Would you welcome a starving woman into your house? She wears rags, clutches a baby to her chest, and her skin is sunken, pale. She begs you for food for her baby, who is crying loudly. Wouldn’t fear that this woman would steal your things, kick you out, and take over your job and your life? Of course not. You would probably think that once this woman got back on her feet, she would be just like everyone else. But that’s not the reason you’d let her in, is it? You’d let her in because she is a fellow human. But what if she was from Afghanistan? What if she was standing on the deck of a listing, leaking boat, surrounded by hundreds of others, equally desperate?
Last October the Australian government responded to a comparable situation in its usual, inhumane way. And each time it turned the refugees away each time harsher than the last the government came up with new reasons for its actions. This time, a man who was reading the paper while waiting for a train mouthed the government’s hostility toward immigrants. The man was in his mid-thirties, Caucasian, and dressed in a nice suit. His brief case was standing between his shiny shoes. I sat on a bench by his side.
“They should’ve sunk this boat,” he said to me. As if I’d asked.
I glanced at his paper. I saw a photo of women and men standing on a boat. They’re clearly hungry, desperate, looking to change their lives, to escape the harshness that they have endured, and this is his response. As if the Australian government’s solution, to drag them away to an island and lock them in a detention center was not harsh enough. The man held his paper so that I could see what he was reading.
“Look at this. It says here that these boat people threw their kids off into the sea. Fucking animals. They should’ve sunk them all.”
“I am sure there’s more to it.”
“There’s no excuse for this. I mean, what kind of people throw their kids overboard?”
On the page before me was a photo of two kids floating in the ocean, wearing life jackets and, it appeared, they were in the act of being properly rescued. It was this image, and this story, that was the final straw that allowed the mostly deaf-to-the-public Prime Minister, John Howard, and the Liberal Party, return to power in what was already being called a racist election.
Race relations have always been part of the political discourse in Australia, but of course, ours is not a unique perspective in the world. No matter the country, it is often the same argument: people from another country, with a different way of life, a different religion, a different perspective, have come to a new country, usually under duress, and they are not acting in a way that the current occupants would like. It is a sad observation that, as we are well into the 21st century, I can find ample displays of racial tension in Australia’s political and social landscape.
Returning to that image in the newspaper, and that day in October when the news erupted with the story of asylum seekers (“boat people” being the slang term) presumably throwing their children into the ocean, I can tell you now, that as of February 2002, Australia learnt that the children were not thrown into the sea by their parents, after all. Indeed, the Government knew those children had not been thrown overboard before they released the information to the public. Howard is claiming that he was told otherwise, but seriously, to suggest that the leader of the ruling political party wouldn’t know such information is rather like a arsonist saying that he didn’t know it would burn. But this is not the focus of my essay. A government lying to the public is hardly new. Whatever the political fallout will be and I suspect that it won’t be much in the scheme of things the fact is that during last year, Australia’s Liberal Party ran an election that even previous Prime Ministers and party leaders claimed as racist.
The Liberal Party won decisively.
It is said that Australia is a multicultural country, but the question that I find myself asking here is not about the country, or the people who live in it, but about the politics and the government. Are these things “multicultural”?
Multicultural is a term that has become overused in recent years. Depending on whom you speak with, the term takes on either a positive or negative connotation, and there are many arguments that support either. I personally think it’s a useable term: something to strive towards as a social body. And for the most part, when we talk about multiculturalism, we are talking about the society within a country. But what happens when you take the principles of multiculturalism and apply them to politics? In Australia, you would look at the government and ask yourself if there was a variety of different ethnic cultures represented within it. It is not enough to say that the politicians are influenced by different cultures, because they are forced in the current climate to acknowledge that the country they govern is a multicultural country, and thus, by default, they must give all minorities a voice.
I propose that Australia is a country that, for the most part, is in constant social evolution towards a multicultural goal. As time goes on, the government is forced to recognise that the ways to live within the country are growing larger, and the average Australian citizen is not someone who can be placed into a locked ideology. No longer is the average Australia a white, smoking, wearing little more than a wide-brimmed hat and a thong. In addition to acknowledging that such representation of a happy, trouble-free and perhaps sunburned person is not the average in the Australian populace, the government is forced to accommodate and mould the country around the notion of tolerance with “other” cultures.
