- Refugees and Australia
- ... the text of an address
originally delivered for the "campaign for a just australia":
- 3 July 2003, Canberra, at
the ACT Legislative Assembly building
- In this lecture I will be
primarily subjective. I am not so much going to explore the obvious violations of human
rights by this retrograde federal government, its overt campaign against refugee
"incursion" described and held accountable in works like David Marr's and Marian
Wilkinson's Dark Victory, but rather to talk about complicity. I feel most
Australians, including myself, are complicit in this outrage maybe even those among
us campaigning for or advocating refugee rights. I will argue that, as in other Western
democracies, the rights of the majority are used to deny or minimise the rights of
minorities, and that this is a false democracy, in which rights are displaced and
disguised under euphemistic terminologies. I should also mention that looking at the
language used by some to describe people of different ethnicity to their own may involve
mentioning offensive words, and that I mean no offense by the airing or repetition of
- The irony of the increasing move
to a monolithic federal power structure is that the so-called majority, those for example
who voted the Howard Government into power (or would have voted an equally problematic
government under Beazley into power), minimise their own rights by denying human rights to
others in this case, refugees. Precedents are set that are eventually internalised
it is easier to deny when an official form of denial is already in place.
Resistance to imagined incursion becomes fuel for the repression of those already within
the island fortress. Examples of similar ironies in the other places I live are the USA
Patriot Act and the zero tolerance policy of Blair's United Kingdom (normal bus shelter
seats removed in order to prevent "beggars" sleeping on them, banning sale of
spray paints to under 18s to prevent graffiti, etc) measures designed to
"protect" or "improve" life within a group, which may be turned upon
the actual members of that very group.
- With my partner Tracy Ryan I
wrote a play called Smith Street which satirised temporary powers of the Richard
Court Liberal government in Western Australia a few years ago that allowed, among other
things, for body-searching of women suspected of prostitution, that meant all women by
definition were suspect and under scrutiny, and as such also had their rights eroded. Each
of these examples concerns the State declaring an intentionality of protecting its
citizens, while potentially infringing on its very citizens' rights.
- For me, bigotry to
"outsiders" is an issue of inward-lookingness of nation, of how nation
constructs itself by exclusion the much-discussed "Fortress Australia"
concept, with all its subtexts. And when nation does allow immigration, it is for its
material wellbeing, or to create a social cohesiveness (post-war British immigration), or
to create social stability by relying on family structures to maintain conservatism,
regardless of origins. What nation can't countenance is a loss of control over these
factors. Now, the refugee is the antithesis of such controls. Movement of refugees across
borders in times of war is feared because of the financial and social pressure on
infrastructure. In the case of Australia, with its intact coastline, this fear takes on a
variety of meanings which I will touch on in what follows.
- My prime concern is to look not
at the obvious problems with government policy and the individuals who impose it, but at
the culture of exclusion that is drummed into us from early childhood. This is not only
with the so-called native-born, but also among migrants who have gone through official
channels, especially where they have initially suffered prejudice for intruding in their
new land. There is sometimes a kind of reformist zeal, where the pain of this experience
is displaced onto those they perceive as having circumvented the official processes, when
in fact, those forced by whatever means to have uprooted from their homeland, will have
inevitably suffered great hardship.
- For me, prejudice towards
refugees, whatever the reason for their movement, has always been an issue of racism. As a
kid, I saw the "Pommy" or "Eyetie" migrant being persecuted at school,
in all those familiar ways. The primary school I attended from the end of the 60s to the
mid-70s, Brentwood Primary School, was not far from one of the hostels where new migrants
were housed. The litany of bigotries is a familiar one, from different accent to funny
tastes in food. I felt akin to them because I carried the tags "poofter" and
"dictionary" from an early age.
- The conflation of sexual
identity and an inclination to reading sensitised me to the vagaries of words, and their
power to be manipulated. A positive word could be made "bad", a pejorative could
be invested with something entirely different. The "poofter" tag came from a
single moment in Grade Three when I told the class that I was really a robot, and that
only my friend Graham "could turn me on". Like a dam wall breaking, there was an
initial giggle, then a flood of laughter. So I became the class "poofter". While
I can see the element of humour in this, it didn't stay innocent at the time it
became something darker and beyond the initial joke. I should add that it is not a tag I
am ashamed or afraid of, but it was not given as an affectionate nickname.
