I don’t often take an explicit position on this blog, but let me be absolutely clear on this point — Australia’s asylum seeker policy is shameful, illegal and offensive and I condemn Kevin Rudd’s latest update to it in the strongest terms.
Rudd announced on Friday that any asylum seeker who arrives by boat will have ‘no chance’ of being settled in Australia and will instead be resettled in Papua New Guinea as part of a new arrangement with that country.
This puts the capstone on a policy story that has been building since the Howard years. The story is that people coming by boat are a threat to Australia’s borders and so we need to stop them coming. All subsequent policy has been understood through this frame — Rudd has simply taken it one step further and simplified it. No chance. Get lost.
I’m not going to discuss the policies here — plenty of other people have done a better job of that already. I’m not going to rail against the politics of it or the politicians themselves either. They are of course disgusting, but this situation is Australia’s fault, not just that of our leaders.
How does a story like this get traction at all? It’s easily provable by fact that asylum seekers arriving by boat pose no threat whatsoever to Australia, but this is about the story rather than the facts. Nevertheless, even the facts of the story are easily disproved. There is no queue to be jumped. The arrivals are not illegal. It doesn’t matter how they arrive. Categories like ‘economic migrant’ and ‘asylum seeker’ are themselves constructions of language so that we can avoid calling such people ‘refugees’, because that classification carries legal responsibilities which we would prefer to shirk and foist onto our poorer neighbours instead. More than 9 out of 10 of the people we detain end up being classified as refugees eventually anyway.
But the facts don’t matter. Neither does the cost, which is astronomical. At a time when the rest of what passes for political debate is focussed on budget deficits and we are prepared to cut funding to public services to return the budget to surplus, the cost of asylum seeker policy is somehow exempt. It is apparently so imperative that we lock up people fleeing for their lives, so great is the imagined threat to our borders, that we say hang the cost. The human cost certainly does not matter. The people who have the misfortune to become caught up in this story will be crushed, no matter what the personal cost, to maintain its fidelity.
The story speaks to a deep and ugly paranoia and entitlement that has been part of Australia’s national culture since it became a nation. We have always been concerned about equality and a fair-go, but equality for who and of what? Originally it was about equality for white men, as these were the only ‘Australians’ who mattered. In practice this meant ‘protecting’ Australian life from threats to this equality. Accordingly, the first Act passed by the Australian parliament in 1901 was the White Australia Policy. The Bulletin magazine told this story in very simple terms on its masthead every week until 1961:
After World War II, the focus shifted to ‘protecting’ ourselves through population. We have always seen ourselves as a vulnerable outpost, and now the imperative became to ‘populate or perish’. In practice this meant stuffing ourselves with immigrants, in line with the still-existing White Australia Policy, whose very existence would deter the forces of communism. We simultaneously extended our pragmatic idea of the fair-go by helping good Australians attain a lifestyle represented by affordable suburban housing and access to motor cars. In the spirit of ‘equality’, everyone’s house, everyone’s values and everyone’s lives looked the same.
The bland conformity, unreflective pride and dulled sensitivity to the situation of the rest of the world has continued in one form or another through to today. We don’t know anything much about what happens outside our borders but we don’t much care because we love our country thank you very much and if you don’t then you can leave. The language of our national pride still masks a deep and abiding fear of inadequacy — we doth protest too much. This is particularly sad given that Australia does have much to be proud of, we’re just not aware enough of the world or our place in it to comprehend our real achievements or why we should be proud of them.
Given that we are unprepared to engage seriously with the rest of the world, and in particular the geographical facts about our place in it, it should not be surprising that we resent deeply the intrusion of the realities of the world onto our shores. We should be the ones who decide what we have to bother ourselves with and in what manner we choose to be bothered. The naive entitlement and petulant unreality of this attitude towards the outside world are all evident in John Howard’s phrasing of this sentiment, which resonated so strongly with many Australians.
The people on the boats themselves are not even really part of the story. They simply represent an inconvenient reality that we don’t want to know about. These people don’t have faces, or lives, or families, or any humanity, and the more we keep it that way the easier it will be for us to do nasty and inhuman things to them without having their humanity intrude upon our consciousness in any manner at all.
The humanity of people seeking asylum, and the unwelcome reality they represent, have both of course become increasingly difficult to ignore in recent years, which is why we have had to resort to more and more inventive (read: morally degrading) ways to hold our hands over our ears and shout LALALALALALALA!
The politics of this are ugly indeed, and frightening. They are the politics of exception.
