By Jingo, It’s Time for Common Sense

by 8 Degrees of Latitude

BOAT PEOPLE

There’s a streak of jingoism in Australia that irritates many people, including, let it be said, large numbers of Australians. It gets in the way of common sense and stymies the requirement to deal with reality. It’s a political and social phenomenon born of residual colonial cringe, earlier isolation and boastful over-pride, all now overlaid with nationalist perceptions that the world’s largest inhabited island (or smallest continent: take your pick) is some sort of very special biosphere.

It is found broadly, in various forms, across the social and political spectrum. A constant refrain at all levels is that Australia is the best country in the world, but when this claim is tested – on the norms – it is at least arguable. This is reflected in schoolyard-style national pride that defines sporting teams and lots of other people who are just doing their jobs as heroes, another disastrously devalued term.  At that level, national life is frankly infantile.

In politics jingoism is a distressing commonplace. For all its proclamations that it is now a modern social-democratic outfit (excepting a few recent distractions that the Prime Minister would really prefer we didn’t talk about) the Australian Labor Party persists in worshipping totemic symbols whose utility is lost forever in a distant past. The Liberal Party often seems very far from liberal, as in sentient and open; though less so about economic issues, on which it is rational, than on social policy where sections of the party seem intent on reinventing the past. The Nationals remain a proto-rural rump, still looking for uneconomic handouts. The Australian Greens are condemned to the sidelines of politics unless they can cobble together an economic policy that wouldn’t simply ruin the country (perhaps senator-elect Peter Whish-Wilson, Tasmanian replacement for Bob Brown who will shortly be just an ordinary Earthian, can help lead them out of that thicket). None of the other minor parties effectively matter; not even the Cool Katters, who are anything but.

And it is in this context that Tony Abbott’s speech to the Institute of Public Affairs in Melbourne on April 27 needs to be viewed. John Howard was incontrovertibly correct when he stated in 2001 that Australians “will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.” Clearly any national state has that right. But Howard was wrong – morally, ethically and in the end politically – in what he intended that decision and those circumstances would be.

Boat people – it’s such a pejorative term, a weasel-word propaganda tool – are not criminals; they are protected under international agreements to which Australia is properly a signatory. They are entitled to lawful processing and treatment if they arrive (and that doesn’t mean being locked away in remote detention centres or being shipped to Nauru or Malaysia). And despite the “300 boats since Labor came to office” – five years ago: 60 boats a year, five boats a month, statistically one a week – that the opposition leader shouts about, they are very far from being a flood.

Many more people apparently intent on evading Australian migration law arrive by air, on scheduled airline flights.

Figures for 2010 indicate there are around 13 times more illegal immigrants than there are asylum seekers in detention who have arrived by boat.

The data, obtained by an Australian newspaper from the Immigration Department under the Freedom of Information Act, showed arrivals in 2010 by air from the United States (5,080) and Britain (3,610) were near the top of the list of those in the country without a valid visa. China (8,070) topped the list and Malaysia (4,200) came in third.

In 2010, on the official figures reluctantly released by the government, there were 4,446 detained boat people. The largest national grouping was people from Afghanistan (1,422).  Given that Afghanistan’s ethnic rivalries won’t cease any time soon (Who’d be a Hazara? Does Abbott even understand The Kite Runner?) and the country’s threatened non-political elites will continue to view migration as their best option, that figure is likely to increase.

In 2010, a total of 58,400 foreigners overstayed their Australian visas; they were people who had entered Australia on tourist or holiday-working visas. One in seven arrived as students and one in 15 was not heard from again after being granted temporary residency. But in 2010 only 6,720 people who overstayed their visas were sent home, most of them voluntarily, after applications to stay longer were rejected.

Abbott’s flood is in fact a trickle. The 4,446 detainees in the 2010 data are a minuscule 0.02 percent of the lawfully resident Australian population. The 58,400 people who overstayed their visas, about whom Australian political leaders are apparently not in any flux of distress, aren’t a flood either – they represent only 0.26 percent of the resident population – but they’re 10 times the problem “boat people” are.

We could presume on that basis that Abbott didn’t know what he was talking about in his IPA speech. It certainly sounded as if he had mistaken the Arafura and Timor seas for the Rio Grande and northern Australia for Texas. But that would be unfair. He’s a bright chap. So we must assume that when he promised prime ministerial fleet-footedness in defence of national interests under critical threat he actually knew what he was saying.

Did he know what he was doing, however? There, the answer is more elusive. On one hand, you’d hope that he did, since he’s running for prime minister. On the other, given what he’d said, you’d hope that he didn’t, because it was vote-seeking, jingoistic rubbish.

He was banging a political, if not a populist, drum; he was not enunciating sensible policy. Abbott said (among other things on his list of unlikely first-foot-under-the-desk achievements) that he would order the navy to turn boats around. (He had several caveats on that putative order, which at least indicates he may know he’d be grasping a very painful nettle.) He would visit Indonesia to make it plain that Australians viewed boat people whose port of embarkation was in Indonesia with as much distaste as Indonesians viewed Australians who peddled drugs in Bali. Peddling drugs is a crime, as is boarding an unauthorised boat in Indonesia. But trying to reach Australia in a leaky, unsafe boat is not a crime. It is too often – sickeningly often – a fatal misadventure.

In any case, Abbott would get at best a polite hearing on the issue in Jakarta where the political realities are somewhat different.  Indonesia’s interest lies in getting unauthorised arrivals to move on. So-called boat people matter very little to the government in Jakarta, since they have arrived in Indonesia planning to do so and to become Australia’s problem instead.

And at the administrative level, removing the impact of Indonesia’s money buys anything bribe culture, so far as it relates to facilitating the onward passage of unauthorised arrivals Indonesia doesn’t want and cannot accommodate, requires a rather longer term view than apparently suits Abbott.  Further, the Indonesians have already made clear their distinct ambivalence towards Abbott’s excursion into Flashman territory on the boat people.

It might be true – though the point is arguable and substantially untested beyond anecdotal evidence – that most Australians regard so-called queue-jumpers, “illegal” arrivals, and specifically “boat people” with unequivocal distaste. The cost of processing and supporting refugees who arrive outside the parameters of Australia’s formal immigration programme is substantial, particularly at a time when even the most inattentive Australian has worked out that money is after all a finite resource.  But it would probably cost substantially less if processing were done in Australia under rules that ensured people did not spend months locked up in quasi-prisons, rather than overseas, the preferred out-of-sight, out-of-mind option of both sides of politics.

The revived Nauru option, flagged by Abbott in his IPA speech as a live proposal if he were to become prime minister, effectively would bribe a foreign country (albeit a tiny Pacific Ocean outcrop with no economic future) to become a prison island. This is a sorry excuse for policy and immoral to boot, at a distressingly fundamental level. (The same can be said about Labor’s so-called Malaysia Solution.)

Australians need to take a reality check. Politicians beat up the issue of unauthorised arrivals in ways that encourage the quite erroneous view that the country is being swamped by illegal and politically suspect people. They are playing to the gallery. The overwhelming majority of Australians are not racist in the formal sense of the term. But many Australians take national pride to jingoistic levels encouraged by politicians in office and politicians seeking office – though this may not be their intent – and by discordant national cheerleaders who declare that the country is open only to the Chosen.