Saturday, February 8, 2014

Who do we really want to be?

Earlier today I promised a rant, and now I'm almost ready to write it. 

But where to begin? With Tony Abbott insisting the a national public broadcaster has a certain unwritten obligation to cut the government some slack, and giving the navy the benefit of the doubt? With the Defence Minister seeing no need to look into significant allegations against military personnel, preferring instead to assert without investigation that there is no case to answer, and that anyway, the ABC is being treacherous, borderline treasonous? With 22 perfectly reasonable questions to Messrs Abbott and Morrison being met with the same ubiquitous catch-all: "In line with the policy of not discussing what happens at sea, the Government has no response on the issues raised"? Or perhaps we could go international with our outrage, and question the political implications of this government treating our sovereign neighbours with the same contempt they show the Australian people who put them in power. Perhaps the apparent ineptitude of naval crews to read a GPS and chart well enough keep their vessels out of Indonesian waters. Or maybe the boast that no asylum seeker boats have reached Australia for x number of weeks, mainly due to them being intercepted by armed patrol boats and turned around.

No, I'm going to keep it simple, and talk about this picture, published by the Guardian a couple of days ago. And rather than a rant, it's going to be more of an appeal to common decency and human empathy. You know, all bleeding heart "small-L" liberal. The kind of thing that gets Sarah Hanson-Young labelled as "evil" by some on the right.

So, to the details as we understand them. 34 people, including children as young as 18 months, were ordered into a purpose-bought orange lifeboat, turned around, and sent back. Not even taken to an Indonesian port, but simply turned around and told, "You have enough fuel to reach Java", after which they had little choice but to do just that.

Now imagine the scene, 48 hours since they've eaten, running ashore on an uninhabited coastline, opening the door and disembarking. What happens then? Where does one go? 34 people standing on a beach in the dark, hungry and lost.

Of course the response from some will be that these people should have thought of that before they paid people smugglers to ferry them to Christmas Island. I imagine that's what the government is hoping - that prospective asylum seekers will think twice. What little information the government has given us would suggest that this is exactly what is already happening. So job done, I guess.

Under the circumstances I think that Marty Natalegawa is being remarkably restrained when he describes the tow-back/turn-back policy as "not really helpful". I would suggest that a better way to describe such unilateral decisions around sovereign boundaries might be "potentially damaging". This has the real potential to cause diplomatic headaches that will make the temporary ban on live cattle exports to Indonesia shrink into utter insignificance. As the Guardian says, "Indonesia's navy held a meeting this week to discuss the boat turn-backs and has decided to boost personnel numbers on Java's southern coast." Does this mean more staff with boat-hooks and fenders to stop the lifeboats from landing? Does it mean having Indonesian navy vessels on patrol and ready to repel Australian ships that "accidentally" wander into their waters? A standoff on the high seas while an orange lifeboat bobs innocuously between them? All real possibilities.

So what is to be done? I don't think anyone considers it an easy problem to solve. (Well, except for those who argue that we should just shell the boats out of the water, but those kinds of nut-bars don't get a say.) For some time now both sides of politics have been culpable in demonising the desperate. I guess it's about playing for the middle ground, but that doesn't make any of the slated policies satisfactory. And it certainly doesn't excuse this bullying approach from the current government, not just towards the asylum seekers, but towards Indonesia, and towards the free press and Australian electorate who quite rightly expect better responses than "no comment". 

I think it's time to ask this question, and to answer it honestly: how do we want to the seen by the rest of the world? What kind of people do we want to be? Who have we become collectively, and are we actually happy with that? Modern Australia is a multicultural country made up predominantly of boat-people, a nation which has always prided itself on how highly it values mateship and a fair go for all. It's kind of hard to make that claim at the moment, wouldn't you say? The way things are going, we're going to have our work cut out to represent ourselves overseas as anything more than a bunch of privileged, whining xenophobes who don't give a shit about how hard things are for anyone else. 

But perhaps worse than that, we'll be seen as a democratic nation that is happy to vote in a government based pretty much entirely on who they aren't, before settling for letting them do whatever they please without expecting any kind of accountability. Are we really that country? God, I hope not.


David Barrett said...

What worries me, besides the actions and lying of this current government on many social, economic and environmental issues, is that people voted them into power and still support them and many Australians are too comfortable to be concerned.

Sheryl Gwyther said...

Well said, James. I fear for our nation - when so many people are content to insulate themselves from events in our region and across the globe - and it's not just about our shocking record on legal asylum seekers, but the ignorance or plain 'couldn't care less' about the plans big mining and this government have for the Great Barrier Reef, the forests of Tasmania, fracking across the regions, and so on.
What will it take for them to pull their heads out of the sand?