From “The Last Refuge of the Un-Australian” by Tony Birch:
“Recently, when a Pakistani migrant who had been granted permanent Australian residency in 1996 set himself on fire outside the federal parliament, as a result of his unsuccessful application to the Immigration Department to have his wife and child join him here, the Immigration Minister, Phillip Ruddock stated ‘it’s [self-immolation] not something we are used to or experienced with… sadly he sought to do so.’
“This man had done something that was very ‘un-Australian’. He had publicly expressed his grief and anguish at his treatment at the hands of Australian government officials. He had raised an issue that might tap away at all of those clichés of national foundation and celebration. It is not only ‘un-Australian’ to be, through experience, a whistle-blower against nation-building mythology. Simply ‘to be’ one of those who have been abused by the Australian nation is to be ‘un-Australian’.
“It is also ‘un-Australian’ to intern people without trial for up to four years, to subject people to months of isolation in solitary confinement. It is ‘un-Australian’ to remove those people to remote parts of the country where they cannot be visited by family or friends, to where the activities of the multi-national company that profits from their incarceration cannot be scrutinised by the media or the imprisoned’s legal representatives. It would be ‘un-Australian’ in the extreme to use water cannon, tear gas and truncheons against people imprisoned without trial, who are rightfully protesting about the abuse of their human rights.
“I cannot, as a trained historian, state this with empirical certainty, but it is a mathematical probability that it is ‘un-Australian’ to disparage and devalue the worth and lives of refugees by claiming, without evidence, that many of them ‘may be’ associated with ‘terrorists’. Likewise, the propagandist need to focus more closely on the supposed threat that the approximately 8,000 ‘illegal’ arrivals in the last ten years post to ‘our way of life’ rather than overturn a policy that contributed to more than 350 people drowning trying to get here in just one year (1999), is somewhat ‘un-Australian’ I would think.
“But of course the representatives of the Australian people, the federal government, engage in such behaviour on a daily basis. To ensure that such practices are not perceived as ‘un-Australian’ we not only transfer refugees to remote areas of the country, we un-people those who arrive here by reconfiguring them as ‘the ungrateful’, ‘the terrorist’, ‘the queue-jumper’ and legally as ‘the non-person’. ‘We’ can then protect Australia and ‘our way of life’ against the alien invader as ‘we’ did against ‘the Aborigines’ in the past, because they failed to adhere to the doctrine of terra nullius by unpatriotically refusing to reclassify themselves as ‘non-people’, in claiming their rights and identity as indigenous people.
“The Department of Immigration lists 37 countries that it regards as a threat to Australia, in that visitors who arrive from these countries, by boat or otherwise, are regarded as the most ‘at risk for overstaying their visa’. The countries listed include Bangladesh, Chile, India, Poland, Samoa and Vietnam. Most are non-white and none are Anglo or English speaking (as a first language). And yet approximately 20 per cent of arrivals to Australia who overstay their visas are British. There is no mention of Britain in the blacklisted countries. Nor do we see the fair skin of the backpacker behind the barbed-wire of the detention camps…
“We have a situation in Australia today where we are witnessing the human rights abuses of many people. Aboriginal people continue to be abused as a result of the crimes committed by white Australia both in the past and contemporary society. The abusive treatment of refugees is similar to the treatment of Aboriginal people in the country in that they pose a threat which, more than being based on any material manifestation, either real or imagined, is a threat to a way of life erected on xenophobia, selfishness and a fear of difference.
“We must transform the culture of Australian life by screaming to our politicians that such an idea is genuinely un-Australian and that we will not tolerate it. And we must do this beyond the act of the political gesture. Activism can be a loaded word, but still, to be active in some way, to speak, to write, to march, to protest, to be angry and to put that anger into expression and action is a suitably un-Australian idea at this time.”
This was written… wait for it… in April 2001. More than ten years ago and, indeed, before the September 11 attacks, and nothing has changed. Being young and naïve, I didn’t realise there was as strong an anti-Muslim culture as there is today, just over ten years on. And it’s appalling to have it made aware that Birch’s words are just as poignant today as they were a decade ago.