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Empathy and irony in post-Howard Australia

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Becalmed, bereft, besieged

What of your flesh, nestled at her mother's hip unravelling chords, plotting progressions,
dancing from voice to piano to violin? What course would you set for her if,
adrift of government policies, she fled, seeking compassion and safe harbours?

What of your blood, teasing the dog with balloons, bubbles, grass; grist the hound
renders in growled fury illimitable? See him exiled from health and home:
would studied negligence, fell bastardry, suffice? Appease your conscience's qualms?

What of your bone, your breath; soul lover? If, in intransigence, your passion incarnate
was damned to rot for years — human flotsam — would listless inaction be your lodestone?
Would you contend for her release, or resign yourself to discontent's torpor?

Becalmed, bereft, besieged by race memory and hip pocket absorption
a nation of travellers and seafarers swallow leaders' sleight-of-hand, as they
conjure pirates from refugees, demons from daughters, sons and lovers.


Asylum primer

Agenda bloodied,
courage dances
ever fleeting,
gasping, harried.
Imperium jars.
Kindness lags;
mythos never
overcomes pride.
Quantifying reverts
solely to
ulcered verities.
Welfare? Xenophobes
yell 'zenith!'



Cluttered at the back of early memory are hurried public conversations.
Shared laughter at outsiders. Furtive whispered epiphets against
women, gays, wallies; anyone with skin or ideas unlike ours. Pushing back
against alien creeds, beliefs, unlikely hopes, setups failing our expectations.
Oz duly knocks urgers and pushers and bloody bleeding hearts
who bitch and moan, whinging against 'our country'.
We're a tribal mob; if you challenge us we'll cock a snook,
kick your arse from here to Broome; label you unAustralian.
The latest floods of rejected life flow in the wake of peoples
who got a fair go and a crack at redemption, Oz style.
But just let your memory wander back far enough,
Ockers, Ockers, Ockers, oi, oi, oi. Read what went down
and you'll cop a mind's eyeful of Jews fleeing for their lives;
Abe's children we kept shut up in ships, sent back quick smart
for Adolf to deal with, sent right back where they'd come from.
They were deemed unworthy of a spot in this man's land.
Rednecked summers come and go, UN boffins can bleat away,
but reffos won't desert our haunted dreams, or set foot upon our stolen inheritance.


Below lies excerpts from a speech by Prime Minister John Howard on 28 October 2001, ironies unintended:

'National security is ... about a proper response to terrorism. It's also about having a far sighted strong well thought out defence policy. It is also about having an uncompromising view about the fundamental right of this country to protect its borders, it's about this nation saying to the world we are a generous open hearted people taking more refugees on a per capita basis than any nation except Canada, we have a proud record of welcoming people from 140 different nations. But we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come. And can I say on this point what a fantastic job Philip Ruddock has done for Australia. 

'What a contrast with the Labor Party. The morning, well the day I made the announcement that we had to board the motor vessel Tampa I was told by the Leader of the Opposition that the last thing I wanted or Australia needed was a negative carping opposition. But in four and a half hours he was accusing me of engaging in wedge politics and fanning Hansonism. He voted against the border protection bill, he ultimately voted for it although it covered a wider area and while the debate was going on in the Senate many of his colleagues were darkly muttering if we win the election we'll change it. We have had a single irrevocable view on this, and that is that w e will defend our borders and we'll decide who comes to this country.

'But we'll do that within the framework of the decency for which Australians have always been renowned.'

Barry Gittins headshotBarry Gittins is a Melbourne writer. 

Topic tags: new australian poems, Barry Gittins, John Howard, asylum seekers



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Existing comments

"Becalmed, bereft, besieged" and Howard's speech - ah, the poignancies of life! When I was in primary school, I was taken from my comfortable seat at the back of the class to the front row to sit next to a boy struggling with his reading. His name was Habib and he was from India - I didn't like my new friend much at first but he had a nice smile which grew on me.

Pam | 11 December 2012  

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