The long, ugly journey of racism in Australia can be traced back to a single government act: the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901. The so-called White Australia Policy openly racialised immigration to the country and set a bigoted undertone to the country’s subsequent history.
It was only in 1973 that the Act was finally dismantled. Within a few years the Liberal government under the leadership of Malcolm Fraser was accepting hundreds of thousands of Indo-Chinese “boat people” seeking asylum in Australia. This brief support for a humanitarian-based refugee policy has since eroded and recently, there has been a shift back to the past.
New arrivals of asylum seekers on boats has prompted the Gillard government to reassess its approach. The result has been a hastily cast independent inquiry, a rushed report with all 22 recommendations quickly accepted by the government and a radical policy somersault to embrace the controversial notion of “off-shore processing” of asylum seekers.
The policy requires that offshore detention centres be established on the Pacific island of Nauru and on Manus Island, part of Papua New Guinea. Facilities are currently being constructed and asylum seekers are expected to start coming through their doors within months.
Supporters say this policy flip, away from onshore processing and from favouring temporary visa options, is an attempt to be “hard-headed but not hard-hearted.”
Critics suggest it’s all head and no heart. They point to the inhuman isolation of asylum seekers that resulted from the Howard government-era “Pacific Solution” policy. Opponents of the new policy also criticise proposals to remove family reunion claims for asylum seekers arriving by boat. In creating a system whereby “irregular migrants gain no benefit by choosing to circumvent regular migration mechanisms,” (in the words of the report’s chair) pro-refugee advocates suggest this new drive ignores the lack of any “regular migration mechanism” for those in most need.
Gillard is presenting two arguments for the policy. The first is about protecting Australia. The second is about protecting asylum seekers.
Argument one is a predictable attempt to please Australia’s right with a double whammy of border security and defence-of-the-realm rhetoric. This line seeks to stave off a resurgent opposition, led by the pugnacious ex-boxer Tony Abbott, by talking up the threat of surreptitious invasion from across the waves. This form of TV dinner politics arises, not surprisingly, at the same time that polls are predicting the potential downfall of Gillard’s embattled government in next year’s general election.
The second argument concerns growing humanitarian crisis as increasing numbers of asylum seekers on boats founder at sea, often fatally. For some years politicians have tried to devise a means to clamp down on paid agents—so-called “people smugglers.” By ceasing onshore processing, so goes the argument, people smugglers will lose their central marketing pitch: arrival in Australia. Thus asylum seekers will be protected.
But this argument is naive. “People smuggling” has more to do with hope than reality. Wishful thinking is a powerful force in the world of the refugee and a difficult if not impossible driver for mere legislation to put the brakes on.
Given Australia’s tiny refugee population, the current government’s wall-building is not only hard-hearted, but also an overreaction. However, this is an issue with a weighty history and governments of all shades need to heed its power. The hapless victims of war, poverty and persecution around the world may well remain perplexed about Australia’s latest move. But they don’t vote.
James Rose is an author and features writer based in Australia. His latest novel “Virus” was released in 2011 and he blogs at www.jamesroseauthor.com