- What being a poofter entailed,
nobody was completely sure, but it was definitely not manly and certainly meant that I
didn't like girls. And both girls and boys taunted me, though some secretly came to ask
"the dictionary" for help with their homework. I was at primary school during
the Vietnam war. There was one Asian kid in the school that I can recall, though this
would change with increased Asian migration under the Hawke government. The kid was
Japanese and his father worked in mining. We befriended each other, and I got to ride his
dual-shift 10-gear dragster. I was told by the other kids that he was a "Jap",
that he was a "slanty-eyed yellow bastard who couldn't be trusted", and that
"my grandpa has a samurai sword he got from one of them little bastards after he shot
- It was the White Australia
policy in action. Interestingly, this level of bigotry was extended to an American student
whose father was also in mining. Both he and the Japanese student were seen to be spoilt,
and both had tastes that were threatening.
- Something about Brentwood
Primary School in the late 60s and early 70s. Brentwood was State Housing, and renowned
for at least one mass murder an entire family shot by the father. It housed
working-class whites in the main, and had its own police station. Next to Brentwood was
Mount Pleasant a middle-class professional and semi-professional neighbourhood of
primarily brick houses, as opposed to the State Housing asbestos/fibro. There was also
Booragoon, a new suburb that would gradually become a comparatively wealthy middle-class
suburb, with a strong south-east Asian presence. The conflicting and changing demographic
drove the prejudices of the children in the school, who became mouthpieces for the
frustrations of their parents. Our house was three houses into Mount Pleasant. I crossed
the suburban border I did not recognise every day I walked to school. Sometimes kids from
Brentwood would come to our house to hang out while their father sobered up. I knew that a
few doors away on the Mount Pleasant side of things the same kind of thing was happening.
Borders seemed an absurdity to me. Like many others, I was a poofter on either side of the
- I mentioned the Vietnam war. My
Japanese friend was generally described as being "one of them". After all, they
were all the same. He bore the weight of their anger. A few of the kids' older brothers
even the odd father maybe had been called up, and someone had to be made to
suffer for that. Preparation for the bigoted "resistance" to those who would
eventually become known as "the boat people" was written into their vocabulary
from an early age. And their fellow student, the Japanese boy, would be recalled as
a symbol of their loathing. He would become a cipher. Along with the non-Anglo-Celts, the
greatest persecution was directed towards indigenous peoples in general.
- I would see more of this in high
school in both the city and the country. It was usually manifested in gang violence
and overt harassment. When I think of the agenda behind the work of a revisionist
historian like Windschuttle, I get extremely angry his efforts to
"correct" the record regarding "settler" brutality (which he would
have as "alleged" at best). I have witnessed organised violence against
indigenous students and locals on a regular basis. I could give specific examples of
fights at suburban discos, attacks with lumps of wood and metal on Front Beach in
Geraldton, and even the assault of a young Nyungar boy in police custody in Fremantle
lock-up during the mid 1980s. I am a witness, and I am sadly sure I am not the only one!
None of this is idle conjecture.
- Another conflation: the migrant
outsider and the indigene. One lays claim to the land by arrival, and the other by mere
presence as reminder of intrusion and dispossession. Both, as a consequence, are made
pariahs. In those schools, there seemed a need among students to declare their rights of
presence, to claim an inheritance through the denial of others' rights. This was
conceptual and concrete. It extended to religion (in my school the bulk of students were
Anglicans Catholics were separated off for religious instruction and there was no
room for other religious beliefs) and constructed itself in the economic. Most boys played
"wars" at school, and the "gook" was always the enemy. The girls also
played their obsessive persecution games, of being "villagers" terrorised by a
monster-outsider the "fat girl" or kiss-chasy in which the
"uncool" boys were mocked and called "dirty" and "full of
germs". As someone said to me recently, all children have their malicious side, but
these games are catered to in so many ways by the system. The language of white Australia
was standard. Bizarrely, if Euro-scenarios of the Second World War were played out, there
was always competition to be the Germans. I found this also to be the case in my late
teens when I played simulation games: people hungered to play the Germans. Chips of Waffen
SS were moved around the map of Europe without thought for the moral implications. Rarely
did anyone push to play the Japanese. This has something to do with proximity, and that
the bulk of Australians fought in the Pacific Theatre, but it's also about origins.
- Prejudices against the Europeans
were less than those against Asia, or the Middle East, or Africa and so on. Race was
taught in terms of the Christian pyramid of being, the food chain, evolution, and any
other hierarchical system it could be secreted into. We schooled with subtexts of sexual,
spiritual, and ethnical bigotries. During the first couple of years at high school, my
closest friends were Chinese Australians. These migrant kids were high academic achievers,
and I heard the stereotype repeated among teachers, as well as among kids, that "they
do well because their parents push them so hard". I did well also, as did other
Anglo-Celtic kids, and our parent(s) were never mentioned!
- At around 20 I was strongly
involved in campaigning against Jack Van Tongeren's Australian Nationalists Movement.
