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Redefining the Australian nation

In late 2005, Australia’s most famous asylum seeker family, the Bakhtiyaris, hit the headlines again. Nine months after they had been forced from Australia to Pakistan, Fairfax journalist Paul McGeough revealed that the Afghan government had itself concluded that Mrs Bakhtiyari was indeed, as she had claimed, an Afghan. The family’s supporters jumped up and down, shouting, ‘I told you so.’

The Australian Government stuck to its line that the Pakistanis had said that Mr Bakhtiyari was a Pakistani, and that was the end of the matter. Then, after an ABC Lateline interview was aired, the Government sought to even the score with the same I-told-you-so line. Alamdar Bakhtiyari had apparently admitted that the family had lied.

The following day Alamdar’s confession was all over the media. Unfortunately, the ABC’s admission that it had incorrectly transcribed the interview and that the boy had said that he blamed his predicament on his ‘lawyers’ and not his ‘lies’ received a whole lot less attention.

Notwithstanding this regrettable mistake, the treatment of the Bakhtiyaris was reminiscent of the fate that befell them while they were in Australia.

I began my book Following Them Home: The Fate of the Returned Asylum Seekers with a chapter about the Bakhtiyari case. My conclusion was that the family had been caught up in a larger conflict than one simply concerned with their well-being. It was a conflict about how Australia ought to respond to asylum seekers. But it was also more than this. It was part of a larger battle about how the Australian nation ought to be defined. I wrote that the family was positioned ‘at the butt of a battering ram designed to demolish Australia’s onshore protection regime and, to the extent this symbolised it, the Howard conception of the Australian nation’.

The struggle for national identity is often understood as an attempt by the Howard Government to redefine the Australian nation in response to the way it was constructed under Labor and, particularly, under the leadership of Paul Keating. But in many ways the Hawke/Keating governments continued work begun under Whitlam and—arguably more importantly—Fraser. Under Liberal and Labor governments since the early 1970s, the Australian nation had become increasingly imagined as an inclusive place, a place in which, within certain limits—notably a commitment to institutions such as the rule of law and parliamentary democracy—difference was tolerated and even celebrated. The fences associated with Australia’s emerging immigration detention regime in the early 1990s marked the outward limit of that tolerance: if you arrived here without prior authorisation, especially if you arrived by boat, you were going to be treated harshly.

The struggle for the nation under Howard is, then, not only a response to the previous Labor administration, but a break from the past two-and-a-half decades of both Liberal and Labor governments.

Importantly, it is a conflict in which a group of people called ‘ordinary Australians’ are pitted against the ‘élites’—a misnomer because it includes a pharmacist in rural New South Wales and a builder on Victoria’s Surf Coast but excludes the most powerful media commentators and some of the wealthiest businesspeople in the country.

Keating—and to the extent that he was continuing the work of earlier prime ministers, they too—backed the special-interest groups, including Aborigines and multiculturalists, of the elites. These elites terrorised ordinary Australians with their politically correct views, chastising them for their history of stolen land and racial exclusion and preventing them from speaking freely about the direction in which they wanted their nation to go.

The fight to reclaim the nation for Howard’s ‘battlers’ (another misnomer if it is taken to include the likes of Kath and Kim of Fountain Gate, for whom the battle is about deciding which of the interminable goods to buy next while excluding those whose disability pensions are threatened by current reforms) has been fought out on a number of fronts including on the questions of Aboriginal reconciliation and the stolen generations, and in the history wars, between ‘black armband’ and ‘white blindfold’ historians. It has also been fought out in the asylum-seeker area.

Because of this link between the politics of asylum and the politics of national identity, it was impossible for those who were interested in a more inclusive, more compassionate nation not to be interested in the way the politics of asylum was being played out. But engaging in the conflict for the nation did not always serve in the interests of developing better public policy in the asylum-seeker area. Indeed, for some people, the distinction between the politics of asylum and the politics of national identity and their roles within these two—as advocates for individuals and as activists for change both in asylum policy and in the national imagination—became blurred, as in the Bakhtiyari case.

