Paul P. Mealing

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Saturday, 2 July 2016

How xenophobia is undermining our democracy

Today, in Australia, we are having a Federal election and there is a very large elephant in the room.  Tony Abbott (former conservative Prime Minister, who was ousted by his own party) made the point, a couple of days out from polling day (today) that there were 2 issues that were never discussed or debated in the election campaign. One was so-called ‘border protection’ and the other was something I’ve since forgotten, so obviously not as important to me as it was to Tony. In a perverse sort of way, he is right: border protection is all about how we treat asylum seekers. It’s a euphemism for offshore detention on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and Nauru. The reason that it was never raised is because both of the major parties are too ashamed to mention it and, besides, everyone knows that refugees can’t vote. As a consequence, for the first time in my life I refuse to vote for either of the major parties.

It’s a pity we can’t time travel - Dr Who style into the future - so we can see how future generations judge Australia in this page of our history. I’m pretty sure it won’t be flattering.  Pauline Hanson’s political skills are rudimentary at best and her political party has floundered, imploded and all but self-destructed, yet her influence on Australian refugee policy will go down in history as an example of how democracy can bring out the worst characteristics of humanity and conquer compassion, tolerance and charitable instincts. Her ego must be currently inflated beyond the bounds of all reason when she looks to America and sees that one of the contenders for the most powerful position in the free world holds the same contempt for outsiders as she does.

Not that Australia is in any position to admonish Trump when we have the most draconian, morally bankrupt, human rights-defying, democracy-eroding policy towards asylum seekers in the Western world. Why democracy-eroding, you may ask. Journalistic freedom is the measure of any democracy anywhere in the world. When we hide activities, involving human rights, from the media under the guise of national security, democracy is weakened. The Government does not want us to know what’s happening on Manus Island or Nauru and have gone to extraordinary lengths to keep the Australian public in the dark. It’s a human rights catastrophe, and if I’m wrong then let the media report on it. Where else in the so-called free world can health professionals be threatened with jail for reporting on human rights abuses by agents of their own government. This is not democracy. What makes this law so perverse is that health professionals have a legal obligation to do the exact opposite when it comes to abuses on mainland Australia.

How have both major parties found themselves stranded in this moral wasteland called offshore detention? Some believe it started with Tampa (see links below) some 15 years ago under Prime Minister John Howard. Tim Costello, a Baptist minister and head of World Vision, made the point on a television panel a few months ago that the last 15 years politicisation of asylum seekers in Australia has been ‘toxic’. Tim’s brother, Peter, of course was Treasurer of that same government. Tim quipped that dinner table conversations could be awkward.

But detention of asylum seekers started under a Labor government before Howard's time, under Prime Minister Hawke (if memory serves me right) with refugees from Cambodia when it was trying to recover from the Khmer Rouge.

Former conservative Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser, was so disgusted with Howard’s policies on this matter that he took the unprecedented step of resigning from the party. This is what happens when the masses lead the government instead of the government showing leadership. In my lifetime I’ve seen 3 waves of refugee immigration and it always creates insecurity and lends itself to some degree of intolerance, but in the past, governments appreciated the economic benefit that immigration can bring. We have an immigration policy that goes largely unnoticed, but the demonisation of ‘boat people’ allows the government to practice policies that are unconscionable, unconstitutional and that would be rejected in a heartbeat if they were practiced on anyone we cared for.

A more detailed analysis of this policy, within its historical and political context can be found here and here.


Bill MD said...

Hi paul, sorry i couldn't comment on your previous blog (about your dad), which was very deep and moving. I hope writing it helped you heal some of the wounds that I could see resurface through your descriptions of him. Physical abuse by a parent must be really difficult to adapt to, not just when it is happening but also later in life, when one can see it with the perspective of time. May he rest in peace and thank you for sharing.

In terms of this blog about xenophobia, as you know I am a Christian and as such I do feel enormous compassion for refugees, specially the children. But here is my question for you: if a rich country like Australia opens the doors to any and all refugees, whether they are economic or political refugees...wouldn't that attract more influx? Isn't that almost like encouraging more refugees, making the problem worse? When is enough enough in terms of accepting refugees? By the way, my question would be the same if we were talking about white refugees from, say, New Zealand.

Look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Hi Bill,

There are 2 issues you raise, so I will deal with them separately.

Regarding the post I wrote on my 'Old Man', someone once said (and it's true) that you can only talk about something if you've dealt with it, and I've had decades to deal with my relationship with my father. He died nearly 15 years ago, and, if anything, I've become more forgiving with the passing of time. Besides, bitterness erodes the soul. As another person once said (a character played by Antonio Banderas in a movie about a dance school in NY): if you have a 'development' problem (he didn't use that term, of course) then there's no point blaming your upbringing, and the only person who can fix it is You. Also, wisdom comes from adversity, and sometimes adversity starts early.

It should be pointed out that disciplining kids with belts, straps and canes, both at home and at school, was the norm in those days - it was called corporeal punishment - so I don't think my treatment was unusual. Nevertheless, it created a perverse and psychologically conflicting relationship, and I found ways of managing it. At the time you think it's normal, and it's only with age that you realise otherwise. Not surprisingly, I rebelled in my teen years and became as bad-tempered as my father, as was the whole family.

I don't know if you've seen the movie, American Sniper by Clint Eastwood, which is a really good movie about how war affects families. But the character in that movie reminded me very much of my father. You can't live through those sort of physical and psychological traumas and expect to behave normally. In our own way, we were also victims of that war, albeit psychologically and generationally removed.

Regards, Paul.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Regarding your second comment, your argument is the one which is used to justify our 'border protection' measures.

The curious thing is that our government effectively has a 'back door' and 'front door' policy. So whilst we stop refugees at the 'front door' (those who arrive by boat) we treat those who arrive by the 'back door' (those who arrive by plane) quite differently. The major difference is that refugees who arrive by plane come in unnoticed and unreported by the media (hence the backdoor metaphor), whereas refugees who arrive by boat are given strident media coverage (hence the front door metaphor) and are demonised by the government and some within the media. The fundamental difference is that those who arrive by boat are more desperate, both economically and psychologically. The government calls them queue-jumpers, as if there is a queue.

Also people who arrive by plane will have some paperwork to get on the plane and may have already been given 'asylum' status by the Australian government before they left the camp from whence they came.

The point is that there has been a race to the bottom, morally speaking, by both the major parties, because it is evident that if either party takes a more humane stance on refugees they will lose in the polls. When we had boatloads of Vietnamese refugees coming here in the 1970s both sides of politics had a bipartisan humane approach, otherwise the same thing would have happened as is happening now. In other words, the greater proportion of the Australian public would have rejected them and there was a lot of intolerance expressed towards all Asians at the time. Before them, when I was growing up it was expressed towards 'wogs' (people of Mediterranean origin) and now it's towards Muslims.

The whole purpose of these detention centres (offshore or onshore), which cost the taxpayer much more than it would cost to integrate them into society, is to create conditions that are even worse than the conditions that they are fleeing from. The purpose of these camps is to crush all hope and they are very successful at it, as is evidenced by the mental health issues that arise like suicide, self-harm, voluntary starvation and the sewing of lips. It's arguably the greatest disgrace ever to befall an Australian government since the stolen generation of aborigine children.

Interesting point you make about Kiwis. There used to be a joke about New Zealand once: the last one to leave has to turn the light out. There was a time when travel between Australia and New Zealand didn't need visas but that changed in the 1980s (I think it was) when drug dealers were taking advantage of it.

Regards, Paul.