As much as I have needed to vent about the burgeoning ‘boat people’ issue on Australian shores, for some time now I have resisted, out of concern that I might open the floodgates of my frustration, despair and rage. Today I realised that I was being ruled by fear of the unknown. This very same fear is a huge contributing factor to the problem we now face in this country.
What do I mean by this? How long do you have? Firstly, our politicians ‘lead’ (and I use the term loosely) by instilling fear of the opposition, constantly denigrating their policies and principles, through divisive tactics that have a polarising effect on the public. The instinct to insult always outweighs the instinct to collaborate and coalesce. Secondly, any instances of public difference or dissent is labelled as ‘unaustralian’, thereby creating a civic divide between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Which one would you prefer to belong to? Depends on who has the power, right? Oh, and finally, let’s not forget the mass media and their capacity for representing life itself as one huge terrifying disaster, where the ‘bad’ people and the ‘good’ people are clearly recognisable. It’s enough to make you fear stepping outside your own home, let alone contemplate a refugee living next door to you. The media have become so adept at this good versus evil dichotomy that they are even turning on themselves, harshly critiquing any brave journalist who dares to challenge certain leaders, while allowing other ‘shock jocks’ to run amok in their attempts to bring other leaders down. Where is the consistency, objectivity, integrity and accountability in that approach to reporting the news?
Back to the boat people and fear mongering. What exactly is it that we are instructed to fear? If you think that your opinions are yours alone, you are deluded. Your perspective is a social construction, along with everything else. We are all taught and encouraged to think, feel and act a certain way, by our background, upbringing, environment, education and the context in which we now exist. For some time now in this ‘lucky country’, dare I say since the Howard era, we have been positioned to fear the outsider. Of course, these ill-informed and misplaced views originated much earlier, stemming from the xenophobic and essentially racist atitudes and behaviours of many early white settlers and immigration policies of the 20th century. The stringent border protection rules were relaxed under Malcolm Fraser, during the refugee crisis of the 80′s. In the eyes of the world, Australia came to be viewed as a welcoming and compassionate nation. We had generously opened our doors to refugees from Sth East Asia, there were no ‘floods’ and those new arrivals would eventually enrich our society.
Back in 1968, my family and I were also new arrivals, ‘fresh off the boat’, immigrants to this ‘fair’ nation. I had never really noticed the connotations of that word ‘fair’ until I saw a documentary recently about the White Australia Policy, which still existed here until the late 1970′s. This country allowed us in because my mother had a British passport, nursing qualifications and white skin. True story. They weren’t going to grant entry to my father’s sister and mother because they were Anglo-Indians with dark skin. My mum had to advocate for them, exercising her white, middle class, educated privilege and power. Fortunately the immigration authorities agreed, otherwise I would have grown up without my nana. Imagine no chicken curry on Christmas Day!
My immigration story might easily have been one of greater hardship and desperation. And so might yours. My family travelled several weeks on a large cargo ship. My parents had to pay the captain a substantial amount of their savings ‘under the table’ to allow us to board. Yes indeed, we were among the fortunate ones, as we were able to provide the pre-requisite characteristics, the monetary fee, and the sponsors who were already here waiting here to welcome us. We weren’t demonised by those derogatory terms ‘illegal immigrants’ or ‘queue jumpers’. But we did arrive on a boat. We weren’t fleeing from danger, oppression or persecution. But my parents were seeking a better future for their child. So what separates me from those other ‘boat people’? What makes my family more deserving of being offered a place in this country? Do I have empathy for the plight of asylum seekers? You bet I do. Ask yourself the same questions, and then consider this: are you governed by suspicion and fear? My family and I found a safe and secure passage to the lucky country. I was guaranteed a better future than I might have had in my birthplace, Calcutta, and for that I am very grateful. I still call Australia home, but am increasingly ashamed to say so.
Since I first saw the shocking images broadcast on Canadian television late last year, I have intermittently been following the story of the Christmas Island shipwreck. A small boat crashed against rocks of this isolated island off the Australian coast, and 50 desperate asylum seekers perished. Their relatives were brought ashore and kept for ‘processing’ in the island’s detention centre while they mourned the loss of their loved ones. This week they were temporarly released, only to be returned there immediately after the funeral ordeal.
Since returning to Australia, I am exposed to more media reports, which unfortunately means having to tolerate the abhorrent views and appalling behaviour of conservative politicians like Tony Abbott (leader of the opposition party). First he says that funding to Indonesian schools will be axed because “charity begins at home”. Nelson Mandela said that “overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice”. I would assume these Indonesian schools are poverty stricken, unlike our schools? A sense of social justice and spirit of generosity is sadly lacking in our current political leaders.
Then about a week ago, Abbott claims he is just trying to be ‘one of the blokes’, with that dismissive “shit happens” remark, in response to an American soldier’s attempts to explain the ‘accidental/incidental’ death of an aussie soldier. I am still incredulous as to how Abbott emerged relatively unscathed by the public and the media. His lack of sensitivity, empathy and respect was an embarassment. Not to mention his use of common vernacular. Yet people justify such language on the grounds that ’he’s just being one of the lads’. And the pathetic excuses made about his intimidating and rather bizarre ‘death stare’ reaction to reporter Mark Riley. Seriously, I just don’t understand Abbott’s popularity.
The ‘tipping point’ for me came yesterday, when opposition frontbencher Scott Morrison condemned the government for funding the attendance of relatives at the funerals of the deceased asylum seekers. Today he was acting like a schoolboy who had been reprimanded and told to admit responsibility, saying “I have to show a little more compassion than I did yesterday, I am happy to admit that”. Not to be outdone in the compassion stakes, Abbott chips in with “I want to thank Scott for being man enough to accept that perhaps we did go a little bit too far yesterday.” Perhaps? A little bit? Sure, they were both acknowledging the bad timing of their criticism, not the actual discriminatory nature of the comments themselves. All in the name of political point scoring. And for some reason, Abbott needed to make a statement about manliness. I will leave that one alone for the time being.
The point is this folks, the problem is not just about the ‘timing’ or the insensitivity of their comments, or even the lack of compassion for grieving family members. The problem lies in the ‘us and them’ attitude that is so pervasive in this society, and the sweeping value judgments we make of those who are different or marginalised. It’s about the price tag we place on human lives and the disregard we have for the suffering of those who are ‘strangers’ to us. Ultimately it’s about losing sight of our own privileged position and acting out of fear rather than love.
Copyright: CM Sullivan
Check out these two commercials. I’m not sure that a marketing campaign would help change xenophobic, discriminatory, racist, insular, self-absorbed, mean-spirited and inhumane attitudes that come from a place of fear and ignorance…but I guess it wouldn’t hurt.
Causes Cindy Sullivan Supports
Plan: 'Because I'm a Girl'
Fred Hollows Foundation