There have recently been some positive policy developments, most notably those negotiated by the Liberal Party backbencher Petro Georgiou and his handful of supporters. These have resulted in the release of many asylum seekers from long-term detention. There is increased hope for those people who were granted only temporary protection after being recognised as refugees by Australian immigration officials.
The Pacific Solution is also largely obsolete.

How should we understand these recent changes? What allowed them to occur?

To be sure, the mid-2005 changes were the result of a number of factors. There has been a slow thaw in policy for some time. August 2004 amendments, for example, meant that temporary-protection visa holders could apply to remain in Australia on grounds other than the ongoing need for protection. It is also true that the continuing indefinite detention of still considerable numbers of people was becoming increasingly difficult to defend, particularly since the boats had stopped coming.

I have suggested in The Sydney Papers that the key to the recent changes was the tragedy of Cornelia Rau. It was the Rau case that pushed the operation of our immigration system into public consciousness in a more meaningful way than has occurred before. Rau led to the Palmer Inquiry. And Palmer and Rau gave political momentum to the Georgiou group’s push for reform.

Something else has also occurred to make change possible: Australia’s approach to asylum seekers is no longer an important site in which the battle for the nation’s soul is being fought.

There are two reasons for this. First, the boats are no longer coming. Since early 2002, only four asylum seeker boats that have made it to Australia, the most recent including 43 West Papuans. Whether you believe that there were other factors involved—including, for example, the fall of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, a better relationship with Indonesia resulting in authorities there discouraging boats from leaving, declining asylum seeker numbers internationally, the sinking of the SIEV X—the Government is convincingly able to claim its policy of stopping the boat arrival of asylum seekers a success.

More broadly, the Government is now unambiguously supreme in electoral terms and indeed in its attempt to redefine the Australian nation.

This is a discomforting analysis for those who would wish Australia to be more inclusive of the ‘other’, more generous, more respectful of human rights and dignity.

But it seems possible that through its very dominance the Government may be more willing to engage in a genuine debate about policy reform in the asylum-seeker issue than it has before. This is the positive side of the decoupling of the politics of asylum from the politics of national identity.

The highly politicised nature of the asylum-seeker issue has done little to assist in the creation of a more effective and more just system of offering protection to those who need it in Australia.

One of the things we learn from studying the response to the Cambodian boat arrivals in the late 1980s and early 1990s—and from the response to the so-called ‘fourth wave’ of asylum seekers—is that public stoushes can harm the cause of developing better policy in this area. The reason for this is that many Australians are not supportive of a more generous approach, preferring a hard line against unauthorised arrivals. Political parties that would seek too liberal a policy in this area would, it seems, only do so in a public way to their electoral detriment.

With the unlinking of the politics of asylum from the debate over national identity we are now within reach of the most significant opportunity to engage in policy reform for arguably the past decade, or even longer.
Maybe the cooler political environment, combined with the recent revelations of bureaucratic blunders and the contrition that the department is now displaying, mean that the time is right for real policy reform to take place.

And there are plenty of areas where reform is needed. Large numbers of asylum seekers are currently living in the Australian community without the right to work or to access publicly funded medical assistance, and with no welfare entitlements. Because of this, they have little chance to live—or even to return should they be found not to be refugees—with dignity. There are possibly hundreds—maybe thousands—of people who live with the trauma not only of the experiences before coming to Australia, but also of their time in Australia.

Then there are the mechanisms of silent exclusion, such as the interception at overseas airports of potential asylum seekers, which, without much in the way of hard evidence, we can only suspect is preventing such people from even accessing Australian territory, not to mention the protection determination process.

And there are those towards whom, as I argue in my book, we continue to have obligations, because we returned them prematurely to situations of danger and insecurity or because we sent them back as broken people. 

David Corlett is a research associate in politics at La Trobe University and the author of Following Them Home: The Fate of the Returned Asylum Seekers (Black Inc, 2005).


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