This past week our world was again reminded of the stark and devastating reality that we are facing a crisis of displaced people, due to war and natural disasters, unparalleled since World War Two. The image of a tiny Syrian boy, drowned at sea whilst seeking refuge, whose body had washed up on the idyllic shores of the Turkish resort town, Bodrum, sent shock waves through the global village. Tony Abbott, the current Australian Prime Minister, in his rather predictable manner, used this heart-wrenching moment to drive home his political ‘tough stance‘ on asylum seekers: “I would say, if you want to stop the drownings you’ve got to stop the boats.” As many parts of the world are frantically seeking to adjust in order to help a multitude of destitute and vulnerable people, Australia continues to take an austere approach to those seeking asylum, drawing harsh criticism.
Australia’s current policies and attitude towards asylum seekers is built on a certain set of ideas. Ideologies that have developed over time, and which originated amidst the hardship, scarcity and survival fears experienced by the first European settlers. Ideologies are all about a set of beliefs about the proper order of society. Shared ideologies communicate beliefs, opinions and values of a particular social group, society or nation. So what are some of the ideas that have shaped the Australian collective psyche and causes so many people to support the extremely harsh measures towards ‘boat people’?
I would contend that there are four major propositions that have shaped Australia’s social conscience towards asylum seekers. Unless we find ways to address these deeply embedded paradigms we will not see a change of the current felt antagonism and indifference. Following is a brief summary of the ‘Big Four’ that politicians and those in power have used for their advantage (a link to a full discussion paper is provided below):
Two foundational blocks upheld Australia’s imagined ideals of nationalism. Firstly, the refusal of colonisers to recognise the Traditional Owners of the land. European settlers declared Australia terra nullis on their arrival, dismissing the many Aboriginal tribes as barbaric and entirely destitute of even the rudest forms of civil policy. Henry Reynolds estimated that at least 20,000 Aboriginal people died as a result of white settler genocide. The full degree of atrocities will never be fully known. Yet Australia continues to celebrate its National Day on a day of mourning for many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples – the celebration of a race at the expense of another.
Secondly, they saw themselves very much part of the British Empire and the ‘British race’. These perceptions continue to linger to this day. Recently reinforced by Tony Abbott when he addressed the Australian-Melbourne Institute of Economic and Social Outlook: “Our country is unimaginable without foreign investment. I guess our country owes its existence to a form of foreign investment by the British government in the then unsettled, or, um, scarcely settled, Great South Land.”
Nationalist ideologies that are built on Anglo-Celtic ideals do not bode well for those seeking asylum on Australian shores as they create negative imagery of ‘otherness’.
In 1901, the new Federal Parliament passed the now infamous Immigration Restriction Act, excluding all non-European migrants. It became the foundation of the ‘White Australia’ Policy
. This policy would shape Australian national imagination for the next six decades as it sketched images of the ‘ideal’ Australian citizen that would fit with Australia’s national character. Racism is a most effective political tool in that it enables the material and intellectual fear and greed of dominant groups.
In modern times, the racist rhetoric of Pauline Hanson
resonated with a nation that held a deep-seated ideology from its settler inception. John Howard seized the election opportunity to fuel the fear of economic competition and fear of the ‘other’ by successfully dehumanising those seeking refuge. This dehumanising exercise was executed to perfection by creating slanderous lies of Middle Eastern asylums seekers supposedly throwing their children overboard
in order to be towed to the safety of Australian waters in October 2001. He said
: ‘I don’t want, in Australia, people who throw their children into the sea.
’ Despite the warning of the falsehood of these allegations by navy personnel, both Howar
d and the Defense Minister, Peter Reith, stuck to this distorted version until after the 2002 election. Hugh Mackay
observed that, “the ‘children overboard’ incident…shows us how vulnerable Australians have become to political spin.”
I would argue that the vulnerability of the Australian society to racist spin is a direct
result of racist conditioning and ideology; an ideology that continues to shape the attitude and policies of both sides of government in a race towards the bottom when it comes to asylum seekers.
3. National Security
National security ideology and attitude towards asylum seekers hold a close connection in a country that nurtures fears of invasion and economic competition. In a global context of economic and social mobility that has laid waste to financial security, paranoid Australians look to the government to protect them and provide assurance. National security rhetoric therefore holds appeal for any government seeking legitimacy and approval. The terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., on 11 September 2001, provided an opportunity for the Howard government to not only suggest that some who sought to come to Australia ‘illegally’ had criminal records, but that terrorists might have been smuggled on the boats. Racist ideas may have been a key factor in the Tampa
but it is the intertwined ideas surrounding security in those circumstances that robs people of agency, choice and freedom. In cases like Tampa
or the World Trade Centre attack, citizens look to their leaders for guidance and assurance, and if they believe their security is at risk they will accede to ideologies based in fear and prejudice. By alluding to asylum seekers as security threats the government was, and is, able to portray a defence of autonomy and sovereignty, while turning society into pliable and passive subjects.
In 1937, Arthur Henderson
, a British Labour member of the House of Commons, visited Australia and New Zealand. He criticised how geographical insularity had created a feeling amongst Australians that they were so far from the rest of the world affairs that they need not bother over them.
Suvendrini Perera probes the effect of geographical insularity on Australian thought and identity, linking it directly to historical violence in order to impose white insularity and exclusivism: “The plotting of Australia as an insular formation both expels the ‘foreign’ bodies around its edges and encloses Indigenous peoples more closely within clearly demarcated borders.” She forms a strong case to demonstrate that it is ideas of insularity, sustained by colonial myths of terra nullis and ‘Robinsonian fantasies’, that undergird the violence, racism and exclusion that are at work in events such as the Tampa crisis or the brutality of detention centres.