Asians in general were the target of this group which committed numerous acts of violence
in Western Australia in the name of their cause, including the bombing of Chinese
restaurants. My friends and I would determinedly remove their racist posters from
lamp-posts and buildings. The "Boat People" were targeted by them in particular.
Once at an anti-nuclear rally I stood beside a woman who had her foot broken when one of
the racist ANM "soldiers" stamped on her boot. They always attended anti-nuclear
rallies in support of US troops whom they saw as being the bastion against potential Asian
- It's a tangled picture I am
weaving. I want to jump a decade to the mid '90s. My family and I leave Australia to live
in Cambridge, England. Our daughter suffers a few taunts in pre-school about her funny
accent, but it's a "diverse" school ethnically, so this passes quickly. Within
four years she has "assimilated" whether by habit or design is a moot
point. She has an English accent, and thinks in many ways like an English school-kid
regardless of ethnicity. She has absorbed general cultural traits, and been
programmed by the Church of England within her schooling environment. When she returns to
Australia for six months' schooling, she suffers taunts of a more determined nature for
being a "pom". When she then goes to live in America she suffers teasing for
being an Australian.
- This harassment, as she gets
older, can be quite vicious. I won't go into it here, but a few milder moments would be
simple verbal denial stuff like "they don't have radio in Australia", and so on.
In her American school she learns that America had to attack Iraq because of the Twin
Towers, and that Saddam and Bin Laden are close. She learns that Americans protect the
free world. Australians aren't part of the picture. On American television Howard is seen
rarely, and is always presented as a supporter, without agency. Australia is part of the
"coalition of the willing", but only just.
- For her, nation becomes a
hindrance and a confusion. Flags represent taunting and hurt. She has learnt that people
"defend" these flags without thought of the hurt that such defence might inflict
on those who don't share such certainty in the sign. She has learnt that the sign is
adapted to the occasion, and the values they constantly espouse when talking of the flags
aren't as solid as they'd have you think. She knows how to draw the flags of Australia,
Britain, and America perfectly, she's heard the claims made for each, and she knows about
national sovereignty. She also knows nation means war as much as protection, and it means
hatred as much as pride.
- She is a child for whom
"nation" is in crisis. And it is the same for me. It is my strong feeling that
the bigotry extended toward refugees making their home in Australia, comes out of both a
deep desire for conviction of nation, and a deep desire to quarantine a version of nation
that is rapidly becoming outmoded. In the same way that multiculturalism has been reduced
to an historic moment of government policy, so have claims of "threat" to the
integrity of nation become a trope.
- I arrived back in Australia
after a longish absence during the Tampa crisis. I was appalled not only by the actions of
the government and military, but also by the opposition's attempt to gain electoral ground
by evading the issue. It is a moment in time equal to the passing of the White Australia
policy through parliament in the early days of Federation. The propaganda has done its
job, mixed with the natural vanity of the human character. "Legitimate" migrants
were shown objecting to refugees because they themselves had had to go through legit
channels, so why not the refugees? "No one gets anything without working for
it." The spectre of terrorist infiltration was bandied about. All I could think of
was those kids I went to school with, who are the voting generation now, with kids and
houses and a view of Australian integrity. A quarantine phobia. The spraying of the planes
before they come into land.
- For the Australian government,
and many if not most Australians, the word "border" is lost in the physical
isolation of the island continent. Its unique wildlife and fauna, destroyed and disturbed
by land clearing, salinity, mining, logging, shooting, etc, at such a devastating rate, is
cited as a reason for the intensity of quarantine laws, of the dedication to keeping the
- Now, I am not suggesting
diseases and noxious weeds are welcome, but I do object to the mechanics of that policy
being extended to people. The language of quarantine becomes a language of confinement and
repression. The refugees of the post-Vietnam era are seen in terms of quarantine risk, in
terms of keeping the disease out. Thinking over refugee crises pre-Vietnam, though
confronted with social prejudices on entering Australia, those displaced by the Second
World War or by Soviet expansionism dealt with a different language of alienation. In the
same way that American and British soldiers are "murdered" in Iraq while Iraqis
are "killed", euphemism, distortion, and a language gleaned from the US military
by CNN, Fox Media, and all their Western cohorts, is deployed against refugees.
- In a time when transparency is
declared vital, where the airport becomes the focus of scrutinies of various kinds, the
veil seemingly becomes the antithesis to nation, the opposite to transparency. But it's a
selective kind of transparent: those whom the government wants veiled in a different way,
remain so. Western dignities are generally preserved, non-Western social and religious
practices are transformed into signs of a different kind.
