Compassion and decency lost at sea
Alison Broinowski
26 August 2002

WHY were many Australians surprised and shocked a year ago when the Howard Government refused Tampa permission to offload 433 boatpeople in Australia? Should we still be shocked, or has September 11, 2001 changed everything?

As we all know, boatpeople and refugees have trickled into Australia for more than four decades. So has a steady stream of visa overstayers. Compared to these smallish flows, legal immigrants since the 1950s have been a torrent. But the real deluge of boatpeople began in 1788.

Until Tampa, Australians generally prided themselves on being seen internationally to do the reasonable thing about refugees. Australian support groups have helped Vietnamese, Cambodians, East Timorese and Kosovars. Mandatory detention was a recent Labor innovation, but the camps were far away and often forgotten. Having the Wackenhut Corporation run them worried only the few who thought about it, including early alarm-raisers Peter Mares, and documentary film-maker Cathy Scott. When Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock went to the Middle East to project an image of a dangerous and unwelcoming Australia, many here thought it was a joke.

Since Tampa, the children overboard event, and then Siev-X (the refugee boat that sank last October with the loss of 353 asylum-seekers), the way Australia does things has changed. This no longer seems a just society. The Government has deployed the SAS against non-combatants, threatened the master of Tampa who was doing his duty, changed Australian law on the run, excluded parts of Australian territory from our migration zone and devised a Pacific Solution that solves nothing and sounds like the Third Reich. Money that our health and education systems need is being spent for purposes about which taxpayers are told nothing, as if we are at war.

For none of these activities, nor their damage to Australia's reputation in the region and elsewhere, has the Government seriously been challenged by Labor, or rebuked by an Australian electorate that is evidently content as long as the boats stop coming and the economy thrives. Ministers hide from responsibility behind fearful public servants, and arrogant personal staff refuse to give evidence. What senators want to know, the witnesses seem to be unable or unwilling to tell them.

The connection between the boatpeople and September 11 was quickly made and has been used ever since to inflame Australian hostility towards refugees and keep Australian compassion quiet. Labor voters on November 10 were threatened with a Taliban for a neighbour. Reinforced by spin, wedge politics, and talkback, the Prime Minister implied to the electors that the behaviour of Muslims on boats was un-Australian. USING what former NSW premier Neville Wran has called "surreptitious legislation and increased surveillance", the Government sought unprecedented powers for ASIO that were amended, but still passed. Australians are being held in American custody without charge and without challenge from the Australian Government.

Capitalising on the climate of fear, Howard is instilling what sociologists call "moral panic" in Australians.

Clearly, the boats are not coming. Improved co-operation between the Federal Police and Indonesian authorities may be one reason. Or word about the fate of Siev-X may have spread. Or the Pacific Solution may not appeal. The anti-terrorism agreements Australia has concluded since September 11 with Indonesia and Malaysia may be contributing: another is to be signed with Thailand. But no region-wide agreement for the orderly handling of refugees is likely while governments are expelling thousands of illegal workers. In the source countries in parts of Asia, the Middle East and Africa, the conditions that make people flee their homelands are getting worse. So nothing is more certain than refugees will keep coming, driven by terrors elsewhere, or hoping to make a living, rather than plotting to invade Australia.

Apparently intending no irony, Liberal leaders now urge us to increase Australia's population by having more children. If Australia needs more people, why spend huge sums on deterring or imprisoning them? Why not accept the best qualified and offer them work on development projects, as we did with postwar refugees on the Snowy scheme?

Why presume boatpeople from the Middle East are all law-breakers and terrorists, instead of recognising their human potential? Why embitter them against Australia, instead of helping those we accept to adjust to life here and encouraging them to make a positive contribution? Why make resentful citizens and more enemies for ourselves? How would we feel if we were refugees? Those who want Australia to be a Judaeo-Christian country seem to apply their own principles very selectively.

The world did indeed change on September 11 and the US has understandably put up the barricades. That is no reason for Australia to make itself into a gated community, or to give others even more evidence that Australians are rich, selfish and fearful.

Alison Broinowski, a former Australian diplomat, is a visiting fellow in the faculty of Asian studies at the Australian National University.

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