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Australia's 'stop the boats' policy as iconic

  • 21 May 2015

To be described as an icon is to have made it. Celebrities who are icons possess all the qualities prized in a culture. Shane Warne for skill and cheek, Warren Buffett for making money, Kim Jong Un for shameless power and Ned Kelly for attitude are all iconic. They are the gold standard that everyone else envies. They are marketable. Film stars, football matches and even nations can be iconic.

In the last months, Australians have become iconic. The world is gazing with astonishment at our way of dealing so firmly, single-mindedly and implacably with people who come to us for protection. We display a single-minded focus on our national interest by treating asylum seekers as enemies and pushing them off unceremoniously when they try to enter Australian waters. Our ministers, too, have become celebrities. They spruik their policies to Europe and the region.

The iconic character of our policy shines out the more resplendently now that all nations in the region have adopted it. Boats full of asylum seekers, wan and wasting, are condemned to wander from nation to nation and forever be repulsed, their piteous sight and plaintive cries an omen of doom to any who would cross the seas hereafter.

It is an icon of what is possible when the national self-interest of many nations is simultaneously indulged. In Myanmar, the national interest demands that Rohingyas are denied the protection of citizenship, and are persecuted. Indonesia, Thailand, Australia and Malaysia cite the national interest to expel them and stop their boats from landing.

Only Indonesia, as Australians would expect, has proved itself to be less than iconic. It was unable to prevent soft-headed fishermen of Acheh from rescuing people and giving them shelter. But then Acheh is a Muslim island. And Indonesia’s failure only provides the setting against which the glory of Australia, the initiator of this iconic policy, can be admired.

The modern understanding of icons as embodying the qualities that people desire desires, it must be admitted, differs from the Byzantine approach to religious icons. The figures depicted in these traditional icons do not impress us with their dominance over their environment, but draw us to their eyes. And the eyes look back, inviting us to name what we value and to ask ourselves whether what we see in ourselves matches what we most deeply desire. Icons invite us to see ourselves through the gaze of another and so to