- We hear the multi-ethnic nature
of Australian society touted on a regular basis. However, in its national manifestation,
in terms of projections of power, society is monocultural, as it's monolingual. The fact
of communities retaining their own birth-languages spoken and written does
not signify diversity within the idea of nation. Nation allows this in order to contain
it: permission being "granted" in exchange for a loyalty to the language of
power. On Social Security and other government forms there may be a dozen languages,
including Vietnamese and Khmer, languages of refugees of past times, but this is only a
concession. That old cliche, a privilege, not a right. They don't speak any language other
than English when the national budget is being done.
- The myths of nation are firmly
lashed to monolingualism. So one can have a diverse range of ethnic minorities, yet their
power is hedged and contained not only by government policy, but also by circumstances of
language. As a poet, I see it as imperative that I undo the strictures of this English,
even while working within it. The figurative becomes an agency, a resistance to the rules
and regulations that have become a constitution of denial. The real constitution of
Australia is written into immigration laws, into Customs regulations, into all those
legalities that govern our movements in and out of Australia. Australia is defined as
nation not as a sense of people, but as a set of containments, coastline co-ordinates. It
suppresses its indigenous people to avoid dissolution of conceptual borders within (or the
establishment of a concrete border such as a separate indigenous state within), as it
suppresses those who might try to cross into its space without abiding by the rules that
define its being. Human rights, human dignity, never have had and never will have anything
to do with this equation unless the model of nation itself is questioned, challenged, and
- One of the most disturbing
statements I hear regularly from Australians is "but we feel powerless". Well,
Australians voted this current federal government into power, and after the glaring horror
of the Tampa incident at that! Yet in a sense, this is almost incidental: for all its
dishonesty and indifference to human rights, for all its barbarity and duplicity, this
government isn't the root cause. It goes deeper than that. There is something awry in the
way Australians perceive of themselves as being separate, different, lucky or unlucky,
God's own country or the end of the earth. Australians, whatever their derivation, are
people. They are of the family humanoid, and have a responsibility to that family on a
singular and collective level. This is a choice all Australians can make. Votes aren't
only made at election time, they're also cast in the schools, the homes, the playing
- Living in Britain over the years
during and following the wars in the Balkans, I have noticed that a very similar language
of denial and alienation has been deployed by the British government against refugees from
various ethnic groups of that war-torn region. Detained, refused, spoken of as being mafia
and criminals, residents angry about them being located nearby. All of these poured into a
poisoned melting pot in which people-smugglers (and their victims dead in
containers, drowned at sea), are conflated with the people they exploit. There is a
conscious confusing of the codes, so refugees who have made use of the smugglers' services
are suddenly invalidated.
- I've always found this
particularly strange in a place like Britain, where England is fighting to keep the union
together, when its component parts struggle to find independence, declare their own rights
of denial. It a tangled web. Borders always mean people are losers, whatever form they
take. Borders are controls over the movements of wealth, and wealth is what they want to
keep in. Intrusions dilute that wealth, or water down the control of it. Wealth will leak
back to those regions from which the refugees have been forced, or have chosen, to
evacuate money sent home to those still suffering or with much less. This is, of
course, the same with both "legal" and "illegal" migrants. The wealth
of nation is diluted. The British writer Jeremy Harding has explored such issues in his
book The Uninvited: Refugees at the Rich Man's Gate.
- Governments attempt to change
the meaning of "refugees". Instead of people searching for refuge, shelter, they
are seen as being in full control of their prospect of seeing more than they claim
to. An incident of oppression that drives a vast number of people to move elsewhere
a war, a drought, a natural disaster is thought to become resolvable when the
moment passes. An oppressive regime may be seen as a cause to drive one's own nation to
war, but is not also recognised as reason enough to create refugees with claims to asylum.
The question of legitimacy is raised. Some are legitimate, others are not. The claim of
the legitimate refugee becomes contingent on the non-legitimate. One's claims are dragged
down by the other. This dissembling, linked with the notion that all must have more
agency, more ability to make choices, than they are admitting, provides the nation with a
language of denial and resistance. Refugees are seen in terms of military movements,
whether in waves, or in the targeting of specific places (wealthier, more apparently
politically and socially stable places) for refuge.
- On World Refugees day the
weekend before last, I joined a meeting and march though the centre of Perth. An
indigenous elder gave the welcoming speech to all participants. It was an incredibly
generous speech. He pointed out that he and his people had had their land stolen, but
could still welcome others. He placed himself in the position of the refugees, and linked
the displacement and losses of his own people with those of people interned in the
detention centres. Regarding possible subtexts between the circumstances of Aborigines
vis--vis goverrnment policy, and attitudes of exclusion, Veronica Brady, in her
essay, "Mabo: A Question of Space", makes some relevant connections:
- By definition, the idea of
nationality is bound up with the notions of circumscription and exclusion, with fixed
outlines which define us against others. In Australia, we have also the help of geography.