States of exception are a well-known but rarely talked-about phenomenon in legal and political theory. They happen when a ruling authority declares a suspension of the rule of law. That sounds like a simple explanation, but what authority is there but the law, or an authority who is above it? States of exception are ways of getting around laws we don’t wish to be accountable to, and they are available only to those who have the most power to be dangerous when unconstrained by law. They should make us very uncomfortable.
After the burning down of the Reichstag in 1933, Hitler famously declared a state of national emergency, invoking special powers under the constitution which gave him power to take any action deemed necessary for public safety without first consulting the legislature. Civil liberties were suspended immediately, including freedom of expression, freedom of the press, free association and habeas corpus. The national government assumed the powers of the states, privacy was abolished and death penalties were introduced for acts such as setting fire to public buildings. Much of what followed in Hitler’s dictatorship was possible only in this ‘exceptional’, legal climate of emergency.
Though Nazi Germany remains the paradigm example of this phenomenon, we need look no further than our own times for troubling instances of states of exception. Indeed, one of the characteristic features of the post-9/11 world is the politics of exception as normal practice.
The US detains people without trial in Guantanamo Bay in a legal state of exception that would not be possible on its own soil (or so we hope). The Bush Administration suspended the prohibition against torture because, well, it found it wanted to torture certain people. The language of euphemism — ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’, ‘enemy combatants’ — was deployed to make the unpleasantries of what was actually happening go away. The Bush Administration also made extensive use of ‘executive orders’ that grant the executive branch of government discretionary powers — that is, the power to do what it wants. Bush signed more of these executive orders in his term as President than all Presidents before him combined. Obama looks set to beat that record. Indeed, his Administration has taken things further by engaging in a program of regular remote assassinations of people it considers a threat, another little exception to the way things are supposed to be done.
This is all made possible because of the ‘war on terror’, a story that has allowed an unspecified emergency to become an ongoing everyday occurrence. The little rooms that exist in airports all over the world are states of exception where the rule of law does not apply. We need those rooms, we are told (if we are told at all), to fight the good fight. We may accept that, but gods help you if you ever find yourself in one of those rooms.
There are countless tiny examples too of how exceptions and exemptions are used to legally do things that the very law to which the exception is granted was designed to prevent. Exemptions to the Equal Opportunity Act in Victoria allow the legal discrimination by religious groups against people they don’t want to employ for reasons of character. Exemptions to Victoria’s Human Rights charter allow police to legally violate young people’s right to freedom of movement and the presumption of innocence. Let’s of course not forget the little exception we made to ‘suspend’ the Racial Discrimination Act so we could ‘intervene’ in the Northern Territory.
Eyebrows were raised last year when Australia made the creative decision to exclude the entire mainland from its migration zone. Normally, if you are a non-citizen, you must have a valid entry visa to enter the migration zone. Several Australian territories have been exceptions to this, meaning that ‘unathorised’ arrivals to these places can be lawfully detained. By making the entire continent an exception, we gained the ability to detain anyone who arrived ‘unauthorised’. This was apparently done to send a message that there would be ‘no advantage’ in sailing boats directly to the mainland rather than the various island territories. In other words, we’ll lock you away no matter where you wash up. It was progress.
This all made perfect sense, provided nobody thought about it for more than a few seconds or pointed out the fact we were breaking international law. But what Rudd has now done is simply make a further exception, this time to international law.
Australia signed the Refugee Convention back in 1951. World War II was an intrusion of world reality that even Australia couldn’t ignore, and in its aftermath it became possible to imagine that we too might become refugees one day, through no fault of our own. In such a situation, it would be nice to think that good people elsewhere might give us a guarantee of survival and a chance at a new life. Perhaps even a welcome. Such values seemed self-evidently worthwhile. So we signed the Convention.
But after a few decades it turns out it’s not us, and most of us today live safe in the unthinking confidence that it never will be. So fuck ‘em.
That we are prepared at last to tear up the symbol and guarantee of goodwill of a world shaken by a conflict that killed some 60 million people, and that we are prepared to turn our backs on such hard-won wisdom for the sake of what amounts to nothing more than an imagined inconvenience, is a breathtaking display of our character as a nation. Our reputation may never recover, but this is of course precisely what we will celebrate. We have finally sent the message we’ve always wanted. Don’t come.
Of course, it’s only temporary, we’ll be told. Until the emergency is over and things go back to normal. But all we’ve done is show that we live in a world where it’s normal to simply make exceptions to the rules we don’t want to follow and to the moral commitments we find too bothersome to uphold.
It is an utter disgrace. The story may have a happy ending for the Australians, but who are they exactly? Whatever Australia we imagine we’re ‘protecting’ by doing this, I want no part of. ◾