24 January 2010

Tony Abbott's Australia Day Speech

When I first read about Opposition Leader Tony Abbott's speech to an Australia Day dinner, my impression was he must have inherited John Howard's famous dog whistle. But before writing this blog entry, I thought it might be a good idea to read what he actually said.

News reports like one in the SMH quoting the Green Party spokesperson Senator Hanson-Young seemed to imply that Abbott had resurrected the worst of the Howard era "wedge politics" rhetoric by surreptitiously giving comfort and permission to racism and xenophobia. After reading the actual text, I do not agree.

Considering the temptations the occasion must have offered to an opposition leader with nothing to lose (his chances of winning this year's election are pretty dismal), I thought Abbott showed considerable restraint. The statement that "the inescapable minimum that we insist upon is obedience to the law" is hardly dog-whistling, and I think it is unfair to accuse Abbott of targetting specific ethnic groups by mentioning the off-beam comments of Sheikh Hilaly when seen in the context of what he said next: drawing a parallel with the anti-British views of Cardinal Mannix in the early 20th century, Abbott noted, "There has hardly been a time when there were not some reservations about the loyalty of particular ethnic or religious groups. A generation or two on, all of them have eventually become as Australian as everyone else."

Pointing out that "it's no reflection on boat people that they want to come to Australia", Abbott seemed to be cautioning the crypto-racists in the hardline border protection camp rather than giving them comfort. He very rightly observed that the most important reason for trying to discourage boat arrivals is the serious danger that is posed to the lives of the people attempting the crossing.

One thing that I'm sure upset the Greens was Abbott's rejection of the neo-Malthusian paranoia that dominates their anti-immigration policy. Forty years ago, a doubling of the Australian population would have appeared to these people to be unsustainable. Abbott claims that, while we are now twice as many, we are four times richer.  I don't really trust that sort of bald statistics, but I certainly agree that more long-term damage is done by the politics of neglecting infrastructure development in order to discourage migration, as championed by the misanthropic NSW government of Bob Carr, than by planning for growth in a sustainable and environmentally intelligent way.

As an opposition leader whose best hope is that he will at least still have that job after the next election, Abbott is in the enviable position of being able to criticise without having to come up with any real solutions, and that would be my main criticism of his speech. While deploring the inhumanity of mandatory detention, he offers no alternative. At a time when the government of the country has no coherent policy on how to deal with this problem, it would have been refreshing to hear something different from somebody with nothing much to lose.

13 January 2010

More havoc wrought by the bean counters

If 2009 was the year when all the contradictions of the visa (sorry, education) export industry bubbled to the surface, 2010 looks like being the year of inept attempts to [make it look like the government has a plan to] do something to fix it.

Reading this article in the Australian, I noticed the following piece of bean-counter-speak from a DIAC spokesperson: "migration policy is responsive to economic conditions and labour market needs". The thinking is reactive, short-term, spin-driven. The resulting policy "responses" have been predictably chaotic and, as we are gradually coming to realise, damaging to the country's image internationally. Some examples can be found in a petition being launched one by one migration agency.

I don't want to enter into the debate on whether the brutal murder of Mr Garg and the other attacks on Indian students were motivated by racism or opportunism, though I don't see why the two would be mutually exclusive. I have suggested in the past, however, that there is more to the anger and frustration being shown by overseas students in their response to these events. We are constantly reminded of the $15 billion or so that the industry is worth to the Australian economy, to the point where if I were an overseas student I would be thinking that Australia only sees me as a cash cow, not a person. This is where the responses of the government to the attacks and the way they have implemented the recent policy changes come together.

In both cases, there is a distinct lack of empathy -- if not a blaming of the victims then at least an attitude that they have no right to expect anything better. The murder rate is higher in India, one commentator points out, and the Immigration Minister's attitude to the complaints of people disadvantaged by policy changes has been commented on previously in this blog. "Beggars can't be choosers", a former PM once said about asylum seekers. A similar philosophy underlies the disingenuous claims of the present government that they have never fostered expectations of a "pathway" from student visas to permanent residence. In the recently-stated view of the Senate Education, Employment Workplace Relations Committee, it is all the fault of "some education agents and advisers" that such a perception should exist at all. Before the same Committee, DIAC referred to its Visa Wizard website as a source of information for prospective visa applicants. Try it: tell it that you are interested in a student visa and your intention is to remain in Australia permanently, and you will get a whole list of ways to go about it.

When it comes to the reason for the anger over both the attacks and the policy changes, Senator Evans, Julia Gilliard and the government as a whole just don't get it.