The Friendly Face Of Australia: In a newspaper advertisement published across the Middle East, Lieutenant General Angus Campbell bluntly informs seaborne refugees that they will not make Australia home. So visceral is Australia's fear of "boat people" that it has proved willing to erode its own and its Pacific neighbours' democratic rights in order to "defend the borders". Not even the strong historical relationship with New Zealand has escaped the Australians' exclusionist madness.
THE NEW ZEALAND GOVERNMENT puts the number of Kiwis incarcerated in Australian detention centres at 184. Seventy-five of those detained deportees are being held in the isolated detention facility on Christmas Island. This lonely spec of Australian territory rises out of the Indian Ocean 2,608 kilometres north of Perth and 2,748 kilometres west of Darwin. If everybody had their own, Christmas Island would be part of Indonesia – from whose shores it is separated by just 500 kilometres.
That’s the whole point, of course. Christmas Island’s proximity to the Indonesian coast made it the obvious forward staging point in Australia’s long-running battle against refugees making for Australia in boats.
These “boat people” bring out the very worst in Australians. A visceral hatred of “Asians” that erupts from somewhere deep in the Aussie psyche. A primal fear, perhaps, of being over-run and destroyed – just as the First Peoples of Australia were over-run and destroyed by the progeny of Mother England. Australia’s bad conscience is projected onto these terrified human-beings. “Real” Australians see hordes of “illegal migrants” headed for the Lucky Country, and imagine it being swamped under a tsunami of unwanted brown and yellow flesh.
Not that there’s any shortage of dark primal secrets for the Aussie psyche to project. Like the genteelly named “Sunday Hunts”. Those still unacknowledged campaigns of genocidal murder that, in grim historical anticipation of the Nazis best efforts to render Eastern Europe “Juden Frei”, emptied the squatters’ sprawling estates of unwanted Aboriginals. Remembering, too, the “Blackbirders” of the early 1900s. Those sea captains and their brutal crews who raided the islands of Melanesia, carrying off hundreds of men and boys to slave in the sugar plantations of Northern Queensland. Oh yes, there’s much more than just the “White Australia Policy” to lay at our Aussie “cousins’” door.
It would be funny if it wasn’t all so squalid and so sad. A nation founded on the brutal policy of exiling another nation’s “criminal classes” to a far off land on the other side of the world, rounding up their own “convicts” and exiling them to another country of which they know next to nothing. Forty years ago, to be descended from a convict was something an Australian would happily boast about. Proof that even the most wretched of human-beings has something worthwhile to pass down the generations. That the only thing distinguishing the Squatters from the Convicts was that the former’s crimes almost always went unpunished.
But that’s not the way they look at things in Australia’s electorally decisive suburbs. They don’t want to know about their country’s history, and see nothing worth celebrating in its egalitarian traditions. Tragically, the suburbs’ grasping materialism, withered social values, unreconstructed racism and xenophobia has become the Royal Road to electoral success. This brutal fact has made cowards out of virtually the entire Australian political class. To the point where “stop the boats” has become the touchstone of electability for both the Liberal and Labour parties.
The big problem with this bi-partisan “stop the boats” policy, is that it is utterly incompatible with democratic norms and values (not to mention in complete contravention of a multitude of international laws and treaties). It’s why the “boat people” had to be moved to places offshore where the protection of Australia’s laws was no longer available. Hence John Howard’s “Pacific Solution” – a sort of “blackbirding” in reverse.
Papua-New Guinea’s Manus Island presented less of a problem for the Australian authorities than the tiny Pacific nation of Nauru. As a former colony of Australia, Papua-New Guinea has yet to free itself from the corruption choking practically every institution inherited from its colonial masters. Nauru, on the other hand, is a powerless and impoverished statelet for which not only Australia, but the UK and New Zealand, have long-standing responsibilities. Australia’s corruption of Nauru would be harder to hide.
Is it merely coincidence that the arrival of the first Kiwis at Christmas Island coincided with New Zealand’s insistence that the independence and probity of Nauru’s justice system (which New Zealand funds) be fully restored? Australia knows that its Pacific Solution cannot exist alongside functioning courts and democratic institutions. Has New Zealand’s courageous defence of the rule of law in Nauru thrown a spanner in the works? Is the rising number of detained Kiwi citizens some sort of message?
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 2 October 2015.