Monday, July 4, 2011

first and latest australians

Having just watched Go Back to Where You Came From I felt the need for something positive and uplifting, and can't imagine anything more appropriate than this anthem from Whispering Jack.

Finally found Go Back to Where You Came From online.

The impact of the documentary

I can't say this documentary changed my own attitude to the 'boat people' issue except in one way: - I'm now not convinced there is anything we can do to deter asylum seekers from travelling by boat. The people most likely to get on a boat obviously will not "know" what government policy is towards people arriving boats, no matter what the policy.

Any claims by Gillard or Abbott that any policy can send clear messages, or leave people smugglers without a product to sell are fantasy.

The participants

I am disappointed that so many people commenting on the documentary reduced it to personalities, as if they were judges on some stupid reality program where people are voted off every week.

But, given some of the simplistic and rude comments people leave on YouTube about emotional issues, this response is no surprise.

The idea behind the program was to give the participants a chance to come to more informed conclusions than might otherwise be the case.

I think it achieved this goal.


Raquel did not deserve the comments she got so early in the series. She deserves credit for being so honest. She deserves credit for showing, right from the start, that she has that trait I so much admire about Australians – she was happy to like or dislike people for their values.

The worst form of racism is that which assumes some people are superior or worth more based on their genetic or ethnic background. Raquel never showed that attitude, she simply saw African people as different. She worried about being rude or offensive when given a meal she didn’t like, and she wouldn’t have worried about this if she thought Africans were inferior.

It became obvious, quite early, that she was confronted by what she saw and heard, she was always capable of empathy, and she was feeling overwhelmed by the scale of what she saw. Had she changed her mind too quickly or not tested her initial beliefs no one would have accepted that her growth was real.

Of all the participants, she was the one who showed the greatest moral courage when admitting her mistakes.

I take my hat off to Raquel.


Darren was neither a racist nor an advocate for a white Australia Policy. His two primary objections were to people who come here without papers, and people travelling without their families.

Given that his wife is Thai, he and his wife have probably spent years battling bureaucracy to provide some kind of certainty about their future together. Of course he is going to resent queue jumpers.

By the end of the series, he still remained convinced that men should not leave their families behind, and that children should not be put on boats. His strong feelings about how to show responsibility for family do not mean he is against people seeking asylum.

When Darren spoke about people staying where they are safe [e.g. Malaysia] rather than getting on boats, I don’t for a minute think he was pretending the situation in Malaysia is ideal. Darren is a military man, and although Malaysia is not great, he might well have been comparing today with Vietnam. After the fall of Saigon, for many people the boat option was simpler to assess: Stay and definitely be shot, or get on a boat and take your chances with starvation, drowning and pirates.

New news?

Peter Mares 2001 book Borderline set out quite clearly some basic issues relating to asylum seekers, so let me clarify what I had already accepted before watching Go Back.


People who are trying to escape oppression do not always have time to organise papers, or cannot afford to be caught with papers. Accepted.

Proper channels

There is not always an embassy or a UN post people can go to if they want to apply through proper channels. Even if there were, people trying to escape oppression cannot afford to be seen going to such places. Accepted.

Country of first refuge

For some people trying to flee oppression, Australia is [officially] the country of first refuge. Accepted.

What I don’t accept is that this means there is no queue.

UN conventions

They exist, they are important and we have signed them. Accepted.


This is where Mares lost me. I do accept and understand that uncertainty is unhealthy, but at some point we need to think in relative terms.

If someone is granted a temporary protection visa, is able to live in the community free from any danger not already faced by ordinary Australians but can’t plan for the future because they don’t know if they are staying permanently, aren’t they still better off than someone hiding behind a wall in a Malaysian sweat factory?

Aren’t they better off than someone in a refugee camp where there is not enough food?

The politics of polarity

Every situation of importance is complex. What disgusts me more than anything is that politicians are prepared to reduce complex moral issues to a simple yes or no, all or nothing, for us or agin’ us, right or wrong decision.

The average person is not a loony left, political correctness at all costs extremist. Nor is the average person a right wing, white superiority xenophobe.

Yet this is how political and media coverage of the issues has played out for more than ten years.

Asylum seekers and voters both deserve better.

For this reason alone, the SBS documentary was a great leap forward.

