The calm before the immigration storm?

The lack of hysteria at a new influx of refugee boats to Australia has disappointed pro- and anti-refugee groups alike.

Guy Rundle

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Topics Politics

‘Look, it’s not impossible that these boats may contain terrorists.’ Giving an impromptu press conference outside Australia’s centre of government, Parliament House, maverick conservative politician Wilson Tuckey was at it again.

Four days earlier, a boat containing 255 Sri Lankan Tamil asylum seekers had been on its way through the Indonesian archipelago, towards the outlying Australian-owned Christmas Island, where its passengers could make a claim for asylum. In an unusual move, prime minister Kevin Rudd had arranged for the Indonesian navy to pick them up, and transport them to Java. The boat, still being shuffled round Indonesian ports, was the second in as many days to hove into view, and the forty-fifth this year. The issue of boat-borne refugees had energised the Howard government and given it the image of defender of the nation. In doing so, it had licensed the most appalling dehumanisation of refugees. Tuckey’s suggestion that these leaky boats might be bristling with Tamil Tigers was in the spirit of those days. A nation held its breath. Was it about to be open season on refugees all over again?

No, as it turned out. Rudd used the statement as a chance to beat his hapless opponent, Liberal opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull, about the head and demand he expel or discipline Tuckey. Labor was pursuing a tough strategy, Rudd said, ‘but we don’t lock up children behind razor wire’. Turnbull, a man of liberal instincts loathed by much of his party, squirmed and repudiated Tuckey’s comments.

This exchange and Tuckey’s marginalisation suggested that the attitudes to refugees had moved on in Australia. The 1999-2001 arrival of boats – mostly containing Afghan refugees from first the Taliban, and then the war – had been greeted with alarm, rising to panic following its relentless exploitation by the then government of John Howard’s Liberal-National coalition. The upsurge of raw xenophobia had surprised many who thought that the country had made a seamless transition to global-cafe multiculturalism over the previous two decades, and reaffirmed a belief that there were deep currents of violent racism running just below the surface. This conviction, which tended to go hand in hand with an elite disdain for suburban Australia, was met with an equally polarised response: Australia was uniquely colour blind. The only issue Australians were actually concerned with, they argued, was whether or not boat-borne refugees were ‘queue jumpers’, transgressing the Australian notion of the ‘fair go’.

The failure of the issue to spark up a similar clash this time around has thrown everyone into confusion. On talkback radio, and in the bars and taxis, there is simply not the level of obsession or angst exhibited in 2001. The ‘indefinite mandatory detention’ system developed by the Howard government has been all but wholly abolished with little protest – even though we were assured that this was all that was keeping most Australians from rioting over out-of-control immigration. This has been bewildering to right-wing pundits, who have been using the notion of harsh-but-fair refugee policies as a way to parade their populist credentials and fuse their relationship with readers they have no real connection with.

But it has also been confusing and even a little disappointing to some on the liberal-left, who had assumed that the Australian public were a lumpen mass, capable of being provoked to a torchlight parade at a moment’s notice. As the Rudd government purses a double-strategy of emphasising firmness, while repeatedly berating the opposition for their cruelty, the political press gallery has been left perplexed. Are they being soft? Are they being hard? Are they confused? Anything but the possibility that the government might be giving out a message that is as complex as the situation itself. What, everyone wanted to know, was going on? Who among the old political formations was actually winning?

The Tampa crisis

The answer was no one. It is nearly a decade since the refugee issue came to a head with the Tampa crisis. The Tampa was a Norwegian tanker that had picked up a 100 or so refugees from a sinking boat in the Indian ocean. It had then continued on course for Indonesian ports. When the refugees, some of them seriously ill, pleaded and desperately threatened the captain, he put into Christmas Island. Refused entry he anchored offshore for a day or two. When he finally put into port, Australian troops boarded the ship.

The whole incident then became grotesque political theatre. The refugees were kept on board, even the very ill, as the government tried to find a way to avoid bringing them on to Australian soil. As lawyers attempted to get a habeas corpus writ to bring them into the country, the government announced that they would be transferred to the independent nation of Nauru (which was bankrupt and dependant on Australian funds). All this occurred in the first week of September 2001, a situation interrupted by the World Trade Center attacks.

