Don't be the Australia Dutton wants us to be

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There are two laws for how to get out of a hole: the first is to acknowledge you are in one. The second is to stop digging.

Protestors in support of white South African farmersI suspect Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton won't care too much for this advice. He is clearly enjoying his job, playing the populist card with great aplomb. His advocacy of special consideration for white South African farmers facing non-compensated eviction from their land, follows on similar concessions that continue to be made to Zimbabwean farmers.

To my knowledge, this humanitarian largesse hasn't been extended to many of the farm labourers, many of whom are not Zimbabwean citizens but sons and daughters of Malawian and Mozambican immigrants and were left without work and terribly vulnerable. It is never good to conflate humanitarianism with other motives.

Dutton's comments drew predictable criticism of his being racist. Perhaps more unusually he also drew criticism from members of his party who accused him of undermining the humanitarian system. This issue plainly works at a number of levels and demands more considered reflection.

In promoting Dutton to the new 'super-portfolio', the Prime Minister closed the loop of ensuring the securitisation of the so-called humanitarian program, and has left the door open for the mixture of values and motivations behind it to increasingly reflect the single minded pursuit of national interest narrowly understood.

The minister is doing nothing more than performing to a carefully and long-time prepared script. Let us be clear: the issue is not about the plight of South African white famers or any other singled out group of would-be refugees. It is about what kind of society the people of Australia see themselves as becoming and which constituencies government is representing, and the values that form the foundations of policy.

The government's vision, at least on Dutton's lips, is one-dimensional and fundamentally divisive for the existing Australian community, and it is at these levels that his statements must be critiqued.

 

"The murder of white South African farmers is real, horrific and underreported. But to privilege one worthy group over others speaks of another agenda entirely."

 

Two years ago, as then Minister for Immigration, he stated that it was a mistake of the Fraser government to have accepted people of Lebanese Muslim background who arrived during the years 1975 to 1983. He had counted up the crime statistics of terrorist related incidents involving this 'community'.

Missing was a balanced assessment of the costs and benefits of this immigration, and analysis of the causes or background to the incidents. Nothing but a series of comments guaranteed to alienate a select group of people — and especially its young — with the attendant risk of escalating the problems about which the Minister purported to be concerned.

More recently, Sudanese-origin gangs were similarly targeted. Dutton's comments were not on the issues that this relatively new refugee group might be facing as they transition from a deeply rural, often conflictual and trauma-inducing set of backgrounds to a functional, sophisticated large city such as Melbourne. Rather Dutton focused on individuals' criminal records and the fears that those incite among 'good, law-abiding Australians'. The only solution he could provide was another form of exclusion: summary deportation of all gang members.

The Lebanese, in particular, had been in Australia for 35 years, most of them being now second generation Australian citizens and many making quiet but valued contributions to the community. That some of their young felt alienated enough to turn to violent ideologies speaks as much about Australian society's failure to include them than anything else.

The Sudanese, who mostly have been in Australia for less time, are recipients of a generally well regarded humanitarian program, but this has not translated into lasting development and integration. Both are Australian issues, the solutions for which we are all in part responsible.

Pope Francis describes four action words as necessary to any process of absorbing migrants and refugees into a new country: they should be welcomed, protected, promoted and integrated. The extent to which a country exercises these actions speaks to the disposition of the society and its openness to be changed by those it welcomes, as well as asserting appropriately its own cultural norms.

The murder of white South African farmers is real, horrific and underreported. The new government of Cyril Ramaphosa has surprised with its announced intention to amend the constitution to allow for expropriation of land, thus opening the question that this might well qualify as persecution under refugee law. If this is the case, there should indeed be a straight humanitarian response to their plight. But to privilege one worthy group over others speaks of another agenda entirely.

The key question remains: What kind of society do we want Australia to be? Do we want a society that, within its capacity, welcomes, protects and develops people in genuine and serious need regardless of their creed or colour, allowing us to be subtly changed by the diversity that they bring? Or will it be people who are chosen for the supposedly right characteristics in order to reinforce an increasingly brittle hegemony?

If government and the media cannot address such important questions more seriously, with an eye to the next generation of people inheriting this country, we urgently need to start asking ourselves who will.

 

 

writerAustralian Jesuit Fr David Holdcroft is higher education specialist for Jesuit Refugee Service International.

Topic tags: David Holdcroft, South Africa, Peter Dutton

 

 

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Existing comments

Do we want a society that ignores the gross human rights abuses in its near neighbour, West Papua, by continuing to accept Indonesian sovereignty over this country?
Grant Allen | 27 March 2018


The problem is that it is not just Dutton. There are a whole raft of (mostly) Coalition politicians who will back him, not just because they see it as a vote winner, but because they sincerely believe that he has it right.
Ginger Meggs | 27 March 2018


'Interesting' article when compared to a previous one: "Xenophobia threatens Mandela's vision for a diverse South Africa"
Stephen de Weger | 28 March 2018


Don't let them drown at sea...don't let them be murdered on their farms...what's the difference? Their colour/religion/history? They are all people. However, there is a lot of evidence that people are drawn to recognise suffering in those most similar to them. Why do we not report with as much passion, bombings. natural disasters (unless absolutely massive and therefore, news-worthy), in non-white countries. More modern hypocrisy.
Stephen de Weger | 28 March 2018


Thanks David. Couldn't have said it better. It's soul destroying watching the shift in thinking being led from above (not necessarily the top mind you) with no real role model available. No vision in this parliament!
Nola Randall | 28 March 2018


I am a South African, born and raised, and I am white from farmer's stock. What we are talking about with farms in SA is not an issue of land reforms, as it was called in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) it is about the systematic murder of a people and the most vulnerable are the first targets, the elderly, the very young and those who cannot rely on a speedy response from law and order. It is one thing to lose the land that the black majority say was stolen from them (Remembering that the Kol and San people were the original custodians of the land) but to lose your life is a different matter completely. Farmers are tortured, raped, murdered on a near daily basis - which to take a point that David is making - results in unemployment for the labourers. When the land reforms are implemented the labourers have the option of remaining on the farms (often as the new owners) or working for the new government owners. The dead farmer has nothing, and neither do their families. This is not about land reform, this is about genocide, and I cannot condone that.
Fr Des Smit | 28 March 2018


Good article, David. However the nation some of us think we are and what we actually are poles apart. By appeals to the lower instincts, to selfishness, NIMBYism, greed and hard hardheartedness particularly with Howard and his successors and the assistance of the Murdoch press the culture has been swayed. Now it is "I'm on board Jack; pull up the anchor!" And the vulnerable are painted as a threatening group endangering our imagined natural rights. Dutton is the bad cop thug for the conservatives. He is better described and evaluated currently by "The Saturday Paper" than I can attempt. But as H....r knows to attack a vulnerable group as the enemy, and persecute them as a threat to our lifestyle, works a treat. However as Solzhenitsyn points out the dividing line between good and evil runs through the middle of our hearts. Politicians know how to swing that line by exquisite use of fear.
Michael D. Breen | 28 March 2018


Thanks, David, for an insightful and well-informed analysis of Dutton's crude dog-whistling.
Peter Johnstone | 29 March 2018


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