As inhabitants of an island continent, our physical boundaries are clearly outlined. Our
developing sense of ourselves has often relied on exclusion on the White Australia
Policy, for example, and, more recently, the regulation of immigration. Despite the
lip-service paid to multiculturalism, we like to think of ourselves in terms of monolithic
unity. According to Mary Douglass classification, our society is based more on the
grid than the group, pre-occupied with unity and defending frontiers. However, the Mabo
decision blurs the distinctions we have drawn between ourselves and the Aborigines,
writing them back into a history from which we had written them out, and suggesting that
our unity might not be as monolithic as we think, that the other still survives within in
it and, some think, may subvert our purposes of prosperity and peaceful enjoyment of that
prosperity. (p14, Caught in the Draught, A & R, 1994)
- Just before he began playing the
didgeridoo, the Nyungar elder pointed out to all that though it was not an instrument of
his Nyungar people, but from "up North", still, cultures can learn from other
cultures. The implication was strong that we also have much to learn from those who would
come to our cultural spaces. And learning is a sharing thing. I think discussions of the
"other" are obviously relevant there is certainly and always a fear
of the unknown, of the unsubscribed but I think Australia's, and consequently
Australians', mistreatment of refugees is not so easily covered by the expression
- What's at stake here is a
refusal to challenge the official presentations of nation. Australians don't only demean
and treat as "other" refugees though their apparent denial; they express a fear
and renouncing of empowerment through inability to challenge nation. A change of
government would hopefully bring some surface change see the release of children
and hopefully all others from detention but in the end this can only be
superficial. Australians need to consider themselves part of government. Compulsory voting
doesn't necessarily mean participation one doesn't have to be informed about issues
or aware of the policies when a vote is cast.
- The idea that Australia is a
democracy (or that the US or Britain are, for that matter) has always struck me as
laughable. Australians vote to allow others to make decisions for them. It's democracy by
proxy, or democracy once removed. People often say one can't be held accountable for the
crimes of one's parents, or the crimes of one's community. But it's not that simple. For
example, I did not directly steal the lands of Aborigines, but at the same time I
enjoy the fruits of that theft as an Australian citizen.
- I am both outside
accountability, and entirely accountable. There are different degrees, but a
responsibility remains to change what has resulted. My complicity comes in my
participation in the results of those actions. The same applies to the abuse of refugees.
I did not vote for the Howard government, but I still have a responsibility as part of the
society that did.
- Now, I live in three countries
and spend much of my time looking from the outside in, across those conceptual coastlines,
into Fortress Australia. I don't see myself as connected by the fact I carry an Australian
passport, or that my extended family is in Australia, or by those childhood memories
necessarily. It's because I've had a roll in the life of the place, not matter how small,
and that brings responsibility. I feel some responsibility, probably less, towards Britain
and the United States, though in many ways both places treat me as a foreigner and, with
the increased international paranoia, more and more as an alien. Still, those are
constructs of nation denying me, and I reject them.
- As a pacifist, I reject all
forms of violence physical as well as mental. During the Iraq war, I was made to
feel very foreign for the first time. Left-wing friends became suddenly patriotic,
bunkered down. I heard from Australia that it was the same here. That it was considered
almost treason to criticise the behaviour of nation. But my allegiance is to humanity, to
life. An accumulation of legal data is not an icon I wish to worship.
- Getting back to the march in
Perth: as we advanced down the Murray Street mall area, a couple of young white
Australians (as they called themselves) yelled "exterminate, exterminate them
all", and placed a finger to my head and "pulled the [imaginary] trigger".
They continued this baiting for some time. The police didn't stir I can't help
wondering what would have happened if the marchers had done something similar to onlookers
which of course they wouldn't. It was a peaceful march, despite provocation.
- Over the last eight years, as I
have suggested, I have watched Australia from without. I've made visits most years once or
twice a year, sometimes for a few months at a time. I have noticed it become more
conservative in government policy, and less effective in its public resistance to this.
I've heard much talk about its internationalism, the respect it apparently garnered around
the word with its Olympic jamboree, its being part of the modern world. Statistics for
internet connections were often quoted. This is not the way I've seen it.
- From afar, Australia seems to be
far more jingoistic and isolationist than it was in the 80s and early 90s. There's a sense
of exclusiveness, and to use that word again, denial. From America this takes on a strange
face. The denial seems to have been generated out of a new Menzies-era-like satisfaction
in true-blue national identity, best expressed through the bringing home of the spoils by
sporting teams. The prime minister presents himself as an ocker sports fan, and is there
to celebrate the victories. I say this looks strange from America because to the Americans
the Australians are merely good allies that need America.
