia at the entry of Jewish refugees into this country are not without a justification that should command a more conservative attitude from the Ministry of Immigration.

''This public objection to Jewish refugees is not because of any lack of humanity or sympathy for European refugees, but because Australian experience of the flow of Jewish refugees from Europe immediately prior to the outbreak of war has not been wholly happy. In the large metropolitan areas of Sydney and Melbourne, Australians are finding themselves being brought into a state resembling economic servitude to Jewish interests.

''Where black markets and illegalities flourish, the experience is that Jewish refugees are plentifully in evidence. Australians, particularly

ex-servicemen, are finding themselves elbowed away by the money power which the refugee class exercises, and Australians find themselves being exploited by all manner and class of snide business tricks which have been introduced to this country.

''Moreover, the historically proven experience that Jews are incapable of governing others and unwilling themselves to be governed is being repeated in the lack of Australian sentiment by this class of immigrant.

''Apparently, much more care is exercised in selecting British migrants than in the case of Jewish immigrants, and there is no comparison between the two if or when regard is had to their relative capacity to become good Australians.''

In due course, good Australians came to accept that their native land had to be shared with Jews as well as wogs, dagoes and even pigmented people from non-European backgrounds, beginning with people from the Middle East, then refugees from Indochina and, somewhat in line with our military adventurism or foreign policy pretensions, from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Sudan, as well as Chinese and people from the Americas and the Sub-Continent.

Unease and anxiety about aliens is deeply rooted, but goes up and down according to the state of the economy and the pace of change. Pauline Hanson, who ramped up the anxiety in the mid-1990s, was uneasy not only about the nation going chocolate, and about special privileges going to Aborigines, but about non-stop workplace change that was displacing the unskilled, the narrowly trained, and manufacturing workers.

These were losing jobs as the Australian economy was sailing into the open seas - but to Hanson, this was but an incident of a country changing because of the advent of aliens, in ways her people neither wanted nor ''understood''.

Most Liberals, including Tony Abbott, repudiated Hansonism, even as John Howard argued, wrongly as it turned out, that she would go away if ignored. Howard's point was that he did not want to attack her constituency as bigoted, or ignorant, or - least of all - out of touch with conservative values. In due course, however, Howard learnt the potency of pretending that there was a big threat out there, and that he, above all, was against it, and, compared with the wimps on the other side, he was the man to deal with it. Labor never had the courage to take him on - trying instead, haplessly, to match him in anti-''other'' rhetoric.

The Greens sopped up the votes of disgusted Labor voters, and of remaining genuine liberals, such as Malcolm Fraser, who could not come at the anti-boat people rhetoric.

It has been only in very recent times that the rationalisation of this pandering to the anti-boat people rhetoric has been changed to pretend that we are not against boat people per se, but against their drowning as a result of recklessness in getting into leaky boats. Of course, no one - even the most crude exploiters of the national insecurity - wants people to actually drown.

But if that were their primary concern, we would be allaying it by organising better craft to get to Australian soil or, perhaps, better facilities in Indonesia, where some of us would prefer they waited until we satisfied ourselves they are really who and what they say they are.

That is, perfectly decent people who have fled from war, persecution, and constant repression, looking for somewhere they can be free, where their children can flourish and from which they can be citizens of this country but also a wider and more peaceful world.

Just as our grandchildren will wonder where we stood on the environment, they will, one day, ask us where we stood on the worldwide convulsions of refugees during these times. I doubt they will be judging kindly many of our supposed leaders.
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