Waging war against refugees

28 January 2002

Few asylum-seekers actually reach Australia's shores, and if they do, their treatment beggars belief. 
One of my first assignments as a young reporter in Sydney was to go to the airport and ask famous people arriving from overseas what they thought of Australia. There was a checklist; our beer and beaches were near the top, followed by our "mateship". If the famous person hesitated or, in the case of the movie star Elizabeth Taylor, objected to this asinine interrogation, pleading that they could not possibly answer the questions because they had never previously set foot in Australia, they were in big trouble.

When Taylor and her then husband, Mike Todd, the Hollywood producer, told the press to sod off, they were dogged by negative publicity and their visit was, in show-business terms, a disaster. Something similar happened to the great star Ava Gardner, filming Nevil Shute's On the Beach in Melbourne, about the nuclear apocalypse. Asked what she thought of Australia, she replied: "I cannot think of a better place to make a movie about the end of the world."

She was duly unforgiven, and vowed never to return. These days, it can seem that nothing has changed. Foreigners (and expatriots) who smudge the picture postcard still excite an indignation unknown in New Zealand and Canada, especially in a press dominated by Rupert Murdoch, whose patriotism is distinguished by his abandonment of Australian citizenship in order to buy television stations in America.

For Godzone's political and media elite, based in Sydney, the 2000 Olympics was regarded as an ultimate rite of passage to the rest of the world. Small-time politicians pressed the flesh of the international great and good, Sydney's traffic lights were fixed on green for the motorcade of the International Olympic Committee, and civil liberties were suspended so that the authorities could control those who might interrupt the joy; Aborigines were of particular concern. And the world duly applauded.

Alas, all those warm millennium feelings are long forgotten as the government of John Howard has, at a stroke, demolished the national image with racist and inhumane policies, shamelessly and aggressively implemented, currently against desperate refugees.

There is a terrible irony at work here. Last October, as the "war on terrorism" burst on the world, flags bedecked the Murdoch tabloids as Australian troops were sent to join the great crusade. This was in keeping with a long tradition of going to war for great powers and colonial masters: from the despatch of Sydney Tramway Company horses to relieve General Gordon at Khartoum (they died on the way) to the tragic adventures of Gallipoli and Vietnam. No one seemed to know what the troops headed for Afghanistan would do; and the Americans have since tried their best to give them odd jobs, such as "commanding" the American naval blockade of Iraq, which, according to the United Nations Children's Fund, is mostly responsible for the deaths, every month, of 6,000 Iraqi children under the age of five.

Australia is not at war with Iraq or any country, but it is at war with refugees heading for its shores, many of them Iraqis fleeing the conditions that the American blockade has largely created. For a nation that bases its popular history on the elevation of its Anzac "diggers" (soldiers) to a pantheon of mateship, the guardians of a society of "fair go", the craven campaign against ordinary people at their most vulnerable has been salutary. When a freighter, the Tampa, having rescued 400 refugees from almost certain drowning, approached Australia's shores, the Canberra government sent special forces to prevent traumatised men, women and children from landing. In full battle kit, the soldiers steered the refugees to miserable conditions on remote Pacific islands, where several contracted malaria.

In their attempts to justify this contravention of the most basic of human rights, the right of refuge, Prime Minister Howard and his ministers lied that another group of refugees had thrown their children overboard as a sacrificial means of attracting attention. "I find that [the refugees' behaviour] is against the natural instinct," said Howard. These people, said a senator, "are repulsive . . . and unworthy of Australia". The then Labor Party leader, Kim Beazley, joined in the condemnation, to the disgust of almost everyone. In fact, the refugees had jumped from their leaking craft when an Australian warship fired across its bows. No children had been "thrown overboard", admitted Australia's naval chief, in a rare contradiction of his political master.

Those Iraqis and Afghans who have succeeded in reaching Australia receive treatment which, for a society proclaiming humanist values, beggars belief. Many are imprisoned behind razor wire in some of the most hostile terrain on earth, deliberately isolated from population centres in "detention centres" run by an American company specialising in top-security prisons. In their desperation, the refugees, many of them unaccompanied children, have resorted to suicide, starvation, arson and mass escapes. Last week, 62 refugees in a camp at Woomera in the South Australian desert sewed their lips together to protest the government's admission that it was delaying their asylum application, "deliberately to break their spirit", say lawyers allowed access to them.

A study has revealed that most had experienced terrible suffering before fleeing their homelands. "On many occasions," wrote Robert Manne, a professor at LaTrobe University in Melbourne, "the refugees had been required to visit the horror of such experiences in interrogations by ignorant officials who make it transparent they do not believe the stories they are told." In one camp, their life consists of daily musters and nightly headcounts, at 2am and 5am, under a regime of arbitrary punishments that range from the denial of visitors to solitary confinement and enforced sedation.

Howard and his ministers have promoted a propaganda exercise of fear and loathing among the Australian public. Such is Howard's cynicism that he has never explained to Australians that their country actually receives one of the smallest numbers of "illegal" asylum-seekers in the world: about 4,000 a year. Of these, three-quarters are eventually accepted, but only after mandatory and indefinite imprisonment in camps described by the former conservative prime minister Malcolm Fraser as "hell-holes".