If we do not acknowledge and discuss the causes and the component parts of a problem we will never be able to achieve the best possible result for the greatest number of people with the resources we have. We just keep leaving people with no choice but to accept all of a proposal or to throw out the good bits with the bad.

to be continued


The 1999 Preamble Referendum

I apologise to readers for my tactless handling of the preamble issue in my last post. [I certainly don’t think anyone should feel stupid for not being able to read my mind.] 


John Howard was the Prime Minister who steadfastly refused to apologise to our first peoples for what we have done. He claimed that ‘it’ was in the past and that he was not responsible for what his forebears did with the best of intentions.

I took issue with his attitude on several grounds:
  • The actions may have been taken in the past but we are guilty today of in-action.
  • ‘It’ is not in the past because the consequences continue.
  • We don’t have the right to cherry pick our way through history. As Howard did not personally storm the beaches of Gallipoli in 1915 but feels he can glory in the deeds of his forebears, then he should also acknowledge regret for some of their less glorious deeds as well.
As a lawyer Howard should have more respect for the principle that we should acknowledge our mistakes and undo, so far as possible, the damage caused by those mistakes.

John Howard objected in principle to any special treatment of or mention of our indigenous peoples. He felt that we should all think of ourselves as Australians and as we are a multicultural society this should not be a problem.

When he felt he had no choice but to offer a referendum on a preamble, this went hand in hand with his desire to sabotage any push for Australia to become a republic. He insisted on writing the final draft of the preamble personally: It was ultimately his own personal wording that was on offer in the referendum, and it was offered grudgingly.

What I didn’t like about the proposed preamble

If I were an indigenous Australian I might have felt differently about the proposal, or I might have felt or shared one or more of the following opinions:
  • It was written by John Howard with a poisoned pen;
  • The expression ‘Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders’ excludes Tiwi Islanders. Why not say ‘first peoples’?;
  • Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders were diverse peoples, not one ‘people’;
  • Everyone mentioned in this preamble is spoken of in the first person [we or our] except for (see point 4) Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders who are spoken of in the third person [their]. This has got to be the Freudian Slip of the Century;
  • Ideally whitefellas should honour ‘their’ (Aborigines) deep kinship with the land, but for the most part we don’t really understand or accept it; what we really do is treat the land as one giant quarry and, in the case of a conflict, a quarry is more important than the welfare of 'them' (Aborigines);
  • We don’t honestly believe ‘their’ kinship or cultures enrich the life of this country – unless we are talking about enrichment  from selling souvenir boomerangs and didgeridoos (made by non-indigenous people); the truth is our policies relating to indigenous welfare are still based on an assumption that west is best [a complex issue];
  • I wouldn’t like being mentioned as an afterthought – carefully designed to have no legal weight whatsoever – tacked onto the beginning of a constitution that has been used against me for over a hundred years.
In other words, the preamble was meaningless and, being meaningless, it was an insult. It smacked of ‘here you are, we mentioned you now go away and start practising being white’.

I can't imagine this preamble being anything but counterproductive. Until we get our act together, a preamble like this just looks like more proof that whitefellas will always talk with forked tongues. We talk but we still do not listen.

The ideals would be nice. I don't want to play down the importance of ideals or goals, but this preamble sounds like we are confident everything is fixed, and I think that to most indigenous Australians it would just sound like yet another lie. We need to stop lying.

Along with this question was a proposal to make Australia a republic. I voted NO on that question as well. I would like Australia to be a republic, but I don’t want to simply change the title Governor General to the title President. Our Constitution is utter rubbish and changing a title won’t improve it one jot. The question might have been better if it asked in general terms if we need debate about a republic or other changes to the constitution.

Some will disagree with me and say there was a debate. [I can feel another post coming on, in which I debate what constitutes a real debate.]

The problem with referenda like these is that they are not opinion surveys, they are carefully and specifically worded proposals. 
If I had been asked ‘Do you think the Constitution should make a special mention of indigenous peoples?” I would have voted Yes. At the very least this would have left open the possibility of some indigenous people making suggestions about the wording.

As a human being who, admittedly, makes mistakes, I don’t believe that voting against the preamble means I am a racist. I’m a pedant, I know, but why should I settle for mediocrity? 
Assuming [or hoping] I am not the only pedant in the country, I think we should be wary of what we infer from referenda results.

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