The More Things Change, The More They Stay the Same.

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.

Related: Melbourne Writers’ Festival: Beyond White Guilt.

My Response: Go Back to Where You Came From.

September 11, 10 Years On.

Cowboys VS. Aliens & Indians… Does it Really Matter? They’re All the Same Anyway, According to the New Movie.

Elsewhere: [New York Magazine] 9/11 Encyclopedia: Xenophobia.

Event: Melbourne Writers’ Festival—Beyond White Guilt.

The final day of the Melbourne Writers’ Festival brought Beyond White Guilt, taken from the name of author Sarah Maddison’s Beyond White Guilt: The Real Challenge for Black-White Relations in Australia and hosted by Tony Birch.

Maddison and Birch spoke about the crux of Maddison’s book, published in June—guilt and shame—and how they can both be “deeply personal experiences” in the way we look at race relations in Australia.

The absence or a certain “whitewashing” of black history in Australia can induce guilt, a feeling of “sick” and “anxiety”, and can “immobilise” us in striving for a more equal Australia.

On this, Birch spoke about being honoured by the Victorian East Timorese community* for doing not a whole lot other than sitting in front of the TV and thinking, “how awful”.

I think a lot of Australians feel this way, whether it be watching World Vision ads on TV, seeing homeless people begging in the street, or watching boats crash and people perish as they try to seek asylum in Australia (although, from the barrage of “fuck off, we’re full” jibes in response to that tragedy, perhaps it is the minority of Australians).

Maddison spoke of Australia’s roots as “a land of people who dig stuff up and chop stuff down”; an “Aussie battler” sentimentality, if you will. And I think that mentality lends itself to the bigotry we express towards the “other”, ie. people trying to get a “free ride” as asylum seekers, the poor and Indigenous on welfare, the homeless, the disabled, etc.

Unfortunately, when this kind of attitude rears its ugly head, such as in the Redfern and Cronulla riots, and the inaugural Indigenous protesting of Australia Day in 1988, as Maddison mentioned, it usually pits “true blue Aussies” against un-Australians. (Birch wrote a 2001 article entitled “The Last Refuge of the Un-Australian”, which is available for download from the University of Melbourne’s website.)

Whichever way you put it, none of us are truly happy with our country. Lefties abhor the way our environmental and human rights sensibilities are heading, whilst conservatives want to stop the boats, abortions, taxing the rich etc. One thing I think we all can agree on, as Maddison noted, is that our current government sucks.

Birch asked, “How are we going to love our country wholly?” An Aboriginal elder in the audience suggested Maddison’s book become compulsory reading for all Australians as a solution. One thing’s for sure: like feminism, we’ve got a long, long way to go, baby.

*Updated 09/09/11: The original version of this post cited Birch as being honoured by a Papua New Guinean community. In actual fact, it was the East Timorese community of Victoria.

Related: Cowboys VS. Aliens & Indians… Does It Really Matter? They’re All the Same Anyway, According to the New Movie.

My Response: Go Back to Where You Came From.

It’s Not Easy Being Green: The Latest Trend in Discrimination.

Melbourne Writers’ Festival: A Long, Long Way to Go—Why We Still Need Feminism.