I’ll call it August 2001, but it began long before then.
The Flora and Fauna Act and White Australia Policy put runs on the board for our country, but this action made it sport.
Around dawn on 24 August 2001, a small wooden fishing boat, the Palapa 1, become stranded in Australian waters off Christmas Island. The boat was carrying 438 people – mostly Afghan asylum seekers. 369 men, 26 women, and 43 children were on board.
There are many ways to lose your innocence and many actions that can bring a sense of shame. Some are instantly recognisable; others unravel over time.
A distress call went out from Palapa 1. MV Tampa, a Norwegian freighter, responded to their distress. The boat had taken on water and was sinking.
International Shipping Law dictates that survivors of shipwreck should be taken to the nearest port to receive medical attention.
What happened next is not among our finest hours of our country.
We refused help.
Our government attempted to palm the ‘problem’ to Indonesia and then, more remarkably, to Norway (because a freighter is pretty much a floating country, right?). Both reasonably refused—it was Australian waters from which they were being rescued, not Indonesian, and it was a long, long way from the Norwegian Sea.
Something else was afoot that makes this saga even more lamentable: a federal election.
John Howard, our PM at the time, was facing near-certain defeat at the polling booth and, in a piece of political wizardry, saw his bloodthirsty treatment of these 438 floating souls as a potential vote winner.
John Howard made some courageous acts while in office, this was not one of them.
What our PM tapped into, in a politically-savvy, inhumane way, was an underlying fear and xenophobia in our nation. What he triggered in the actions that followed, was an exchange of compassion for fear. It was political opportunism at its un-finest.
The Captain of the Tampa, Arne Rinnan, a seafarer with over 40 years of experience, would later say: “I have seen most of what there is to see in this profession, but what I experienced on this trip is the worst. When we asked for food and medicine for the refugees, the Australians sent commando troops on board. This created high tension among the refugees. After an hour of checking the refugees, the troops agreed to give medical assistance to some of them. The soldiers obviously didn’t like their mission.”
As the episode escalated, the government dug its heels in further. The polls said it was a great idea. The strategy was paying off. They insisted that no asylum seeker from the Palapa 1 would set foot on Australian soil.
The situation was only resolved when two other countries (who had no lawful reason to assist yet were clearly driven by convictions greater than law) came to the aid of the 438.
Those countries: New Zealand…and Nauru.
These actions went down a treat on our hallowed soil. As a nation, we lapped it up. How dare they attempt to flee their homeland plight by boarding a sinking boat headed for our waters?
The message of our government was clear: no matter how desperate you are, don’t come knocking on our door – we are no friend to strangers.
The government hastily tabled a Border Protection Bill. It was both tacit and blatant in asserting that we could refuse entry to anyone and do whatever we wanted no matter how bleak their predicament. The bill was defeated in the Senate.
It is said that John Howard was aware of the illegalities of the bill in the realms of international law but, aware of the gain in negative public sentiment toward asylum seekers – pushed on all the same. It made for good politics. After all, if I can make you feel scared and vulnerable without my policy, my job is half done.
Our exchange of compassion for meanness was almost complete. The conservative party won the election they weren’t meant to win and, in the process, altered the grounds on which elections would be fought. The Labor party, who had initially blocked the passage of the bill in the Senate, now saw this newfound spirit of meanness too beautiful to resist. Each worked harder to flex their meanness muscles.
Offshore processing, stopping the boats, feeding the fear, pointing the finger, accusations of anyone ‘not like us’ being a potential terrorist – all helped to fuel the fear train.
Subsequent elections have been highly competitive events. Which party can show the most disdain for the stranger, the oppressed, the weak, and the marginalised? How low can we take our budget for Foreign Aid? Which party can be most brutal in protecting our ‘sovereign borders’? Who can win the title for most heartless towards infants stuck interminably in offshore detention centres?
Where has all this left our ‘lucky country’? It’s left us chasing hard for gold. Not in the pool, on the track, or on the field, but in claiming the title of the meanest country and becoming renown internationally for our heartlessness.
We’ve taken fear, repackaged it as ‘protecting ourselves from strangers’, and turned meanness into a sport of Olympic proportions. The better we get, the more collateral damage – an astounding measure of our superiority.
With the recent release of the Nauru files, we reaffirmed our commitment to this spirit of meanness. We can revel in how well we’ve excelled in our gold medal pursuit. We wholeheartedly embrace our emerging superiority in this contest and relish the pain of others that validates our supremacy.
If people are being abused, attempting suicide to escape the emotional torture of detention, or dying in their attempts to flee persecution or while being help in detention, we must be ticking some great boxes, right?
As I heard the words of a refugee read out today at a public action in response to the recent revelations published by The Guardian, it reflected the frozen-hearted callousness and deep-seated fear in our actions:
the go home blacks
sucking our country dry
niggers with their hands out
they smell strange
messed up their country and now they want
to mess ours up
how do the words
the dirty looks
roll off your backs
maybe because the blow is softer
than a limb torn off
We’re scared. Someone told us it was good for us to be scared. We’re fearful. Someone said we were right to be fearful. We’re xenophobic. Someone told us that strangers should be feared. And all this leaves us in an extremely small, confined, postage-stamp of a heart-space. We eviscerated our hearts, so now it’s not so bad – we hardly feel a thing.
If you think this is all about to land at some nice, warm, fuzzy place of resolution, I’m sorry. I hear people cheering us to ‘be better than this as a nation’ and see that on both sides of the major sides of the political divide, we’re driving the bus in the same direction. Make no mistake; I love my country. A lot. I’m not disillusioned by ‘all those other people’ but I’m more aware that fear is a deadly poison.
Can the bus be turned around? Only if you say so. Only if you say so louder and longer than those affirming meanness.
It is slow work. We rage against a very large machine.
I read some words around a meal of bread and juice on Sunday morning that affirmed our identity as followers of Jesus. Through the lens of meanness, these words might sound triumphalistic, but these words are about a Kingdom where grace is King. Where mercy is King. Where love is King.
You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvellous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
What’s that got to do with asylum seekers?
If you declare Jesus as Lord, you are a citizen of a new ‘people group’. One that is not determined by colour, country of origin, social status, gender, or level of entitlement, but one called out of darkness to reveal the values of a King and Kingdom where darkness, mourning, sorrow and oppression have no place.
In this new country, the door is flung open to strangers. Your newly-ascribed DNA invites you to leave out the welcome mat for those who have been turned away and those who have returned alike. This welcome to country is not predicated on our suitability or what we have to offer the King of the Kingdom, rather, it’s informed by what Jesus has already done to bring us home.
Freely you have received, Jesus says, freely give. Give mercy to those who can’t lift an oppressed finger. Give grace to those who have been paralysed by the politics of fear. And let love rule.
As I read today, “we don’t usually think of history as being shaped by silence, but, as English philosopher, Edmund Burke said, ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
I do not consider myself a good man, but I know I belong to a good Kingdom. One that does things. One that does not remain silent when there are words to be said. Restoration is never a quick fix, but the work is necessary and worthwhile. Particularly when it reflects the values of the country of my privileged citizenship.