The minister responsible is Philip Ruddock, a man who speaks in a strange, congealed jargon, usually with a smirk. Three years ago, Ruddock boasted to me that Aboriginal infant mortality was "only" three times that of white children. Ruddock's abuse of his victims has become his curious signature. Last year, he referred to a six-year-old Iraqi boy struck speechless by his experiences in a detention camp as "it". When an official of Amnesty International told him of the appalling conditions in the camps on the Pacific island of Nauru, whose debt-ridden government Australia has bribed to take its boat people, the minister's jocular jibe was: "Do you think they would prefer to be at one of our detention centres here?"

The treatment of "white" illegal immigrants is very different. In 2001, there were 6,160 Britons who had overstayed the duration of their visas, and as many other Europeans. None goes to a detention camp and most are given a "bridging visa".

It is said that Howard's "tough stand" against the combined "threat" posed by helpless refugees and international terrorists gave him his election victory last November. "Is Australia safe?" pleaded a headline in the Melbourne Age, in probably the safest place on the planet. Murdoch's Sunday Telegraph joined in with: "Exclusive: A traitor's innocent son asks . . . will Dad blow up Australia?" The Murdoch newspapers' campaign against an Australian drifter, David Hicks, who fought with the Taliban, is matched by Howard's disgraceful refusal to demand that the United States hand him back to his own country or treat him as a PoW.

There is a correlation between this false hysteria and the "tough stand" also taken against Aborigines, a minority of around 2 per cent of the population. When an Aboriginal boxer, Anthony Mundine, remarked on television that Americans had "brought [terrorism] upon themselves [for] what they done in the history of time", he was all but lynched. He is a Muslim. Thanks to his "traitorous talk", crowed one of the media lynch party, "word is that his promising international career is over".

As Australia is entrenched as yet another colony of the "global economy", the tragedy for those seeking personal pride in the achievements of their nation is the suppression of a political history of which there is much to be proud, and whose wonderfully subversive stories are seldom told. Australia was the first country where ordinary people won a 35-hour week, half a century ahead of Europe and America. Long before most of the world, Australia had a minimum wage, child benefits and pensions. Australian women were the first to be able to vote and stand for parliament. The secret ballot was invented in Australia.

In my lifetime, Australia has been transformed from a second-hand Anglo-Irish society to one of the most culturally diverse places on earth, and this has happened peacefully, if by default. By most standards of civilisation, the transformation is a remarkable achievement.

Of course, indigenous Australians were never included. Their extraordinary civilisation, their survivalism and oneness with an ancient land, was not taught, until recently, as a source of national pride; and their inclusion, still to be achieved, may well be the key to what the small liberal elite constantly refers to as "the search for identity" and which means overcoming a legacy of brutal racism.

Last week, Pauline Hanson retired from politics, mainly because the Howard government pre-empted and absorbed her populism. Her openly racist One Nation party at its peak captured 10 per cent of the national vote: about a million people. Now they are Howard's people. She appealed not only to those left out of the consumerism that has taken over a society that once had the most equitable spread of personal income in the world and is now one of the most unequal. She also had middle-class support, though this is seldom mentioned.

"Pauline, you made us more honest", said the headline over an article in the Sydney Morning Herald. The writer, Margo Kingston, who apparently thinks of herself as a liberal, waffled about "the unfinished legacy of the redhead from Ipswich (Queensland)" and about Hanson's stimulating contribution to a national "debate". In fact, Hanson encouraged dishonesty by giving bigotry credence.

In recent years, this "debate" has been influenced by a group of David Irving-style denialists who say there was no slaughter of the first Australians, no rapacious past. This chorus of windbags of the "lunar right" (a term used by one columnist who likes to pretend he is not one of them) dominates a press with a narrower ownership than anywhere in the west. Murdoch owns 70 per cent of the capital city press; and journalists and broadcasters who speak too freely must consider the consequences, especially those in the state-funded Australian Broadcasting Corporation. It is more than 20 years since David Williamson's fine play Sons of Cain described this intimidation, and little has changed.

Only a few, like the investigative writers Brian Toohey and Ken Davidson, have bothered to understand and consistently alert the public to vital issues, such as the secretive trade deal that the Howard government is stitching up with the United States and which will allow American multinationals to subvert much of Australia's fragile primary industry and manipulate its trade.

A great many Australians care about this, and express their powerlessness. Over a year ago, almost a million people filled the Sydney Harbour Bridge in protest against the treatment of the Aborigines. It is difficult to find anyone not appalled by the policy on refugees. But their gestures, however noble and charitable, are no longer enough, now that Hanson's "unfinished legacy" has found its true legitimacy in an elected government.

For many, there is the spectre of comparison with apartheid South Africa. The other day, Andrea Durbach, formerly of Cape Town and now a prominent human rights advocate in Sydney, said she did not believe the horrors of apartheid South Africa would ever be reproduced in Australia. "What may be coming is not as crude," she said. "The language is not as crude. It's much more subtle; it's much more consensual."

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