This essay was written for a UWA History Unit in September 2001, so soon after September 11 that I referred to those events in their long format. I actually haven't had to change a word to publish it twelve years later, which is a sad state of affairs for Australian narrative on refugees.
In the current affairs of Australia in the last month a fascinating example of metaphor and narrative has surfaced. The Tampa Affair alone could have been a watershed in the development of the Australian multicultural psyche if not for the tragic World Trade Centre and Pentagon attacks and the resulting USA focus on Afghanistan. In its nearly two weeks alone on the Australian stage, however, the Tampa Affair brought to light some very interesting ‘truths’ in Australian public opinion and illuminated some of the intrinsically Australian metaphors and narratives regarding our presence on these shores and how racially tolerant we really are. As my references for this essay I am using the letters to the editor of The West Australian newspaper. I have read all the letters from the start of the standoff until the 11th of September when the World Trade Centre collapsed and the Afghan refugees on the Tampa became part of a much bigger and potentially troubling picture.
As a ‘multicultural’ country, Australia has a population of the peoples of the world, but is governed by an identifiably Christian, Capitalist, Anglo-Saxon power class. So while we should be a country that can claim fellowship with the world as we contain many representatives of that world, we instead are very clearly ruled by the ‘truths’ of our governing class. In reading the letters to the editor I was able to identify certain prevalent themes that ran through the arguments on all sides. These themes can be directly linked to metaphors and narratives from within Australian society and especially from the governing class. For ease of reference I will list the main themes so that I can refer to them later in the essay. The themes are ‘charity at home’, ‘White Australia Policy’, ‘invasion by others’, ‘do-gooders’, ‘legal solution’, ‘return to sender’, ‘independent nation’ and ‘political stunt’. For this essay I have deliberated on how I am to refer to the people who seek to cross Australian borders, including of course those 450 people on the Tampa. I am what the writers in letters to the editor might call a ‘do-gooder’ and so I regard these people as refugees and asylum seekers and not as illegal immigrants with all the connotations of that label. And so I will refers to these people, genuine or not, as refugees.
The problem with refugees is that in seeking to penetrate the borders of Australia, they are threatening the Anglo-Saxon power class’ right of ownership of the land their forebears colonised. Now this metaphor of the ‘invading other’, dating from the days of the ‘Red Peril’, is utilised to produce the unifying effect of ‘us and them’. I think the most evocative of the quotes that brings this metaphor to our attention is from A Cameron (29/8) ‘Do we then, down the track, have to fight for the State of Western Australia because they have become so numerous that they want to take our land from us?’ A perfect example of a metaphorical Australia suitably assumed uninhabited to allow European explorers absolute ownership of the land, yet allowing an influx of new settlers are portrayed as invaders. This idea is an example of the absolute narrative of the capitalist ownership of that which it exploits and has tamed. R W Corfield (1/9) observes, further, that ‘no matter how the current crisis is ended, the need to enforce our sovereignty is overdue.’ As a nation, Corfield proposes that we take steps to make sure this usurpation of our ownership and border rights by the ‘invading other’ is discouraged. As a counterpoint to this argument for the absolute ownership of land borders is the idea of Australia as a decent global citizen. One commentator observed that as a compassionate nation the refugees were perhaps attempting to intimidate us by our own decency, a decency that leads people like J Williams (3/9) to assert that ‘we have a saying: possession is nine-tenths of the law. The human cargo of the Tampa is in Australia’s possession. Thus we are nine-tenths responsible for them.’ Williams is using the narrative of ownership of the land and the sea as proof the refugees should allowed into Australia, quite a different proposition to Corfield and Cameron.
Another interesting aspect of the entire affair is what may be called the 'Tony Bullimore / Afghan / Zimbabwean triangle of equality'. R Laslett (3/9) asks ‘what would you do for 450 Tony Bullimores or 450 white Zimbabwean farmers desperate to save their kin from butchery?’ This question sums up the hypocrisy of the ‘White Australia Policy’ attitude to immigration neatly. Tony Bullimore was one of us and the Zimbabwean farmers can become one of us, but R Pomfret (24/8), who was attacking the government for not giving Zimbabwean farmers priority entrance, argued that we are refusing our ‘own kith and kin entry while giving sanction to entry at a moments notice to people who come from God knows where.’ That this is a clearly racist attitude to immigrants cannot be argued, and it is still expressed because the power class that dominates Australian society is still Anglo-Saxon as in the time of the ‘White Australia Policy’. This argument for a ‘White Australia’ attitude has taken an almost prescient turn with J McPhee’s (31/8) question ‘what will be our internal situation if Australia should find itself in conflict with any of the countries that our ethnic communities identify with?’ With the USA’s current focus on Afghanistan in the wake of the terrorist bombings, the pressure is showing in Australian society between those that can be identified as Muslims and non-Muslims. No matter how the USA resolves its revenge, Australia’s multicultural narrative is being picked apart. The Soccer Australia incident and the rash of suspected racially motivated rapes in Sydney are but warning signs of the fault lines nations of mixed cultures historically manifest. In their letters C J Fernandes (31/8) and V Brady (30/8) drew parallels between colonisation, invasion and the influx of refugees, proposing that this flood of refugees around the world is a product of colonisation and a backlash against it, the colonised are recolonising, with all the social upheaval so inherent in the concept of colonisation.
