I’m getting to the point where I’m thoroughly disillusioned with Kevin Rudd. These things build up over time – his generally arrogant nature, his proposed Internet filter, his feet-dragging on the republic and gay marriage – but what’s really pushed me over the edge is his stance on asylum seekers.
Let’s recap the history of this in Australia. We have a long, long tradition of xenophobia that I won’t bother going into – the treatment of Chinese immigrants in the gold rush, attitudes towards Southern Europeans after WWII, the White Australia Policy, etc. Even today it is evident in the charming young men and women who drape the flag across themselves on Australia Day and write “Fuck Off, We’re Full,” on their chests (for the record, Australia has the third-lowest population density in the world). Most Australians are racist pricks who don’t like brown people, a sentiment that our leaders rarely neglect to take advantage of.
In 2001, a sinking boat full of several hundred Afghan asylum seekers was picked up near Christmas Island by a Norweigan cargo ship, the MV Tampa. With the boat severely overloaded, the captain requested to dock at Christmas Island. The Australian government promptly refused him. With many of the refugees needing medical attention, and some becoming aggressive at the prospect of returning to Indonesia (where they would subsequently be sent back to Afghanistan, as Indonesia is not a signatory to any refugee conventions), the captain took a stand and entered Australian waters anyway.
John Howard promptly responded by dispatching the SAS, who seized control of the vessel in order to protect Australia… from helpless, sick, desperate refugees. I think it was around this point that, with John Howard’s careful nurturing and a little help from 9/11, we experienced a paradigm shift in the Australian mindset. We went from vaguely disliking the brown people who came here and ate funny food and didn’t speak English well, to seeing them as an active threat that required military intervention; a yellow Sword of Damocles right above us, lurking in the jungles and ports of Indonesia, assaulting us with wave after wave of leaky wooden boats. Flooding us, even! We started using words like border “protection,” a “tough stance,” worried that Australia was becoming a soft “target.” We didn’t talk about refugees and asylum seekers; we talked about “illegal immigrants” and “queue-jumpers.”
Flash forward eight years. John Howard is gone, and in his place is Kevin Rudd, who leans further and further to the right with every passing month. A similar situation has occurred, but instead of a foreign cargo vessel, an Australian Navy ship was first on the scene. 78 Sri lankan asylum seekers were rescued from a sinking ship in Indonesian waters, transferred to an Australian customs vessel, and taken to the nearest safe port in Indonesia. They now refuse to leave the ship, and the stalemate has dragged out for weeks. They refuse to step onto Indonesian soil for the same reason the Afghan refugees on the Tampa did: they will be returned to where they came from, where they have every reason to fear for their lives, and the lives of their children. It is a perfectly understandable response. If I was in their shoes I would do the exact same thing.
I’m sure John Howard was quite pleased with how he dealt with asylum seekers. It was politically popular, and the Tampa alone was responsible for winning him the 2001 election. It was also desirable on a personal level, because Howard was a racist. Not the kind of racist who would spit on an Asian in the street, but certainly the kind of racist who orchestrated policies and legislation designed to limit immigration and keep Australia as white as possible.
Kevin Rudd, on the other hand, is somewhat torn. I’m sure that he personally sees the need to be more humanitarian towards refugees. He recognises the insanity in demonising the world’s most wretched, hopeless, pathetic groups of people, the ruthlessness in painting them as a threat for political gain. Such is evident from his general relaxation of the Howard-era policies: the disbandment of the Pacific Solution, speeding up processing of protection visa applications, and the guarantee of permanent residency to successful applicants.
But, because of the kind of man he is, Kevin Rudd is allowing his political instincts to overpower his compassion. He wants to appear TOUGH, just like John Howard was, and ignore the fact that this was never an issue that needed “toughness” applied to it. That big ball of hatred that Howard carefully crafted is too difficult (and useful) to just get rid of, so he’s done his best to transfer the loathing to people smugglers – a strategy that is both blatantly transparent and no more ethical than Howard’s.
A real left-wing politican would try to undo Howard’s legacy. A real left-wing politician would try to convince the Australian people that refugees are not a threat, not a danger, not a problem to be solved but rather people to be helped. A real left-wing politician would make us look at refugees and see human beings, mothers and fathers and their children, rather than “illegal queue-jumpers.”
Unfortunately, Rudd is not really a left-wing politician at all.