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Incredible, isn’t it, how fast our political parties forgot about their commitment to saving refugees’ lives?
No, now we are preventing them from taking our jobs and raping our daughters. We must deny the country skilled workers (whom we presently lack) in order to…I’m not certain what.
We need to create special ‘behavioural protocols’ (known to the rest of us as ‘laws’) for those seeking asylum. We have potential leaders conflating foreigners seeking refuge with paedophiles as the only other group whose whereabouts is required to be made public. Despite clear evidence that they are objectively LESS dangerous than the norm.
Our PM would stop “foreign workers being put at the front of the queue with Australian workers at the back. We will support your job and put Aussie workers first,” as one of her top five priorities for western Sydney.
Her top five. Presumably ahead of tax, superannuation, energy, the environment, industrial relations, trade cadetships, you name it. Stopping those nasty foreigners figured ahead of the lot.
At this point, we are quite literally one step short of calling for refugees to start pinning yellow felt badges to their clothes.
The one thing we’re damn sure not worried about any more is these poor people dying at sea. No siree.
I’m not going to write about the ins and outs of migration, other than to say that 457 visas are, much like refugees, a small number of people. We took in a net 11,630 457 visa holders in 2009-10 according to the ABS, an increase of less than 2,000 since 2004-05. This isn’t masses of people. What I’d like to talk about, rather, is something closer to my heart, which is the way we TALK about migrants.
At issue is the way in which we have chosen to frame the issue of refugees in Australia, our relation to it, our obligations to them, and our ability to deal with long-held challenges posed by our white history and geographical location.
The ‘debate’ (if furious agreement cloaked in posturing argument can be called such) over asylum seekers has seen several incarnations since it really hit the headlines in 2001. Under Howard, it was very much about ‘protecting our borders’ (particularly after September 11), as well as deciding who will come and how. These ideas are rooted in the appeal to our sense of safety and security.
But who is it that we feel so threatened by?
This was followed closely by the notion of ‘queue jumpers’, appealing to the sense of fairness that Australians all proclaim to hold more closely than those other nations.
But where was the queue?
The eventual election of a Rudd government saw ‘tough but humane’ and ‘break the people smugglers’ business model’ emerge as the new framing for dealing with the ‘problem’ of asylum seekers.
(Incidentally, the word ‘problem’ itself is an excellent framing device. Problems require solutions, after all. In this case, the problem is easily interpreted simply as ‘brown people in boats’ by those who wish to.)
The notion of fairness was now flipped, and we saw in the mirror Australia as the virtuous parent, handing out tough love for the benefit of others.
Then, there was the Christmas Island tragedy. Forty-eight people died on the rocky coastline of a tiny island which is unfortunately famous for all the wrong reasons. Suddenly, in the light of this, tough and humane didn’t seem such natural partners anymore.
At that point we reached what was perhaps the nadir of what is becoming a deep national scar. Days upon days of crocodile tears in parliament, with no party willing to take sufficient steps to actually save all of these lives they proclaimed to care so much about (although it must be said that the Coalition were first among equals in this regard).
Then, as the deaths at sea slowed up (or the coverage dried up, who really knows?), we’ve reverted to status quo australis. Protect our borders, jobs, women, whatever. It’s not actually relevant, because we know that Australia has NEVER wanted immigration from countries ‘unlike’ us. All of the different framing devices have been used by politicians seeking ways to appeal to a deep, lasting bigotry, while not appearing outwardly racist.
(At this point the usual disclaimer is probably due – Australia is not a ‘racist’ country, any more than America, with its history of slavery and dispossession of Indigenous people, is. Or France with its persecution of Algerians is. Or even racism towards Afghan Hazaras within the country itself. Racism is a global problem.)
In George Megalogenis’ excellent Quarterly Essay, he relayed a story of one of Australia’s earliest opinion polls.
A Gallup poll taken in 1951 asked voters “whether or not Australia should get immigrants” from a list of seven countries.
The Netherlands (80.6 per cent), Sweden (76.8 per cent) and France (59.4 per cent) recorded strong yes votes. At the other end of the scale, the public said “not wanted” to people from Greece (only 42.7 per cent of voters wanted them), Yugoslavia (33.5 per cent) and Italy (27.3 per cent).
The reason for the discrepancy can be seen in the response to Germany. Unlike the Greeks, who were our allies in World War II, the Germans had the advantage of white skin. The German approval rating was 55.4 per cent.
In short, Australians, only six years after completing the most hideous episode in human history battling the Germans, wanted them here more than the Greeks. He added one thing, however, which I don’t agree with so much.
Australia has always felt like it was one intake away from having too many people chasing too few jobs, properties, seats on public transport and car parking spots in the city.
This is not simply about car parks and jobs. If it were, we would be up in arms about the number of Kiwis or Poms landing in our airports.
Right now, there is a clear split along party lines (excuse me if I exclude the Greens from this, it’s an entirely different post). The ALP ‘oppose’ 457 visas because of this type of prejudice against foreigners that Megalogenis refers to – they’ll take our jobs.
Even the PM calling out Scott Morrison for ‘dog whistling’ is, itself, a dog whistle. The phrase is not as widely known as many may believe. Calling Morrison out for dog whistling is intended to mollify those who are infuriated at his grubby racism, without actually appearing to want to allow more refugees into the country. Those who don’t want more migrants will not hear the PM call for more migrants, so everyone’s satisfied. We may act in a racist manner but would never acknowledge being racist.
The coalition, meanwhile, simply targets a migrant group that is overwhelmingly made up of Sri Lankans, Afghans, Pakistanis, Iraqis and Africans, and effectively accuses them of being a threat to the purity and safety of our daughters. This is not speaking to any kind of semi-rational fear about jobs.
This is racism, pure and simple. Knowingly playing on the racism of some in the community is not smart politics, it is racism, and we should unstintingly call it out as such.
And herein lies perhaps the number one concern in all this. We have, as a society, become so adept at taking umbrage, so masterful at being outraged and offended, either for ourselves or on behalf of others, that public calling out of racism has become too fraught an exercise.
Label someone, anyone, a racist, and the backlash will come thick and fast. Spluttering confounded outrage that anyone would even consider lightly tossing round such a heinous charge. Andrew Bolt went to court to deny racism after he actively compared and contrasted the skin colour of Indigenous Australians. As if next to a paint chart. His outrage, self-pity and martyr complex knew, and know, no bounds.
Ed Butler is a recovering economist and novelty blogger, of the never-lamented Things Bogans Like. On about step seven of the requisite 12, he now works in communications and environmental advocacy. He’s not racist, but he tweets from @fakeedbutler.