T Scott-Morey (3/9) makes an interesting claim in that ‘the only people unhappy with this solution [the Tampa refugees going elsewhere] would be the people who thought they could pay $10,000 for an easy life in Australia … These people are not asylum seekers, they are fortune seekers.’ Of course, this argument has two sides. In the capitalist narrative these people have indeed paid money for a life that allows them more wealth and provided that they have suitable training, no language difficulties and financial backing, they have benefited from coming to Australia. Yet in the humanitarian narrative they are simply looking for a safe haven and have saved their money to go to a country that will offer them shelter, a country in which they are almost certainly destined for a lifestyle that would be far below the host country’s accepted standard. R Laslett (3/9) conjured up a distinctly Christian idea of acceptance within a Christian narrative that predominantly seems to be seeking to rule out Muslim immigrants with ‘let him who thinks he deserves vastly superior wealth and comfort sink the first refugee’. C Ward (5/9) has an interesting point when she addresses the refugees, saying ‘if you had been accepted as refugees and allowed to stay, no matter how long you would have lived here or how hard you worked and contributed to our society, you would never have been accepted by the majority and you would have been resented … The small element of people who try to make a difference are labelled as do-gooders and bleeding hearts. Those who speak out are ridiculed.’ The hard facts of life in a different land and culture detracts from Scott-Morey’s argument.
There is an argument from F Mason (30/8) and others asking those ‘do-gooders’ who wish to admit the refugees ‘how many homeless Australians or sick strangers have you invited in your homes recently?’ using the classic ‘charity at home’ narrative. Mason implies that if you do not practise such charities on a personal level why should these same ‘do-gooders’ impose it on a national level. This argument and others from people such as I Crimp (31/8), ‘more economic refugees be allowed in and given the very dollar that could have been spent on the sick and aged in Australia’ and J Griffiths (30/8), ‘you could be building badly needed hospitals now instead of reception centres’, ring false as our politicians sell off the obvious wealth of the nation and implement ineffective policies. The narrative of Australians making good in the land of the ‘fair go’ leads to many of the complaints against the refugees. The refugees are portrayed as queue jumpers displacing those who have waited lawfully for entrance to Australia. While this is an argument for a fair go for everyone trying to get into Australia, are there those who are in fact acceptable queue jumpers? Perhaps Pomfret’s desperate Zimbabwean kith and kin? C and L Annoni (30/8) have an even more insidious plan for refugees caught queue jumping. Rather than simply turning them away the government should be ‘keeping them offshore and repatriating them immediately.’ This is a mentality of ‘return to sender’ that simply keeps the refugee flood moving on with no attempt to alleviate some of the pressure, paying an insult to global citizenship.
With a typical Australian distrust of institutionalised power, public opinion on the legal, international and political ramifications of the Tampa Affair are equated by D Coates (5/9) with subversive lawyers, clerics and migrant organizations forming a fifth column. Once again I am mindful of different rules for different situations, the lawyers are attacked for fighting for what they see as human rights, for according to B Wood (4/9) ‘now we have a handful of self-serving lawyers hijacking the country against the wishes of the majority.’ Yet I am sure Wood would not stir a finger if those same lawyers were to chase Brian Toomey for every last cent of Ansett entitlements. G Mascord (7/9) goes so far as to question the validity of the lawyers right to challenge the politicians on the matter of the Tampa, ‘I can’t recall being given the option to vote for the Law Society.’ Yet Australians have a profound distrust of our elected statesmen and at any other time would welcome a challenge to our politicians’ powers. V Brady (30/8) has articulated clearly why many of the writers to the letters to the editor believe that the Howard government had taken a leaf from Pauline Hanson’s book to gain the ‘votes [gained] in whipping up hostility to ‘foreigners’ and promoting myths of thousands waiting to descend on Australia, or even invade us.’ As for Australia being a good global citizen, P J Doody (30/8) believes that the international community has its own problems to deal with without looking over our shoulders. If this is the case then we should be careful not to do something the could be seen to tarnish our global reputation for citizenship, so as not to have the shame of another UN inquiry into our track record as was threatened in the issue of the Stolen Generation.
This limited survey of Western Australian opinions published in The West Australian has never the less allowed for a study on how ideology addresses those inside it and creates metaphors and narratives that shape the reality of public reactions to highly charged situations. While the solution to the Tampa Affair is still to be implemented successfully, the conflict between borders and global citizenship has been somewhat blunted while the cracks in the ‘multicultural’ façade of Australian society are on show, again.
For further reading, Julian Burnside.
And my own writing on Australian Politics.