A Reflection by Dylan Bird

Posted on July 20, 2010 by

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Since shortly after my last Voiceworks column was published in the Missionary edition, I have been plagued by a sort of discomfort at the strength of my moralistic conviction about the Government’s Northern Territory Emergency Response.

Writing about religion in politics, I condemned Rudd’s continuation of the policy as ‘utterly incongruous’ in light of his espoused allegiance to the Christian principle of standing up for the powerless and oppressed. Having read and thought a whole lot more about the issue, I now realise that my words were ill-considered and, if not untrue, perhaps one- dimensional, stemming more from my self-identification as a left-liberalist thinker than from a critical evaluation of just what exactly the self-determination era of land rights, reconciliation and cultural autonomy has delivered. The muddying of my preconceptions about human rights, racial politics and Aboriginal justice, effected in large part through reading the likes of Marcia Langton, Peter Sutton and Noel Pearson, has forced me to reflect on the way I think about politics – to what extent are my views informed by a left-leaning, student-oriented zeitgeist? What do I really know about the issues I profess to care about?

In her recent asylum seeker policy announcement Julia Gillard called for an end to a politics of extreme opposites – inflammatory remarks about refugees arriving in ‘floods’ and the labelling of Australians concerned about ‘unauthorised arrivals’ as racists. My natural tendency is to err in the latter camp. The numbers of asylum seekers arriving by boat belie the attention given to the issue by politicians and the media; it is clearly in both major parties’ interest to maintain a sense of unease about asylum seekers, and to the extent that this panders to xenophobia, I think the tag ‘racist’ is not too far from the truth.

But between the deeply political nuances and phrases of the prime minister’s speech there were a couple of significant policy announcements, chief among them a proposal for a regional processing centre in Timor-Leste. The ‘Dili Solution’, as it has been promptly named, is being criticised for its likeness to Howard’s policy of offshore processing in Nauru, with government representatives countering that it promises a cooperative means by which to deal with asylum seekers in Australia’s region. So long as people in need are given comfort, shelter and processed in an orderly manner, surely it need not matter where it takes place. But a simple question remains: why not in Australia? It seems immediately unjust that one of the poorest and more fragile countries in the world is being earmarked for such a scheme, when Australia’s land, resources, extensive coastline and economic stability would surely make it a more amenable option. The ‘Dili Solution’ constitutes a nod to those whom Gillard denies are racists – people in marginal seats who shudder at the idea of asylum seekers stepping foot on Australia’s soil. It is a carefully crafted election year policy – prioritising a government’s re-election rather than seeking to find the most humane and practical solution to what is a clearly exaggerated problem.

The truth is that in the midst of all this hype around people smugglers and refugee advocacy, very few of us can claim to have a deep understanding of the reality of the issue. The asylum seeker debate is not only characterised by polarised opinions, as Gillard contends, but has become in essence a product of the collective imaginary, propagated by our leaders for political gain. Rather than simply adopting a humanitarian or more ‘hardline’ stance, we might ask ourselves why the argument is even taking place, and question just what it offers in the way of alleviating the suffering of the world’s most vulnerable people.

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Posted in: Dylan Bird, Opinion