Refugees and Australia
This lecture was given in Canberra in June 2003 on behalf of "A Just Australia" campaign supporting refugees in Australia.
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 Beasley 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 him".
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 border...!
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 - is 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 though 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 invasions.
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 unwanted out.
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 cliché, 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 changed.
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 fields.
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-à-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 Douglas's 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 "othering".
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 People of AustraliaThe 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."
It's the great excuse — it wasn't us, you can't blame
us for what happened two hundred, a hundred
and fifty, or even a hundred years ago.
We didn't hunt them down and remove their children.
We didn't come in and take the place.
But in truth, that's what we're doing — all over again.
Everything we do is based on suppressing their interests.
Who'll take the blame for what's happening now?
Who'll accept that lock-ups and jails are still places of death?
Here's our chance to be different, to have a conscience,
to know the difference between wrong and right.
For it's that simple. The rest of the world
can see this — why can't we?
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 hundred years —
leaving it nearly tore them apart.
They'd cleared and shaped the place, it was a portrait
of themselves, they'd poured their hearts and souls into it.
On a summer evening they'd look out over
the paddocks, over the burnt stubble, over
the stands of mallee, through a flock of sulphur-crested
cockatoos, into the rich red sunset.
They left to slaps on the back and sympathy
and the words, "It's a hard place — beautiful
but unforgiving." Their sorrow was understood.
They were not hated for their loss.
But what if this land was them?
What if this land had invested its spirit in them?
What if the land and these people couldn't be separated,
were one and the same. That when plant grew
or animal died it grew and died in them.
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 we've done and are doing,
until we make moves to put things right,
we'll be less than a people. History for us
begins with facing up to what we are.
Two hundred years back we thought we had it
to ourselves. Now, the world is watching.
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 11, 2001This 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.
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 bins."
"People speak in hushed voices."
"Everybody else leaves town."
"Steal trucks from the silos and threaten to put people out of business."
"One way ticket."
"No music, newspapers, or radios!"
"Not short of money,,,"
"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.
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 literature.
Here's some of the exchange, which I reproduce because it's on the public record:
Tampa crisis quotes from austlit list:
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.
Date: Fri, 31 Aug 2001 14:54:27 +0800
> 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
> It is my understanding that Australia has not violated any law,
>it's only piracy if the foreign ship is boarded in international waters.
> 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.
> >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-
> >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
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 present stance.
Subject: australia's shame - poem
Date: Sun, 02 Sep 2001 14:05:49 +0800
The invasion of boat people
needs to be contained, the flood,
tide that needs stemming,
invasion threatening our
way of life, pictures just in.
Media beat-up would have us
subscribe to the white Australia policy
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.
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 listened.
The Holiday Show, destination
Europe, Asia, the Middle East.
A tele tradition. Diverse range
of culinary delights. Chickpeas,
sesame seeds, tahini, babaganoush.
Modernity gives us access
to all languages. 'Legal' migrants
want 'illegals' kept out.
...and the gold hidden in teeth
and body cavities is said to affect
reception of cellular phones.
They will form gangs.
They will challenge hegemony.
They will bring law suits
based on high doses of agent orange
from forgotten wars.
They will end up
Ocean surrounding us,
we look inwards. The centre
a lung we want to keep clear.
for the Stolen Generation.
Dissemblers of genocide.
The Sydney Olympics,
Surveys show 101 percent
support for Government policy:
Allons, enfants de la patrie
le jour de gloire est arrivé...
so goes the movie,
jewel in the crown
of the Newest Wave.
By way of conclusion, I just want to mention something about my recent re-entry into Australia. Laden down with baggage, a sick daughter and a five-month-old child, my wife and I asked staff for help with our baggage as we had been advised to do by airline staff. It was evident that we were returning to Australia having lived overseas, having betrayed nation by taking our services and expertise elsewhere, or more bluntly, for leaving the family and its controls. I have time and time again been treated with suspicion in a way that doesn't happen if you merely go on an overseas vacation. Two Qantas hands busied themselves telling us why we didn't need help - were surly, even offensive. The airport was empty by the time we managed to move and they watched on, saying, "we have to be available to help people who have greater need." I was so angry, so worn out with well over thirty hours without sleep, with a plane journey marked by a reluctance of Australians to help out, that I said, "I hate this country". Things ground to a halt, and every worker within earshot stared at us with contempt. It was a frightening moment.
Of course, everything was then gone through with a fine-toothed comb in Customs. This didn't worry me, I am used to it. The point is, if Australians treat those of us who live elsewhere with such contempt in that quasi-official way, it is barely imaginable what psychological trauma refugees must suffer for their incursion into the family of nation. In these staff, I could see my primary school, and all the other witnessings I've made in my life. It terrifies me. It is a terror casually as well as officially inflicted on "outsiders" and interlopers on a regular basis. It is one of the many tyrannies of nation.