Australia's 'stop the boats' policy as iconic


The Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ as a child, a Byzantine mosaic in the interior of Hagia Sophia, Istanbul.

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 compunction.

Photographs are sometimes iconic in this demanding sense. As we look into their eyes, the subjects of the photos question us. This is true of the images of the desperate people from Burma who have been batted to and fro like shuttlecocks between Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia, hungry, thirsty and pleading, Their eyes ask us what we value and what kind of persons we are. What shall we answer?

It is open to us to say to them, ‘In the big picture you do not matter. You are the chips left over after we have carved out absolute national sovereignty. If only you were educated enough to appreciate the elegance of our policy, you would be proud to be expendable.’  

It is also open for us to say to them, ‘We know better than you who you are. You really had it cushy in Myanmar and did not have to leave. You are the pawns of people-smugglers. You have put on your haggard look for the photographer. You are losers and do not count.’

But the eyes of the people continue to follow us, asking quietly, ‘Well you seem to know everything about us without asking us, but who are you and what matters most deeply to you? Does the fact that we are your brothers and sisters count for nothing?’  

Rather than answer that question, we may find it easier to look away from their eyes, and to treat them as the grapes from which the wine of our iconic policy can be crushed and exported.

Of course for many Christians that move is not quite so easy. The eyes of Jesus, sighted also in the people who waste away on boats, continue to hold their gaze and to ask who they are. And Jesus seems to have heard before the stumbled evasion, ‘It is expedient that these people should die for the nation’.

The Achenese fishermen might find better words.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Istanbul Byzantine icon image by Shutterstock. 


Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, asylum seekers, icons, refugees, Rohingyas



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Existing comments

The Rohingyas you mention are probably in the running for the unenviable title of being the most persecuted people on earth. I believe even the much lauded Aung San Suu Kyi will not speak out on their behalf. Aceh, on the northern part of Sumatra, is probably the most devoutly Muslim part of Indonesia. I think the simple fishermen, by rescuing their brethren in distress, have shown a humanity and a Muslim one at that which shames just about everyone else in the region.

Edward Fido | 20 May 2015  

"But then Acheh is a Muslim island." Aceh is an island? The whole issue can make one sick with shame. So we can also remember, to cheer ourselves a bit, that a not insignificant number of Australians hate our government's policy.

Russell | 20 May 2015  

Australia has put out this image of some so-called people smugglers running around war zones looking for people having an easy life and convincing them to leave and get welfare in Australia. Much of the media and public have bought this as a fact when in fact it was a lie invented by Philip Ruddock in 1999 and exposed as a lie by Peter Mares in Borderline on page 16, way back in 2001. If people cannot get transport from war zones to safety they are slaughtered, Australia says we don't care if you are slaughtered by us over there, just don't bother to come here.

Marilyn | 20 May 2015  

The Muslims of Aceh proved their mettle in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami. Their stoicism and concern for each other were admirable and stood in stark contrast to the disgusting behaviour of the Christians of New Orleans after hurricane Katrina the following year. Some 45,000 National Guards and other troops were sent to the area barely a week after the event in the face of carjacking, looting, murders and rapes. No such response was necessary in Aceh and the Acehnese fishermen's concern for the Rohingya boatpeople comes as no surprise. And aren't we Australians fortunate that so many Muslims in recent years have decided to seek a home in our country?

Paul | 20 May 2015  

It moved me to tears. We should be ashamed.

Dalma Dixon | 21 May 2015  

I am one of Russell's "not insignificant number" who hate the government's policy on refugees in boats. It seems another election will not fix it - unless we let all politicians know how we feel. Does anyone have a more practical solution?

Josephine | 21 May 2015  

The suffering and degradation the refugees are suffering are appalling. It shows something of the conditions they are fleeing that they continue to suffer deprivation and death rather than follow our advice of "Go back to where you came from."

Robert Liddy | 21 May 2015  

Well written ironic article. I am ashamed of our country. If that denies me the status of an icon, then so be it! For me the Achenese fishermen are iconic.

Tony Williams | 21 May 2015  

Thank you for saying this so well Andrew. I feel so deeply for these people, but also the the inadequacy of my small voice. I applaud and support yours.

