It is telling that Australia is still responding so strongly to the Tampa incident of 2001. It’s been 10 years and we are still talking about Australia’s request to rescue those drowning refugees and then John Howard’s rallying cry that Australia decides who comes here and the circumstances by which they come. This time, it’s the documentary Leaky Boat that has been produced that reminds us of that time.
John Howard, in 2001, made no mention of the illegal immigrants who come by plane, mind you. I imagine that Australia is happy with them arriving and overstaying their visas. It is, and always will be, about the boats.
Australia’s fear of Asians arriving by boat is an instinctive response, which, amongst other things, helped to unify Australia as a Federation. Indeed, the first government had restriction of non-white immigration at the heart of it (from Wikipedia):
The government following Federation in 1901 was formed by the Protectionist Party with the support of the Australian Labour Party. The support of the Labour Party was contingent upon restricting non-white immigration, reflecting the attitudes of the Australian Worker’s Union and other labour organizations at the time, upon whose support the Labour Party was founded.
And then there’s these quotes from the time:
“The doctrine of the equality of man was never intended to apply to the equality of the Englishman and the Chinaman.” Edmund Barton
“It is not the bad qualities, but the good qualities of these alien races that make them so dangerous to us. It is their inexhaustible energy, their power of applying themselves to new tasks, their endurance and low standard of living that make them such competitors.” Alfred Deakin
We can’t really say with any great certainty that these views of our Asian neighbours have changed profoundly throughout the country. If we did, we’d be putting British visa overstayers into detention on Christmas Island and we would be welcoming Africans and Asian refugees into all of our workplaces without complaint.
But then we have the boats in 2001. The new line used to justify the exclusion of these boat people is that they are “queue jumpers”. This is the John Howard line. It still exists – Scott Morrison still trots it out. Now Chris Bowen and Julia Gillard trot it out, because they know it has stuck in the mind of the “average person” John Howard talks about in the documentary. But, the reality is, there is no queue. No way for Iraqi and Afghani escapees to register with an orderly “queue”. Howard and his successors were clever using the word “queue” because our society is essentially a conformist one that respects things like queues and waiting for what is yours. The “queue” then is an attractive concept in terms of demonising these new boat arrivals. No mention, though, of potential “queue jumpers” who arrive by plane. The arrivals by plane actually pose a much bigger “threat” in terms of national security and jobs, by the logic used to justify stopping boat arrivals.
When this line gets tired, there are the new ones coming out from Team Abbott. Boats Sink and The Boat People are Rich – They Can Afford a Boat. The first one is an attempt at showing compassion – we need to stop these boats from potentially killing these people. This argument tells us that “they” should stay in their “queue” wherever it is in Asia. This leads to the second, which states that only the rich refugees can afford to get on a boat, unlike the thousands of poor refugees that can’t. The same poor refugees who can’t seek asylum because there is no way to in the countries in which they are contained.
Again, no mention of the even richer people who can afford to get on a plane – people who have access to consular offices but choose to not go through the “right channels” to apply to stay permanently. I have never heard Scott Morrison or Tony Abbott referring to plane people. Until they do, their arguments about boat arrivals are void. Just a veil for the continuation of attitudes about “alien races” from the days of Barton and Deakin. I say this because in reality, if we really were concerned about restricting illegal immigration, we would be as harsh in our language about plane people as we would be about boat people. But we really have Barton’s quote, except in this form - “The doctrine of the equality of man was never intended to apply to the equality of the plane arrival and the boat arrival.”
All of this is curious also in light of our more neo-liberal attitude towards economic development and operation in Australia. It actually flies contrary to that attitude. Chris Berg neatly sums up the proper neo-liberal attitude towards migration here. Our economic units are encouraged more driven to reward initiative – WorkChoices was predicated on the philosophy that people should be driven to work harder in order to demand a more juicy individual contract for themselves. And yet, Morrison and Abbott wants us to think that refugees that pay for a boat are bad because they didn’t “wait their turn”. Under Liberal Party thinking on society and the economy, shouldn’t we be rewarding these people for their initiative? To say that queues are more important than showing initiative sounds decidedly Communist Soviet Union to me.
Ultimately, the concept of getting excited about boat arrivals is a silly distraction. Except that it does show that both major parties are entirely stuck in the continuum from 2001. When Beazley said that it was important to be “infinitely flexible” in the documentary, he meant that there are as many fearful of boat people amongst Labor supporters and members as there are in the Liberal Party. Julia Gillard has played along those lines as well. Though, the Malaysian solution is quite a breathtakingly cruel fork in that road.
The bigger issue is actually population growth. I agree with Berg on his thesis that immigration is a good thing for Australia – this is one issue on which I disagree slightly with Bob Brown. Brown, like Howard, comes from a time that sees Australia as a particular size and struggles to see how it could be bigger in a sustainable fashion – especially as he understands that population growth in the past has usually meant further unthinking destruction of wildlife. Berg, however, has erred in his article by indulging two of his favourite pastimes – to belittle Greens philosophy and champion the idea that our major cities are superior to regional areas. That way, he doesn’t provide a realistic path forward in a nation that has healthy regional areas, ready for expansion and a significant support for the Greens. The Greens need to embrace a bigger population in conjunction with greater regionalisation – building trains to regional centres that could have sustainable population growth. That way, we can pursue a neo-liberal pathway towards a sustainable economy as well as use government to build the infrastructure that would mean that could happen. These refugees – the ones who come by plane and boat – can help build that future. This is something Comrades Abbott, Morrison, Gillard and Bowen are seemingly too afraid to pursue.