26 June 2012

Disinterest, fear or memory? Three ways of looking at asylum seekers

Former Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone made her position crystal clear on the ABC's political talk show The Drum. Asylum seekers who take it upon themselves to come knocking on our door, as is their right under international law, should never be allowed permanent residence in Australia, nor should they ever be allowed to bring their families to join them. That way they will be discouraged from the attempt and will then, well, who cares what they do then?

Vanstone subscribes to the "out of sight, out of the headlines" school when it comes to the asylum seeker issue. Just stop them getting here, and the problem is solved. Where they might go, or stay, is no concern of ours.

Australia's delegate to a world conference on refugees in 1938 famously said that Australia had no racial problem, and "was not desirous of importing one". These words are now recorded, to our country's eternal shame, on the wall of the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem. Yet there is little difference between the views expressed by the delegate, Thomas W. White, and Vanstone's. Just keep the problem away from us, over the sea wall, out of sight, and for us there is no problem.

Another participant in the show was Jennifer Hewett, a columnist with the Australian Financial Review. Hewett gave voice to the floodgates school of thought, worrying to the point of panic about where would it all end if we just keep letting them in? This school is yet to explain why Australia has not already been flooded by millions of better-life-seekers from nearby countries like Indonesia and the Philippines. It's hard to be rational when you are trembling in a corner.

Fortunately I stayed watching the ABC that night and got to hear Louise Adler on Q and A. Her mother was a refugee who slipped past the old guard in T. W. White's time. She took both the ALP and the Coalition to task by pointing out that the problem is an international one that should not be beyond the intellectual capacity of out leaders to address intelligently.

Three Australian women's consciences revealed: Vanstone doesn't have one, Hewett might but has let it be silenced by irrational fear, Adler remembers that who we are as a people is measured by how we treat others.