08. August 2013 · Kommentare deaktiviert für Papua New Guinea – Lösung: „Bogans and boat people“ · Kategorien: Lesetipps · Tags: ,


Bogans and boat people

by Richard Cooke

The failure of the pro-refugee movement

The Papua New Guinea solution marks the symbolic failure of the humanitarian case for refugee resettlement in Australia. More than a decade of persuasion, from the infographics posted on Facebook, the outraged theatre, the lip-sewing, the incantations that ‘there is no queue’ – none of it had the impact of Ray Hadley playing a foghorn sound on his show every time a new boat arrived. The one win of the pro-boats movement has been to shift their opponents onto faintly more compassionate grounds. The punitive treatment of boat-borne asylum seekers now comes with an added veneer – the prevention of drownings at sea. Around 80% of voters support never resettling boat people on the mainland.

In the ashes of defeat, progressive opinion has lighted on a dismaying explanation: that Australian society is incorrigibly and uniquely racist. Our attitudes in all this are the vestigial spleen of the White Australia policy, and the PNG policy is the final proof. After all, only an intolerant country would tolerate such barbarism being done in its name. There was no disgrace in failing to warm our dead heart, especially when all the shame was reserved for Australia.

In the effort to win hearts and minds, a few prescient people warned that compassion was both a morally and tactically limited framework on which to campaign – ‘The Trouble with Empathy’, David Burchill called it. It’s clear now that not only were these warnings correct, but that the pro-refugee forces never really understood their opposition at all. They were wrong when they identified racism as their primary motivation, and they’re wrong now when they diagnose that same racism as terminal. In fact progressives had dismissed the real reason – a profound sense of economic insecurity and a radically different experience of globalisation – as illusory or the product of consumerism. But before we turn there, we have to examine the charge of intolerance more carefully.

It’s a commonplace that if boat people were white, Australia would welcome them with open arms. Let’s ignore for a moment the counter-examples like the seething reception Polish immigrants get from their British hosts, and examine this idea’s implications. If Australians rejected boat people on the grounds of their race, this act would not occur in isolation. We would expect a series of tandem effects: that our attitudes to refugee intake and immigration would be in lockstep; that newly arrived immigrants here would hold opinions on refugees starkly different from their Australian neighbours, and that our views of other races are predominantly negative. None of these things is true.

Take Europe as a control group – it’s often favourably featured in those infographics – and the contrast is telling. Political parties far to the right of a One Nation wet dream hold serious political sway in Austria, the Netherlands, France, Finland, Italy, Greece, Belgium, Denmark, Hungary and the Baltic states. In many of these places they have the power to make or break governments, or even challenge for presidencies. Cynics might say Australia’s political system dealt with the lunar right by incorporating its ideas, but there is little in the Liberal or Labor platforms that would placate supporters of the Front National.

There’s a simple reason that other Western countries have more anti-immigration political parties than Australia – their populations are significantly more racially intolerant. In Italy 94% of people say immigration is a ‘big problem’. Three-quarters of the French say Islam is incompatible with their values. In 2003, at the height of ‘we will decide’ fever, Australia was the country polled second most favourably disposed to immigration, behind only Canada. More than 60% of us said we wanted immigration to increase or stay the same. In Germany that figure was 22%. These are not cherry-picked figures, but representations of a long-standing and broad trend. For a bunch of racists, we are unusually tolerant.

It’s not just fibbing in surveys either. In 2009 Australia had the highest level of immigration per capita in the OECD, eclipsing influxes that have caused tabloid pandemonium elsewhere. A quarter of us were born overseas, almost half have at least one overseas born parent. Interracial marriage, often identified by demographers as a truer indicator of racism than expressed attitudes, is the norm here. A majority of third generation non-English speaking immigrants intermarry, most to Anglo-Celtic Australians. Our treatment of boat people isn’t just different to how other countries treat refugees. It’s different to how Australians themselves treat immigrants of every other kind. It is also different to almost all our other expressed attitudes about race, and is so pervasive that it’s shared by immigrants, even, in some cases, by refugees themselves. Race is clearly part of the story – but by itself, it’s an insufficient explanation.

What would an alternative explanation look like? One clue gives us a place to start: over time, Australians’ changing attitudes to immigration have closely correlated with unemployment levels.

Western Sydney and the shallows of abundance

“We are a wealthy country” is a familiar phrase of entreaty in refugee advocacy. Implicit in it is an understanding, even if it’s an indirect one, that generosity is driven by abundance. That’s particularly true in Australia, where in the recent past attitudes to immigration have been driven more by unemployment levels than an unshakeable core of hard-line racism. Why then with the economy performing relatively well would we turn on boat people? Why do so many Australians still feel they’re at the mercy of cost of living pressures? And why are both of these impulses at their strongest in Western Sydney?

In the wake of John Howard’s statement that ‘We will decide who comes to this country, and the circumstances in which they come’, Tim Dunlop came up with what he called an ‘unpopular and unproveable’ theory to explain its popularity. When Australia was still feeling the aftershocks of deregulation and privatisation, Howard’s statement wasn’t a dogwhistle but a rallying cry. Boat arrivals weren’t just a televised proxy for unchecked immigration, they were both evidence of globalisation and a symbol of it, and Howard’s statement was some kind of restoration of agency and control over the process.