Bernadette Keating | 21 May 2015  

I am ashamed that our Government is not playing a more active role in dealing with this humanitarian problem. We leave it to the poor people in our region!!!

James | 21 May 2015  

Well, the Malaysians and Thais and Indonesians are showing compassion now, and even the Burmese (Myanmarese?) are feeling the pressure. Tony Abbott must be getting worried. Are we Australians the only ones now who would let them all perish at sea?

Gavan | 21 May 2015  

Truly wonderful Andrew! Such a telling way of putting the right perspective on our 'turn back the boats' response/reaction. The response of the Italians - to 'migrants' - not 'boat people', and not even 'asylum-seeekers' which our [ supposed]/pretend community leaders try to demonise so they can be sent to offshore processing, or even worse, to places like Nauru and other detention centres in PNG, where they have no hope of ever being able to be granted residency, or even more so citizenship in a country where they believed they would no longer be at risk of persecution and death, even welcomed as sisters and brothers to a country in which we had begun to hope we might welcome them as we have others, since the time of the Vietnam war, and tried to say a real 'sorry!' to indigenous people in this country, for the way we had been treating them since the first Europeands were welcomed in Queenslad, as described in an essay by Frank Brennan in ES not so long ago. Loving God, help us! help us to open our hearts and minds to 'migants', and to act to make sure children are not still held in detetntion centre on mainland Australia. Forgive us, and help us to move on!

Lynne Green | 21 May 2015  

Here we have simple fishermen rescuing these desperate people while national governments refused. Thank you for your poignant essay, Andrew. With both the government and opposition providing a role model of xenophobia and hardness of heart, what can we do?

Anna | 21 May 2015  

Thank you Andrew for naming so well how ashamed so many many of us feel about the asylum seeker policy of Australia! Your reflection puts words on the images seen on our television screens last night; boats filled with people who are abandoned. When can we give them some hope??This has to change! I too am part of that 'not insignificant' number of Australian's who feel powerless ans appalled!

Mary Bruggy pbvm | 21 May 2015  

What a moving piece of irony! Sadly only The Greens had a policy that was at all moral in the matter of how we treat those who seek asylum in Australia. Where are our Leading playwrights and artists in awakening our moral consciousness?

Ern Azzopardi | 21 May 2015  

'Does the fact that we are your brothers and sisters count for nothing?' Apparently this nation governed by supposedly Christian leaders thinks so. The Common humanity which so many Australians hold dear is given no chance. Shame, shame!

Anne Doyle | 22 May 2015  

Yes the hapless Rohingas need our help. They truly are victims we should be assisting. They have been batted between Bangla Desh and Burma for decades, stateless people who really need a home, very different from self-selecting economic migrants posing as asylum-seekers that have been forcing their way into Australia since the early 2000s. To me they are similar to the Vietnamese refugees fleeing Vietnam after the fall of Saigon in 1975. No other Asian countries would take them, until the Fraser government decided Australia should accept them. The Vietnamese were often pushed back into he sea by such countries as Malaysia and Singapore, as the Rohingas have been by Thailand and Malaysia since about 2008. And yes the Achenese have demonstrated a commendable humanity in helping the Rohinghas. Abbot’s adamant refusal to help them is understandable insofar as he doesn’t wish to encourage people smugglers to try and get them to Australia. But some regional solution has to be found for them an Australia must be part of this. Pidddling bits of Oz aid to help the Rohingyas in in Burma doesn’t cut it. Most of it is likely to be “re-allocated” by the authorities there in ways which are unlikely to benefit the Rohingyas. Perhaps the best solution would be initially for Australia to help fund resettlement of them in Aceh in a Muslim society where they would be accepted. Australia should also agree to take some under its humanitarian intake policy for genuine refugees. The US has already taken 1000 Rohingha. Surely Australia could at least take that many as well. Something has to be done for them. They can’t be allowed to drift the open seas as they are.

Dennis | 22 May 2015  

It is a very difficult problem I know, but really, surely basic human as well as Christian, decency demands that, regardless of the Coalition's policy on asylum-seekers, we have to open our gates to our share of these poor people.

Gerard Finn | 22 May 2015  

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