If there had been a strong diversity of ethnic culture within Australian politics, then a whole portion of Australian politics under the Howard government, and the 2001 election, would have been given a proverbial swift kick. The Australian public would have been spared years of listening to Pauline Hanson and the One Nation party (from which she has since resigned). A minority party such as One Nation can, in the future, only wish that they will receive the publicity One Nation received. Such attention to One Nation showed Howard’s inability to deal with a multicultural. It also showed the public’s deep dissatisfaction with the state of politics within Australia. Hanson herself, however, had very little to do with the 2001 election.
The racial election began to gather steam with the events of September 11th. In Australia, this tragedy gave the existing xenophobia a popular defense. It was suddenly okay that the Howard government had been treating asylum seekers like crazed criminals, because, after all, they were from the Middle East, and isn’t that where all those crazed men were hanging around, sitting in the desert and talking about suicide while petting their rocket launchers? Such people might be found in a refugee camp, just waiting to sneak into Australia on a leaky boat. Which is how all terrorists like to strike a country have leaky boat, will travel.
This fear of the asylum seekers was not only given a push by September 11th, but also by the Tampa Crisis. An Icelandic frigate rescued 433 asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Iraq and other middle-eastern countries, as their boat was sinking. When the refugees realised that the frigate was not going to Australia, they overtook it and aimed it for Australia. The Australian government sent its military out to meet them. It was not the type of incident that would have, in the best of circumstances, engendered public support. But in light of September 11th you can imagine the current of backlash, and why the Australian’s government’s harsh handling of the Tampa met public approval.
Indeed, the Australian public was hardly crying out against the government’s strong stance against asylum seekers after September 11th, but I will argue that in this case, the public was not educated to think otherwise. It is the job of a government to educate its people. And when opinions that were different from the mainstream were put forward, opinions suggesting that the Tampa carried educated men and women who had a strong social awareness of what had been happening in their countries and were opposed to it, these opinions were quietly ignored by the government and the mainstream public remained ignorant.
In fact, the only positive thing the government did during this time was to assure the public that the Middle Eastern people who were already living Australia were not the same as those who were responsible for September 11th. But this, I put to you, is the effect of being a multicultural country: the government must keep an open dialogue with different ethnic communities within the country, and it must do its best to protect and serve all of its people.
But if Australia were a place of multicultural politics, then the 2001 election would have not been able to take place in the way it did. The blatantly racist opinions that were voiced by politicians, such as the one backbencher who said that asylum seekers were potential terrorists, would have been debated, rather than allowed to rant unchecked. Multicultural politics does what a multicultural country tries to do socially: it attempts to find a medium between all the cultures within it, a place where all are accepted, where the give and take of each community is in constant movement for tolerance and acceptance and education about the diverse ethnic cultures that it represents is part of the agenda.
How is it, then that a multicultural country re-elected a racist government? Surely there would have been alternatives? You would think that an opposition government would have stood on the balconies and screamed about a racist election, but instead, the Labor Party joined the Liberal Party in their stance on asylum seekers and other refugees and quite a few other topics. In fact, one might think that they were both the same party a two-headed monster, of sorts, or a pair of puppets operated by one figure. It is certainly what I thought at the time, and even now, as the Labor Party’s new leader calls quietly for an enquiry into the Children Overboard issue, you can still see the shadowy hand of the same puppet master pulling the strings. Dance, Simon Crean (leader of the Labor Party), dance, it says. Even the Democrats, Australia’s main alternative party that can often hold the balance in a government (a party which once ran under the slogan, “Keeping the Bastards Honest”), did not take a stand against the racist election. Rather, in keeping with current Democrat politics, the Democrats didn’t say much. It was only the Green Party that openly campaigned against the Liberal Party, and thus received an increase in votes the increase in votes was a different voice from the people. But the voice didn’t speak loud enough. Many people will not vote for the environmentalists. In a two-party system, people are largely going to support either Labor or Liberal politics, and little else.
This is why Australia needs not only a multicultural society, but also multicultural political representation. It is only when the diverse ethnic cultures of a society have a place within politics that we will see an end to elections and politics based on racial hatred. Empathy in politics does not mean that we open our country to everyone, or that we stop being realistic to the stresses of mass immigration, but it is the appropriate response to racial hatred. Only with public and political empathy, with a cultural diversity in the political body of Australia, will we see the multicultural society we live in truly flourish. Otherwise we are doomed to an endless repetition of elections and hatred an experience that is all too fresh in the Australian mind.