- Security is something
Australians should look after themselves, but they are expected to look after it through
recognition of the primacy of the US. Which is exactly what Australia does. In the
patriarchy of international relations, Australia is perceived as a very little brother of
the US. I've had this confirmed by the true political authorities of both the
international and regional that is, cab drivers many times over! Jokes
aside, there is a sense of Australia as outpost, the place of Crocodile Dundee and the
Crocodile Hunter. It's a place of raw materials that need shaping.
- In Britain, there's a similar
sense, if for different reasons. Ask the College porters I am always fending off
good-humoured jokes about being a colonial. Australia's apparent adoration of the monarchy
is considered slightly humorous by many a British monarchist. When troops were sent to
Timor, one eminent Brit enjoyed telling me that Australia (the entity, if not the people)
didn't have a big enough boat to ship them across. Now, these slights against assumed
national pride are predictable and in many ways insignificant, but they do point to a
difference in perception of identity between Australia and its two main allies.
- Britain and America would be
outraged if accused of directly meddling in internal Australian affairs, though there's
much documentary evidence of this in a variety of ways over the decades. But I would argue
that Australia's refugee policy is an overt example of outside influence on what it is
that constitutes Nation in Australia: a wealthy Western resistance, a "coalition of
exclusiveness" if you like, to those who might take what is not considered theirs by
birthright or official migration.
- If Australia were to make an
open declaration that all Muslims displaced by tyranny, oppression of any kind, etc. were
welcome in Australia, to make it their home, it would be perceived as a threat against the
West, and consequently against the integrity of the US and UK. Both these countries have
an interest in keeping Australia Christian, if not white. That's not to say Christians are
not treated appallingly as well, but these prejudices work in degrees. There are different
types of Christians. Nation works by assimilating difference and denying it agency; it
also works by declaring difference so the assimilation process can take place. Degrees are
noted so they can be melted down. The Chinese community is allowed its newspaper/s, of
course, but only so it can be measured and contained.
- To return to my experiences
overseas: some years ago I sat on a panel for Anti-slavery International in London.
The aim of the event was to bring international attention to the injustices meted out to
indigenous Australians by official government policy, and to raise consciousness of
Australian national prejudice. Indigenous trade union representatives spoke, as well as
others from Australia especially in Britain for the occasion. The media were there in
force and leapt upon a comment made by one of us for an international boycott of the
Sydney Olympics. Germaine Greer was very vocal on this point, and impassioned in her plea
to the world's press to highlight these injustices. I spoke of this and the need for land
rights, and as a poet read the following poem, which I quote in full because as the
Aboriginal elder pointed out at the march, there are some things in common regarding the
removal of rights and basic human dignities between indigenous Australians and
incarcerated and vilified refugees, even if the issues in other ways are very different:
- To The Non-Indigenous Peoples of
- Its the great excuse
it wasnt us, you cant blame
- us for what happened two
hundred, a hundred
- and fifty, or even a hundred
- We didnt hunt them down
and remove their children.
- We didnt come in and take
- But in truth, thats what
were doing all over again.
- Everything we do is based on
suppressing their interests.
- Wholl take the blame for
whats happening now?
- Wholl accept that lock-ups
and jails are still places of death?
- Heres our chance to be
different, to have a conscience,
- to know the difference between
wrong and right.
- For its that simple. The
rest of the world
- can see this why
- Let me tell a story, a story
close to the bone
- about a white family that was
forced to sell up
- after working the land for a
- leaving it nearly tore them
- Theyd cleared and shaped
the place, it was a portrait
- of themselves, theyd
poured their hearts and souls into it.
- On a summer evening theyd
look out over
- the paddocks, over the burnt
- the stands of mallee, through a
flock of sulphur-crested
- cockatoos, into the rich red
- They left to slaps on the back
- and the words, "Its a
hard place beautiful
- but unforgiving." Their
sorrow was understood.
- They were not hated for their
- But what if this land was them?
- What if this land had invested
its spirit in them?
- What if the land and these
people couldnt be separated,
- were one and the same. That when
- or animal died it grew and died
- That by tearing them apart we
left a dead place,
- a place without spirit,
destroyed the reason for its being.
- Until we face up to what
weve done and are doing,
- until we make moves to put
- well be less than a
people. History for us
- begins with facing up to what we
- Two hundred years back we
thought we had it
- to ourselves. Now, the world is
- The point of the exercise was to
let the world know that newspaper spreads about the beauties of the Australian centre were
just one take on things, distracting from other issues. In many ways, Australia is an
apartheid nation. I recall it being said by a minister of Aboriginal affairs, early in the
Howard government's reign, that there was a positive side to the Stolen Generation
the paternalism of apartheid is there as well. This apartheid is in social attitudes
such as those that led to the burning down of Aboriginal homes one night in a
country town when as a youth I was working on the wheat bins. My protests had me run out
of town shortly after. I was beaten in the pub by a South African on a working holiday who
openly bragged in front of farmers and policeman of shooting "thirty or more Kaffirs
at a waterhole, firing AK47s into the crowd of primarily women and children."
