So bigotry becomes us?
October 19, 2002
BEFORE becoming a columnist and, more recently, a novelist, my old friend Hugh Mackay had spent decades taking the nation's pulse as a qualitative researcher.
Leaving others to do the statistical analyses of public opinion, number-crunching its nuances and pendulum swings, Hugh tries to dig deeper. Where the qualitative researchers measure the ripples on the surface, Hugh is after the undercurrents. He's become a remarkably acute analyst - almost psychoanalyst - of Australia's collective consciousness and conscience.
A few days ago I asked him to play a mind game - to imagine, for a moment, that the allegations that have been swirling around SIEV-X for months were true. That someone had forced 400 people on to the SIEV-X at gunpoint - on to a boat that had been sabotaged so that it would break up and sink.
I asked him to imagine the public response to what might have followed an escalating program of disruption aimed at discouraging refugees. To imagine that this program had Australian involvement. That the events that led to the drowning of 350 men, women and children weren't simply a result of actions by Australian and Indonesian criminals but involved a degree, however slight and subtle, of official complicity.
His response? Let's imagine more than that. Let's imagine that, down the track, there's solid evidence of a wink and nod in Canberra. Three hundred and fifty drowned? I'm afraid there'd be a leap in the Government's approval ratings.
Has it come to this? Was Australia's brief flirtation with tolerance simply that? A flirtation? An anomaly?
It was only a few years ago that we started to extricate ourselves from the shame of the White Australia Policy in which, like South Africa with apartheid, we'd enshrined bigotry in legislation. Having been backed by both sides of politics, White Australia was, after more than 60 years, sent to the knacker's yard of history.
Belatedly, we'd realised that it was untenable for a population of 14 million whites, occupying a vast tract of real estate, to ban human imports on the basis of skin colour. And at the same time, a majority of Australians in a majority of states seemed to have a change of heart in regard to the Aboriginal population, voting to transform our relationships with peoples we'd displaced and oppressed.
The first attempts at what became known as reconciliation coincided with a celebration of what became known as multiculturalism - and a proud assertion that our defining national characteristic was, yes, tolerance.
Yet while we prepared to celebrate our centenary of Federation, while putting out a welcome mat to the world with the Sydney Olympics, we turned our back on tolerance. We didn't just put it on the backburner, like reconciliation. We had a Prime Minister who turned off the gas. And he was joined by other wind sniffers: conservative pundits and talkback jocks pressing the buttons that would produce levels of bigotry we hadn't seen for 40 years. The bright light of tolerance was extinguished just before we lit the Olympic cauldron.
(On the 30th anniversary of the referendums on Aboriginal issues, I asked Faith Bandler if they'd attract 92 per cent support today. In fact, would they even be passed? No, they wouldn't, said Faith. Is that because Australia's become more bigoted? No, but bigotry is better organised.)
Back to SIEV-X. One hopes that the allegations swirling around that voyage of the damned finish up being discredited. One hopes that any sabotage of people-smugglers' vessels was intended to stop them leaving Indonesia, rather than having them sink en route to our coast or to Christmas Island. And let us hope that Hugh's assessment of the national mood is unnecessarily pessimistic.
But I think he is correct. When SIEV-X sank in the middle of the federal election, I believed it would change everything. That Australians would be so horrified by the tragedy that we'd say enough is enough. But that's not what happened. If anything, the hostility to the asylum-seekers intensified, as if feelings of guilt made us angrier and more cruel.
Yes, there's been some evidence in recent months of a subtle change of attitude. Instead of 75 per cent of Australians wholeheartedly backing John Howard and Philip Ruddock, a recent report from Newspoll had public attitudes shifting. Although 38 per cent of people remained hardline against letting any asylum-seekers in, 38 per cent said "let some of them in" and 10 per cent said "let all of them in". Yet those who oppose compassion towards refugees are not only unapologetic but, judging by my mail and emails, also increasingly strident.
These seem to be the same people who are gung-ho for a war with Iraq. So it's time to remind ourselves that many of the people we've refused to admit to Australia are Iraqis fleeing Saddam Hussein. Not that this has made them any more welcome than the poor bastards who fled Afghanistan because of the Taliban.
And here's a problem for Australia and for the federal Government's spin doctors. If we join the US in bombing the hell out of Baghdad, we'll create vast numbers of new refugees. And, inevitably, some of them will seek refuge in our country. And why not? Aren't we saying that we're on the side of ordinary Iraqis? That we realise how much they've been suffering under Hussein?
Well then, what will we do with these refugees, Prime Minister? How will we treat them, Mr Ruddock? Will we demonise them? Will we allege that they're probably terrorists? Will we effectively endorse the hatreds being peddled by many in our community and the anti-Islam line suggesting the only good Muslim is a dead one?
Australia's reaction to refugees, ranging from the so-called Pacific solution to the detention centres, is characterised by hypocrisy and humbug. Monstrously disingenuous, it involves non sequiturs the size of Uluru. So what happens when George W. Bush orders us to jump? If we say "How high?" we'll have to deal with the consequences. Among them, a flood of refugees fleeing the horrors that we'll help unleash.
Or will the PM get away with it once more by manipulating fears and bigotries? Will he get away with it because he's managed, in a few short years, to create an Australia in his own image?
Yes, these are rhetorical questions. Dorothy Dixers. Because I think we know the answers already.
In conclusion, an observation. Like many Australians, I thought we were a member of the UN. Apparently not. We're a member of the US.