Yet the events also called out a large pro-refugee public movement, centred around action groups run by the internationalist left, together with churches and liberal ‘concerned’ middle-classes. Particularly important was a group called Rural Australians for Refugees, which drew together many people from areas presumed to be reactionary rednecks. Though mandatory detention remained a policy with mass appeal, its obvious cruelties were wearing many people down consciously or otherwise. But by 2005, the boats had largely stopped coming for various reasons, and the Howard government had mounted a new push against working conditions and unionisation. Politics had returned to far more immediate questions.

By the time the boats began to return early this year, prompted by the Sri Lankan government’s push to exterminate the Tamil separatist movement, the ‘clash of civilisations’ rhetoric of the heady days of 2001 no longer worked. The Rudd government had long since withdrawn from Iraq, which had never been a popular war, and, although it had nominated Afghanistan as ‘the good war’, the low-level of Australian involvement kept it off the front pages, save for the farcical antics of the Karzai government. Australia was also economically well-placed given its good performance in the global financial crisis; a low debt burden, coupled with ongoing mining sales to China had seen its economy actually grow during the financial crisis. This good fortune has given many Australians a sense of calm, even of a slightly charmed existence, a mood which taps into an older, more generous sense of Australia – that of the ‘lucky country’, stood apart from the swirling chaos of a dangerous world.

But the mood was also indicative of the further emptying out of existing political positions and formations. In 2001, Labor had been led by Kim Beazley, a leader who embodied old modern Labor, a coalition of the labour movement and a left-liberal knowledge class, fusing civil liberties and social democracy. The Liberal party, meanwhile, presented itself as the national security party, and prevailed.

By the 2007 election, Labor had developed a substantially different way of framing political debates. The new leader Kevin Rudd was an uncompromising egghead, a former diplomat, who spoke fluent Mandarin, and wrote long essays for commentary magazines detailing his ethical politics and the influence upon him of the German theologian/activist/martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In contrast, he painted the opposing centre-right Liberal party as a group of Hayekian ideologues intent on constructing a free market ‘brutopia’.

The readership of the essays was small, but Rudd and Labor used the ideas within them as a template for sustained missives within the mainstream media. They offered a notion of calm, technical management as an alternative to their predecessor Howard’s increasingly obsessive wars, cultural and actual. Howard had presented himself to voters in 2001 as someone who wanted to make Australia more ‘comfortable and relaxed’ about itself; Rudd had gone one better by absolving the public of the need to think about politics at all, advocating instead a combination of managerial competency and rarefied ethics.

It is always calm before the storm of course, but it is also always calm before more calm. Rudd’s Labor government has successfully reframed the debate so that boats arriving in our waters – even when they look virtually identical to the fabled Tampa – simply do not have the same meaning as they did in 2001. But the debate has also failed to make – or participants have deliberately omitted – any substantial positive argument about the absolute obligation to treat refugees as human beings. The humanity of refugees is conveyed as a consideration after border security has been guaranteed, and the image of ‘children behind barbed wire’ is used as a deliberate attempt to maximise notions of pity and vulnerability, not reciprocity and equality.

Still, though there appears to be widespread public calm about the boat arrivals, members of old political formations remain poised, waiting for the explosion of national pride/racism they are sure will happen. In the meantime nations that in the early 2000s were boasting about adopting ‘the Australian solution’ – Italy foremost – have now surpassed it in the cruelty and absurdity with which they apply it, a further indication that looking for the roots of mandatory detention in Australia’s white settler past, or alleged deep-seated racism, is to look in the wrong place. Rather, such regimes are coming from generalised cultures of fear, projected into a world whose territorial institutions are straining to cope with its ever-increasing fluidity.

Wilson Tuckey’s pious hope that a conjunction of those two great old stand-bys – refugees and terrorism – might shake the fear factor back into politics has proved largely fruitless. The media were interested, of course, playing on it for a full 48 hours. But even they dropped the story with the same vague sense of disappointment as someone endlessly waiting on the pier for a boat to come in.

Guy Rundle is a former editor of Arena (Australia). He is the author of Down to the Crossroads: On the Trail of the 2008 Presidential Election published by Penguin. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).)

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