- That was in the early 80s. A
refugee of that shooting, should he or she manage to find some way of getting to
Australia, would very likely be detained and persecuted. The offender drove a truck and
was considered a fine if somewhat wild bloke. A sort of backbone of the bush.
- As a writer I do not always
paint a rosy picture of the Australia I am part of. I believe it is soaked in injustices.
I write of the land and with a fascination for those who work it, but I also write of its
bigotries. Here's an extract from a journal entry from a couple of years ago:
- June 11th, 2001
- 1. Roof Lost in a High Wind
- 2. The Burning of the Hay Stack
- "Laved in flame as in
sacrament..." (Thomas Merton "Elegy for the Monastery Barn")
- 3. Truck Overturned in Fog
- In this third vol of the
Pastoral Trilogy a strong consideration of "alternative" and marginalised spaces
within rural communities. Islamic Katanning. Greek Orthodox. The Italian farming
communities the racist stories I recall from childhood e.g. the red Dodge stabbing
incident. So, indigenous space usurped by the Anglo-Celtic occupation. Then the repelling
by those "settlers" of later migrants a double-pronged occupation and
rejection. The Trial will challenge the hegemony of the empire builders even more
directly than the earlier volumes.
- On Racism and Religious Bigotry
in the WA Wheatbelt.
- e.g. On the Brethren in
Dalwallinu, Cunderdin... by the farmers' (Anglo-Celts!) kids:
- "Own it all."
- "Wives scrawny pasty-faced
stick insects with scarves. Look smug!"
- "Steal trucks from wheat
- "People speak in hushed
- "Everybody else leaves
- "Standover merchants."
- "Steal trucks from the
silos and threaten to put people out of business."
- "One way ticket."
- "No music, newspapers, or
- "Not short of
- "Big expensive cars."
- The wheatbelt is the bastion of
Anglo-Celts resisting "the foreigners". They are also strongly anti-boat people,
anti-Asian etc. Racism is endemic.
- This journal is kept every time
I return to Australia. As a writer, one of the things that has deeply disturbed me is the
lack of action on the part of refugees by Australian writers. Some have been outstanding
in their resistance, such as Eva Sallis and Tom Shapcott, but others, especially those of
non-recent migrant backgrounds, do not make it part of their writerly voice, even if they
are angered in their private lives. I do not know how one can write outside these
injustices, They pervade everything, even when living far away.
- I am not blind to the ironies of
talking of these issues in Britain and the USA, nations themselves guilty of numerous
violations of human rights, even if they pretend and claim otherwise. I feel they should
equally be condemned abroad, and come in for the same scrutiny, in an international
context, as Australian human rights violations. The process works two ways; it embarrasses
nations guilty of malpractice in their tourist and "brotherly/sisterly" markets,
and it creates self-awareness. These are universal problems, compounded, isolated, and
protected by nation. The fear of economic downturn as a result of this embarrassment is
one of the surest ways to bring at least cosmetic change, even if in the short run the
scrutinised and exposed oppressors kick out.
- During the Tampa crisis I sent
an email to an Australian literary discussion group voicing my outrage at the way the
government was behaving. I said that all Australians were morally culpable. In short, I
was attacked aggressively on the list by some members and furthermore actually received
anonymous death threats. Now, this is part of the dialogue that surrounds the national
- Here's some of the exchange,
which I reproduce because it's on the public record:
- Tampa crisis quotes from austlit
- my original email:
- i am looking for support to
condemn and pressure the australian
- government re the refugee
crisis. howard must be stopped, and civil and human rights come through this is a
catastrophe, and another shameful moment in australia's cowardly and shameful history of
'human rights' abuse. there is urgency in this matter, given the plight of those on the
norwegian container ship off christmas island. will people please email me if they wish to
add their support to this protest - i intend to send letters to a number of international
newspapers and human rights organisations. thanks.
- Re: REFUGEES
- Fri, 31 Aug 2001 14:54:27 +0800
- X wrote:
- > Holy Crapola!
- > No Y,
- > I feel very sympathetic
towards the refugees, and as the people >on this list who know me would tell you, I
have a very cynical >view of life.
- > It is my understanding that
Australia has not violated any law, >it's only piracy if the foreign ship is boarded in
- > Y your reluctance to take
up residence elsewhere says it all,
- > doesn't it. Australia IS
the best country in the world, so why are
- > you rubbishing the place
with your rhetoric? Attack Howard, by >all means if you must, but don't denigrate every
man woman >and child in the country with your generalisations about Australians.