Since then the boats issue has become the way in which the different classes of Australian society argue about globalisation. The inner city, the deregulated economy’s chief beneficiaries, laud its virtues and opportunities, but also warn of the responsibility to protect its global victims. The outer city worries about the nature and scale of the change, which is up close and personal. Beyond a raw appeal to compassion, an appeal to abundance has been the chief way that the former has addressed the latter. But that reaffirmation of wealth and certainty hasn’t got very far in Western Sydney, where even the concern over boats is multicultural.

When Laurie Ferguson spoke about concerns over boat arrivals in migrant communities west of Parramatta, there was little curiosity for what might cause this unlikely standoff. Where it was acknowledged at all it was written off as internalised racism, or a political tactic, like saying “some of my best friends are Muslims who hate boat people”. But it was in fact a powerful indicator of how widespread and how immediate concerns over globalisation had become. Even those most recently benefitting from it felt it was veering out of control, and that the government was beginning to lose control of their circumstances. Fundamentally, those fears were well founded.

To look at indicators of rising income inequality or unemployment in Western Sydney is to get only a partial idea of where this fear and anxiety is coming from. This approach misses something more significant: a change in the relationship between citizen and state. Signs of this shift can be found in the upper echelons of policy architecture – start digging through something like the NSW Treasury Long-Term Fiscal Pressures Report and you wonder why its implications are not more widely publicised.

The Report’s answer to the fiscal ‘challenge’ of Australia’s ageing population is to increase immigration, restrain public sector pay, and – the quote here is direct – through “lowering community expectations” of services. For someone like a cleaner on a government contract living in Western Sydney, the plan couldn’t be a more comprehensive screwing: flat-lining pay, stagnating services, and increased competition for both.

In the past, this kind of quality-of-life issue would have been a frontline one for the left, but these aren’t the kind of dwindling resources progressives are interested in right now. There’s no Get Up! outrage over humdrum issues like 10 year-long queues for public housing, or ballooning hospital waiting times, or the fact that only 2% of rents in Sydney-Illawara are affordable for very low income workers. The campaign to increase the Newstart allowance has idled for so long it’s been taken up by the Business Council of Australia, perhaps the world’s only example of a fatcat lobby group trying to jack up the dole.

Apart from notable exceptions among the Greens and in the charity sector, activism has drifted away from this kind of grinding economic territory towards issues like gay marriage and climate change. There’s a sense that the left has been disappointed by the working class, who were emancipated only to vote for John Howard at the first hurdle. The old image of the working poor has been replaced with cashed-up bogans, no matter how incomplete the picture.

Over the past decade, many progressives came to believe that the domestic disadvantaged were only relatively so, and that the real danger was to the environment. They were in a way making their own attempt at “lowering community expectations”, attempting to repeal the McMansion brand of consumption. There were some extreme examples. In July 2011 the Sydney Morning Herald printed a piece by Elizabeth Farrelly that ended like this:

“(Relatively) poor Australians, despite decades of education campaigns, still see conspicuous consumption – of land, leisure, energy, alcohol, food – as a norm, not a mortal danger. This is what no one will say: diabetes may be dreadful but it is, largely, a choice. It’s a matter of will. The coming question for us, equivalent in its way to the throwing of cash at African famines, is this: for how long are we happy to fund the expensive treatment of people whose diabesity reflects their refusal to stop overconsuming… But like it or not, the time is nigh when we’ll have to choose, not just who needs treatment, but who deserves it.”

The same opinion pages, and sometimes the same people, that upbraided Australia for its lack of compassion were arguing, with not very well concealed enthusiasm, for fat westies to be denied health care for treatable, terminal chronic illness. The west was finding that both its traditional political allies and the state itself were arguing that their present circumstances not only were unlikely to improve, but would actually have to diminish due to scant resources. Already watching the most vulnerable among them failing behind, the prevailing political mood among those with below average incomes was not just to help the disadvantaged already in their communities, but also to avoid their fate. This is not a mindset readily compatible with then welcoming the world’s most vulnerable as well.

Western Sydney’s response to entreaties to be compassionate towards asylum seekers has been mixed. But overall, it has been to reply, often angrily and inarticulately, not just with prejudice but with legitimate concerns about their own circumstances and the overwhelmed provisions for pensioners, the homeless and others already in need. These counter-empathy cases have been attacked as flimsy Trojan horses filled with racism, or rapacious expressions of an endlessly expanding desire to consume. This has not been a successful strategy.

This pantomime has been repeated for more than a decade, with the appeals becoming more impassioned, and the responses more rigidly cemented. It has now ended in despair for refugee advocates, a genuinely held belief that a majority of Australians must have something wrong with them. It’s not hopeless though – the people of Western Sydney and other places like it are slowly persuadable, if spoken to in the right way. But first, they have to be listened to.

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