An act of infamy

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There has been a tragic decline in the standards of political life over the past few decades. Even worse is that not only has the behaviour of politicians declined disgustingly but public acceptance of appalling standards has become the norm. Few things shock us any more but Australia’s Prime Minister has just done something so unconscionable that I feel a sense of revulsion that shames my birthright as an Australian.

The issue concerns refugees and is global in its dimension. An estimated 46 million people around the world are seeking refugee status or wish to be considered as refugees. Even if the estimate is fluid, the problem is massive. And it is one that has caused major political and civic consternation in Australia over the past decade particularly.

Australia is a vast and remarkably underpopulated continent. The 22 million of us who call it home enjoy a wonderfully privileged lifestyle that is routinely assessed as among the very highest of ranked nations. We have basked in the self-congratulatory term (though it was bestowed sarcastically) of The Lucky Country. On any measure we have much to be grateful for.

It is a pity, then, that we impose such a hardline regime on immigration. Oh, we have settled many millions of new citizens over the past half-century. We are without question a nation of migrants. And it has been a pleasingly successful exercise with our cultural fabric being enhanced while developing an ever-more heterogeneous society.

It is extraordinary to consider that we applied a “White Australia” policy for the first half of the 1900s and only fully dismantled it in 1973 when we outlawed racial discrimination in our immigration policy. In fact people from any country are able to apply to migrate to Australia, regardless of their nationality, ethnicity, culture, religion or language.

While this outwardly lenient approach may portray us as relaxed and easy-going when it comes to new settlers, there is a chip on our shoulder when it comes to those we perceive as queue-jumpers. And it has become a very vexed and vexing issue as so-called boatpeople strive to gain a foothold on our shores to start a new life.

The problem has been compounded by scum-of-the-earth people smugglers who have been exploiting mostly innocent people who sensibly enough think they could secure a wonderful new life in Australia. They have squeezed unconscionable numbers of people onto frequently unseaworthy boats and pointed them in the direction of the Great Southern Land while pocketing unscrupulously indecent sums of money for what has been a death sentence for many of the passengers.

The number of drownings in the past year has now reached 600 confirmed with another 300 or more thought to have drowned. Quite a number of these were children and many were women. With some 20,000 illegal boat people making it into Australian waters this past year, that means nearly one-in-twenty of these asylum seekers are losing their lives in their quest for freedom.

Calling them queue-jumpers seems an inadequate measure of their determination for a better life.

Political efforts to throttle this ever-increasing stream of asylum-seekers has generated a disquieting tendency to delve into “solutions” that seem quite Hitlerian in their inhumanity.

A tit-for-tat escalation by our two major political parties has reached an impasse at the threshold of attempting to ensure not one of these boat people actually makes it onto the shores of continental Australia. So, they are intercepted by our navy and shunted to offshore islands and even other countries for “processing”. Another Hitler-style euphemism.

Numerous dodgy attempts have been made to get neighbouring nations to help solve our problem. This has led to embarrassment for Indonesia, Malaysia and East Timor. But mostly for ourselves. Our international credibility now ranks alongside Japan’s blasphemy that its whaling industry is simply for scientific purposes.

But our recently resurrected Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, has done the dirtiest deed yet devised in this whole sordid tale of out-of-sight, out-of-mind repudiation of humanitarian decency.

Like a carpetbagging cargo cultist, he has suckered our nearest northern neighbour, Papua New Guinea, into accepting every boat person attempting to reach our shores. In return, he has offered an unspecified volume of dollars for PNG’s universities and hospitals.

As a political gimmick, it was magic. In a fell swoop, Rudd appeased all the ignorant voters who demand that “something” be done – no matter how harsh – so that they can sleep safely in bed at night, comforted by the thought that queue-jumpers will rightly be consigned to the fate they deserve.

And what is that fate? That PNG rates 156 of the 187 states ranked in order of good places to live. Let’s be frank, Papua New Guinea is a failed state barely kept afloat by the generosity and influence-seeking handouts of places like Australia and China. Its own people are overwhelmingly condemned to a life of abject poverty and poor health.

Disease is endemic. Sexual violence against women is rampant and armed violence against other ethnicities is at the upper end of global statistics. This despite the vast majority of PNG people being kind, generous and considerate.  They may be naïve and generally have low education standards but they are not silly.

They wonder why their Prime Minister did not seek any kind of mandate for his deal to save Kevin Rudd’s bacon.  They know that they are, mostly, so poor that even homeless refugees will get better living conditions than them, so why would they welcome Australia’s problem? They know that no matter how much foreign aid is promised them, it will, as always, find its way into the pockets of the “big men” and political sycophants.

They are almost universally Christian in belief and, while tolerant, feel that a substantial injection of Islamists will not enhance community cohesion in a society already riven by provincial rivalries.

And, under the terms of Kevin Rudd’s agreement, (fine detail nowhere to be found) they are supposed to settle all the boat people who are declared legitimate refugees. The financial implications of which, given a commitment to provide health care, housing and employment under UN conventions, would come close to collapsing PNG’s economy. But, then, what happens to those whose refugee status is not allowed?  How would PNG get them back to Australia?

This is a dreadful abuse of a people and nation we Aussies like to think are our special friends. They laid down their lives for us without demur when the Japanese threatened in the dark days of World War II. We swore undying fealty then. But we have spat in their eye now for Kevin Rudd has raped them.

Harsh, yes, and harsh is their fate if this ill-begotten scheme is allowed to come to fruition.

Australia did it once before to PNG when Kevin Rudd’s political predecessor, Gough Whitlam, granted them independence from Australian colonial rule.  Tragically, PNG’s administrative and bureaucratic capabilities were woefully inadequate to the task of self-government and nationhood and the country continues to pay the price four decades later. Whitlam, unintentionally, condemned them to a scandalously low standard of living through high-minded idealism.

Rudd has no such saving grace. His betrayal of these people is abjectly vile. He has sundered them so he can vindicate himself as a Prime Minister toppled by internal scheming rather than voters at an election. That he was toppled because the nation feared for its future under his rule bothers him not. His selfishness knows no bound. No price is too high for others to pay to assuage Kevin’s ego.

I do not in any way suggest that Australia should or could accept any and all refugees who come to our shores. But given we aspire to be one of the leading nations of the world, we must surely accept responsibility to develop a policy of decency to manage this humanitarian crisis. We must, if we wish to earn the approbation of others, do it ourselves on our own shores and in a way that does not evoke Hitlerian comparisons.

As a tribe of convict exiles who overcame the odds to build a fine and often exemplary nation we have no choice but to repudiate the Rudd initiative. We cannot look ourselves in the eye otherwise. And the aspirant Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, should pray to his god for forgiveness for so abjectly rejecting decency over the votes of the unenlightened by partially endorsing this so-called PNG solution.

This is a defining moment in our continuing nationhood. That the task is so difficult makes it all the more important that we get it right. And we will never be able to do that until we do unto others as we would have done to us. Some would call that mateship. The great Australian myth?

Picture: Colin Murty, The Daily Telegraph.