- > X
- > >Boy, X must have a
sunny-side up view of life. The post about >>the "American Refugees"
simply showed how ridiculous the >>Australian immigration policy is. And how
selective it is.
- > >
- > >Let's go back to the
current situation. SAS troops boarded the >>Tampa and relieved the Norwegian captain
of his command of >>his vessel an act known as "piracy" elsewhere
but obviously >>not in big, generous Australia. So they provided food and
>>porta-loos to the refugees. The sight of assault rifles slung over >>their
backs as they go round the ship must be very frightening >>for those on board,
particularly the children using those porta->>loos.
- > >
- > >As for expecting the
Indonesian Government to assist, perhaps >>X might like to instruct those
generous SAS troops to invade >>the fourth-most populous nation in the world and
persuade the >>already fractured Government to take back the refugees. The
>>resulting conflict would make the trip to Timor look like an >>outing to a
theme park. All those Australians who are afraid of >>an invasion from the north
would be hiding under their beds.
- > >
- > >As for emigrating, X,
this ashamed Australian tried that about >>five years ago and found I liked it too
much back here to stay >>away for too long. Having seen what a good portion of the
rest >>of the world was like, I knew that home was the best place to be. >>I
brought a "legal immigrant" back with me to share this great >>country and
he agrees with me that this is the place for our >>children to grow up.
- > >
- > >Those who should
emigrate are those with intolerant attitudes
- > >preferably to someplace
like Afghanistan where freedom is
- > >non-existent.
- > >
- > >Y
- best country in the world? what
does this mean? best for whom? not for humanity (or animal life) in general. surely...?
best best best... besting...? cynical or not, it's this kind of stuff that reinforces and
perpetuates the exclusiveness and aggression of nation and nationalism. there are good
writers on this land mass, 'good' for all sorts of reasons', but their being 'australian'
isn't reason enough to celebrate their achievements. anymore than it would be if they were
'american', 'british', 'french', 'japanese', 'indian' etc. as for the SAS - just a bunch
of trained-up killers, however you look at them. military is military. the 'elite' is
supposed to invoke pride? in what?
- the white australia policy rolls
on and on and on, adapting to the times.
- thanks for the support i've
received re a letter of condemnation of the howard government and those supporting its
australia's shame - poem
Sun, 02 Sep 2001 14:05:49 +0800
john kinsella <email@example.com>
- The invasion of boat people
- needs to be contained, the
- tide that needs stemming,
- invasion threatening our
- way of life, pictures just in.
- Media beat-up would have us
- subscribe to the white Australia
- of the turn of last century,
- addicted to the screen.
- 'Detainees' decay behind wire.
- This is God's own country?
- Action. Interest. Addiction.
- We hear and see nothing.
- People-smugglers harness
- wealthier refugees and push
- them through the pipeline.
- What of those left behind?
- The Minister for Immigration
- asks us to ask ourselves
- what right these people
- have to jump the queue.
- It was rumoured today
- that some of these people
- have military training.
- The gun is part of their body.
- Aliens. Cyborgs. Be wary...
- Not of us, our clean country.
- Escaping from Iraq
- sanctioned to death,
- forgotten war - bombed
- with 'our' support;
- from the Taliban in Afghanistan,
- regime we condemn
- when it suits us. The 'elite'
- SAS battening down human cargo
- rescued from a sinking ship,
- watching over our interests.
- TV, speak to me.
- Tampa Tampa Tampa
- They threaten our way of life,
- but I retain distance;
- they threaten the sanctity
- of our neighbourhoods,
- but I retain distance.
- The people speak, we listen.
- The people have spoken, we
- The Holiday Show, destination
- Europe, Asia, the Middle East.
- A tele tradition. Diverse range
- of culinary delights. Chickpeas,
- sesame seeds, tahini,
- Modernity gives us access
- to all languages. 'Legal'
- want 'illegals' kept out.
- Prophecy. Pre-destiny.
- ...and the gold hidden in teeth
- and body cavities is said to
- reception of cellular phones.
- They will form gangs.
- They will challenge hegemony.
- They will bring law suits
- based on high doses of agent
- from forgotten wars.
- They will end up
- with representation
- in parliament.
- Ocean surrounding us,
- we look inwards. The centre
- a lung we want to keep clear.
- Taxpayers. Apologists
- for the Stolen Generation.
- Dissemblers of genocide.
- The Sydney Olympics,
- by jingo!
- Surveys show 101 percent
- support for Government policy:
- Allons, enfants de la patrie
- le jour de gloire est arrive...
- so goes the movie,
- jewel in the crown
- of the Newest Wave.