Friday, August 6, 2010

We have ceded control to bigotry and intolerance

[From July 6th 2010]

When Julia Gillard rolled Kevin Rudd for the Prime Ministership in a sudden and hasty coup, many bemoaned that democratic control had been ceded to faceless ALP machine men. But this political power was not ours, as the people, to cede. It has for quite some time belonged to the fickle voters of Western Sydney, and similar demographics around the country, who John Howard, Rudd, and now Gillard feel they must court in order to secure re-election.

Howard’s Battlers felt they could no longer trust their man in 2007 and flocked to Kevin07. In 2010 their support for Labor has evaporated and Gillard is betting they can be wooed back through appeasement on asylum seekers and population policy.

Battlers are inherently self-interested. Their imperative is to improve their own lot, to preface the concerns of themselves and their family above all others. That’s not unexpected and it’s not entirely unreasonable. But it does not make them well placed to advise on the issue of asylum seekers. Or to use the correct term, refugees. Which is why it is so bizarre to see such alarmism from people hardly affected by the mere handful of refugees who arrive on our shores thousands of kilometres away.

It’s even more bizarre, then, that they are managing to control the agenda. It is an indication of how woeful and cowardly this government has been in failing to use its significant political capital to change peoples’ minds on the issue. Rudd was too scared to make the arguments, too frightened to point fingers at the media, and now Gillard is capitulating entirely to the very hatred and fear-mongering she claimed not to tolerate.

There have been two themes to Gillard’s rhetoric; that she understands Australians who fear boat arrivals, and that desiring strong border protection isn’t racist or intolerant. These have also been the resonant themes of her comments on population and the so-called “Big Australia”, which were explicitly pitched at Western Sydney voters.

I accept that there can be intellectual, economic arguments against higher immigration. I also accept that there is a case to be prosecuted against people smuggling, and that vulnerable people crossing the high seas in old boats is sub-optimal. But let’s call a spade a spade – those are not the arguments being made.

Julia Gillard must know that it is xenophobia which informs the views of those she is desperately trying to impress. There is a palpable fear of black faces arriving on boats, a fear which David Marr notes has been present since community polling on the issue began over 30 years ago. Make no mistake, it is racism. Those who pretend otherwise are either liars, or trying to get elected.

Gillard said she wanted a debate based around the facts – the most notable of which is that just 3500 people, many women and children, have arrived at our border seeking refuge this year. It is negligible, compared with the number of migrants accepted by plane each year and compared with our population as a whole. An examination of the facts leaves only one conclusion –the popular hysteria arises purely from fear and ignorance, and not at all from measured consideration.

Why won’t the government point out the facts? Why won’t it attack the media for whacking asylum articles on Page 1, and using the pejorative “boat people”? Given how distrusted the mainstream media is, that shouldn’t be a difficult argument to level. Yet the hyperbole continues.

There are so many mystifying questions in this embarrassing and unnecessary ‘debate’. Most of them can be answered fairly simply: there are just too many racists out there. Gillard isn’t, but her new approach is morally problematic in two major ways.

Firstly, she has publically excused and legitimized racism by declaring that those who want to turn away or sink the boats merely desire strong, clear policy. This is a technique straight out of Howard’s “relaxed and comfortable” routine. It is particularly infuriating to see the real xenophobes now re-energised and reassured by the comments of the PM.

Secondly, by signalling that these policy shifts are borne of her sympathy for voters in Western Sydney and the like, Gillard is typecasting these electorates as anti-population, anti-immigration and anti-refugee. I don’t think that’s a helpful characterisation, and I know many who are appalled and offended at being lumped in to this small-town stereotype.

The question of refugees is such a powerful test of leadership that, on this alone, Gillard is undeserving of the prime ministership. Unfortunately, the man seeking to replace her is a marginally worse alternative.

As for those of us with understanding, compassion, and a respect for international law, we increasingly find ourselves unrepresented by the major political parties. It is a terrible loss for those with progressive and humanitarian views. But the biggest losers, of course, are the refugees.

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