Asylum seeker debate and the need for Olympian calm


Unfortunately the default response to boat people stories seems to be as shown on the left, and worse. I have been, and remain, of the opinion that hooking onto the tragedy playing out over the past week is quite deplorable, and that’s whether pro or con arguments on asylum seekers are being advanced. Let’s just wait for the enquiries to make their findings, while mourning the loss of life as any civilised person must.

But already we can see the debate taking its customary trajectory, and it isn’t going to get any better or any more rational. It seems that ever since Pauline Hanson stuck her oar in in 1996 having a sensible discussion about “boat people” has become totally unfashionable.

That’s why I am so delighted to have found (in Wollongong Library) a historian of Australia’s population and immigration policies from 1900 to the present who maintains an Olympian even-handedness while firmly grounding his story in facts, actual policies, and the experiences of individuals. Any historian who can dismiss the Keith Windschuttle thesis on White Australia as a “minor historical dispute” gets my vote. And yet this historian has attracted little notice, albeit winning the Community Relations Commission $15,000 Prize at the Premier’s Literary Award in Sydney in 2009.

9781921410574The work – Destination Australia : migration to Australia since 1901 by Professor Eric Richards of Flinders University in South Australia, was described by the Awards judges as a thoroughly researched overview of Australia’s migration history.

They said the book: offers a fascinating, detailed account of the many waves of nationalities whose arrival into Australia was central to a grand plan of immigration that has led us to our multicultural present.

Congratulating the winner of the 2009 prize, the Chair of the CRC, Stepan Kerkyasharian, said tonight: Professor Richards, by simply writing this all down, has made a huge contribution to the immigration debate in this country, which far too often goes on only in the air, without recourse to the historical facts.

We do need to know how we all came here and I compliment Professor Richards on his attempt to draw our attention to the source of migration and the turbulence that often creates our migrants and refugees.

For instance, he says that Australia gives little attention to the heroic and often tragic qualities of the emigrant experience and tends to represent the immigrant story as a matter of assimilation.

Instead, he argues, we should look at the sum of the extraordinary lives which began in forgotten places among people whose extraordinary migrant stories long preceded their landfall in Australia.

These immigrants, he says, were part of that remote drama connecting Australia with grand and tragic events of the distant world.

If Australia is the sum total of its people and their stories, then, if we are to know our own country, we do need to hear the stories of our  people. Professor Richards book has set out to teach us those stories…

There are some little surprises: for example John Curtin in the late 1920s screaming about preference being given to “Dagoes, not heroes” by the S M Bruce government, and Bob Hawke, later famously allowing all the Chinese students in Australia to stay after Tiananmen in 1989, complained about “queue jumpers” in 1978. (A few years later Blanche D’Alpuget, now Hawke’s wife, wrote Turtle Beach, a novel highly sympathetic to Vietnamese boat people and rather offensive to Malaysian authorities, especially when filmed in 1992.)

MPW-54907Turtle Beach is set in Malaysia, with the boat people arriving in the aftermath of the Vietnam War being greeted with hostility by local residents. When two hundred of them are drowned, the fish feed off their corpses and the livelihood of the fishermen is ruined, as people refuse to buy their produce. Ironies such as these abound in the novel. The heroine is again a reasonably attractive (not startlingly beautiful but with a seductively Monroe kind of voice) reporter in her late thirties, but unlike her predecessor, Judith Wilkes is a tough-minded careerist, determinedly carrying on with her work as she copes with a young family and a dying marriage to an ambitious political flunky back in Australia. Yet she has some of the same qualities as Alex: a tendency toward passivity, a weakness for sensual men, and a sense of idealism that renders her vulnerable to manipulation. Like Alex, she falls in love with one of the locals, Kanan, but is finally repelled by the fatalism of his Indian philosophy. Again the title of the novel embodies a metaphor to do with human helplessness in the face of larger historical movements. It comes from the turtles that battle against all odds to lay their eggs and bury them, only to have them dug up and sold or eaten by the local residents.

It seems to that we really only began accepting refugees on moral grounds rather than as virtual indentured labour (to serve for two years wherever the government saw fit) with the arrival of the Vietnamese boat people in the 1970s. We have always otherwise been very controlling about who settles here, it appears, taking a line in most of the 20th century which only abandoned a hypothetical 98% British population aim as the British source dried up leading to our gradually expanding the pool for immigration to northern then southern Europe, then to the Balkans and Lebanon and now to the world at large. Many an immigration scheme in the years between 1900 and the present has either gone belly up or has produced paradoxical results. Encouraged by visionaries like Rider Haggard, author of King Solomon’s Mines, and various others there was an agrarian vision which floundered as marginal land just wouldn’t support the farms settlers were allotted and as migrants gravitated to the coastal cities whatever governments meant to happen — a process that went on right through the 20th century.

In short, I really commend this book. I suspect it has failed to grab headlines because it is so judicious, as controversy ever makes a better story. Perhaps it is also that the author was not born in Australia – an advantage in this case, I feel—and because he is in Adelaide rather than Sydney or Melbourne.

Rating: ss10

On our national propensity to panic see Tanvir Ahmed, a psychiatrist,  in today’s Sydney Morning Herald.

We live at a time where the factors that make people vulnerable to conspiracy theories are arguably at their peak. The notion of anomie could be measured by the massive uptake in psychological services and the growing proportion of people living alone. The decline in trust could be measured by our decades-long fall in joining civic groups, as outlined by the professor turned federal Labor MP Andrew Leigh in his book Disconnected. And modern work has shifted, perhaps permanently, to a more casual, liquid relationship between employer and employee, a trend exacerbated by the financial crisis.

This bodes poorly for the prospect of reason trumping emotion and fear in public debate. For all the pundits that decried the vacuity of debate surrounding our recent federal election, perhaps the politicians and their advisers were just acting sensibly. As the former premier Bob Carr told me recently, it is an enormous political risk these days for a political leader or party to really stand for something…

In our information age this problem is getting worse, for the internet can allow us to find "evidence" for almost any belief, promoting a Balkanisation of our society. This is already apparent in the fragmentation of media consumption.

There is no doubt WikiLeaks and Assange are worth celebrating. Their computing brilliance has resulted in some of the era’s best journalism expose´s. But the idea that there is some new transparency that is shifting the relationship between governments and the citizenry is far fetched. What is more likely is that a more fractured, tense engagement between opposing sides is now the new norm, promoted by rigid views on all sides reinforced by their equally blinkered media supporters. The psychological basis for this is a greater preponderance for conspiracy theory and its mental ally, cognitive dissonance. The information age is merely making the voice of reason more stifled and more relative.

If Tony Abbott believes he can be more polite and civilised next year in political debate, I wish him luck. History may not be on his side.


Go and read Russell Darnley: #Xenophobia and #Asylum Seekers in #Australia: Reality Denied by Fear.



Davo has been inspired by this post to add one of his own.