The hurt of Rufus Dawes

This article in the Guardian by Adam Brereton has intruded heavily on my thoughts this afternoon. The thesis – the cruel treatment of asylum seekers and its place and connection to Australian history – is one I have not considered before. As my knowledge of pre-federation Australian history is so poor, I immediately felt lost even thinking about it.

However re-reading the article, what jumped off the page was my personal interpretation of the language used. These days, I am not shocked anymore when I see Australian government policy described as cruel. Sometime in the recent past, cruel became normal. I like to think this isn’t acceptance however I’d be wrong. These policies simply are what occurs, what else could there be?

Perhaps I didn’t think closely about the treatment of asylum seekers while a government I supported was in power. Perhaps the severity of Operation Sovereign Borders has smacked me across the face over the past months. Yet something about the juxtaposition of Australian history and asylum policy stuck a chord. The hurt of Rufus Dawes especially. Reading this article, I felt uncomfortable and I felt disappointment about Australian policies governing asylum seekers.

These previously distant emotions were forcefully driven home by the final sentences:

“Yes they have, they came illegally.” Even if that were the case, so did your ancestors – and they were treated the same way. That’s the trained outburst of a broken person, who identifies with the authority that dominates him rather than with justice – not the words of a natural bigot.

Why is Australian culture cruel? Because that’s the behaviour our cruel state demands from us to show loyalty.

As a younger adult, my tendency was to believe the average Australian was a natural bigot. I have changed my mind since then, where I instead see a complexity of social and cultural forces shaping public attitudes.

To me, these complexities scream modern Australian culture is confused as opposed to cruel. I see much evidence to support this when I look across the political and social institutions of Australia, where cruelness is not the defining feature.

From this, I still draw hope the Australian public is not well symbolised by a broken person with regard to asylum seekers.

So while the hope remains, for the first time in too long a time, I am also uncomfortable once again. Thank you Adam Brereton for your excellent contribution.

 

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3 thoughts on “The hurt of Rufus Dawes

  1. I agree. It was an amazing piece of writing. It’s that wonderful style of rhetoric that keeps the reader engaged, bypassing their intellectual rationalisations of an event and speaking to something deeper and emotional. It’s the framework of pain and suffering reexamined for both the modern experience (us in power doing it to the Other) and the colonial period.

    The problem with the piece that it’s incorrect and doesn’t stand up to intellectual scrutiny. If Adam knew anything about the international experience, it becomes more difficult to frame our modern situation in terms of Australian history. The Italians, for example, hired the Libyan army to shoot at people trying to pass through northern Africa. Principles of ‘place of first asylum’ are being used more frequently in Europe to stop ‘asylum shopping’. The Americas are grouping together to stop asylum flows from South America. &c., &c., &c.

    Adam’s piece acts as a response to the question: ‘When did Australians become so cruel?’ His answer, ‘Australians have always been cruel. Look at its early white history.’

    The problem is that the question is misleading. The better question should be: ‘What explains the attitude towards asylum seekers of resettlement countries?’ It’s not clear that the European response has much to do with Marcus Clarke’s reading of white Australian history.

    For me, the biggest issue is why Governments choose to frame their policies in the language of cruelty. How many people were aware that Australia had implemented a world-class complementary protection system? None. The same week the legislation passed, broadening the Australian definition of who could gain protection in Australia, the Government started talking about making sure we were only accepting ‘genuine’ refugees.

    Thus, we see opinion piece after opinion piece written by people with absolutely no background in asylum seeker policy repeating the line that asylum seeker policy — regardless of what it is — is nothing but cruel. I don’t think they realise what part they play in the political machine.

    When the average voter reads any of these pieces in the newspaper, or sees the talking heads of Manne or Burnside on the television, the average person sees the out-of-touch activists having a whinge and thinks: ‘Good! They are whining because we are being tough. We are so good at being tough that the wimpy lefties are complaining.’

    It’s why the comments in response to Adam’s piece are completely mental. Adam is characterised by them as a whining bleeding heart liberal (miles off base), reaffirming their psychic self image that the ordinary Australian a resolute and righteous. One person even said that if Adam had his way, we would be flooded with economic migrants.

    The LNP can get away with its current scheme (militarising border protection) because it looks tough and the lefties whinge about it. There are no votes in appearing compassionate. When Burke saw the offshore IDFs, he thought they were disgraceful and ordered them to be cleaned up. How much of that message went through to the ordinary voter? Barely any of it; he buried it in a lengthy press conference where most of it was dedicated to reaffirming the ‘no advantage principle’.

    But this isn’t distinctly Australian — as Adam seems to suppose. In Greece, refugees eat out of bins because there’s no resettlement program. Italy has a day of mourning for drowned asylum seekers — the Australian left wonders why we can’t be like Italy — but Italy further shuts down migration pathways for asylum seekers that don’t involve sailing off the African coast. Have compassion for the dead, but continue to kick the living. And so on and so forth.

    So it’s a great piece of writing and it will be extremely popular, but it’s empty.

  2. Mark. Thanks for your comment.

    I don’t know anything about the history of white settlement in Australia, which I why I stayed away from explicit comment on it. I don’t really care for the specific historical accuracies or country comparisons. My piece was intended as my personal reading of the article.

    Despite this, I don’t know what you mean by “incorrect”. Do you mean it is invalid because other countries do similar things? To me, this does not disqualify the comparison with Australian history. I think (I don’t know) there is some validity in the comparison with history, as country such as Australia has had a relatively unique journey to this point in terms of asylum seeker policy.

    Yes, other countries are doing a variety of things, mostly “bad” and “cruel”. Yes, current policies aren’t exclusively Australian. However the context of an individual country is important. Mandatory detention is ‘Australian’. As are concepts such as the PNG policy (effectively paying for another country to settle asylum seekers – and note, I’m not saying this is good/bad, just trying to describe why it’s relatively unique).

    I don’t think its fair to point to the use of Clarke and exclude the contribution via bringing in the European comparison. To me, Clarke’s characters were used to highlight cruelty and the place of justice, not say cruelty and justice is an Australian phenomenon. Perhaps we read this differently.

    Moving on. Blaming op-ed writers for supporting the ‘political machine’ is extremely awkward and raises many other questions. If you legitimately oppose a policy because you believe it to be cruel, why not write about it? I don’t assume these authors think the treatment is cruel because the sneaky government deviously planted the notion in their heads. This is not why the Keating government introduced mandatory detention. Tampa showed a government going to extremes (then extremes) to win votes but it wasn’t part of a grand master plan. You should know better than to read the comments also. Those people are not a reflection of anything except the ultra-angry left/right and do not even come close to representing an opinion of the mainstream, except the mainstream dreamed up by simple notions of the angry public.

    It is completely acceptable that the way the government frames the debate is a major factor but I don’t see this as the determinant factor in policy making.

    Finally, I disagree with this:

    “The LNP can get away with its current scheme (militarising border protection) because it looks tough and the lefties whinge about it. There are no votes in appearing compassionate. “

    Yes, it looks tough and you’re right it occurs because there are votes in it. But this does not mean a causal factor is opposition from progressives. What should people do with a policy they disagree with? Accept it? Silently grumble over their morning coffee? I’m on the Australian left and I know exactly why we’re not like Italy. As someone who knows a lot about this area, what would you say to the ‘left’ who oppose these policies?

    It wasn’t an empty piece to me. I was really stuck by it unlike anything I have read recently. I appreciate your thoughts on the article.

    • My piece was intended as my personal reading of the article.

      Oh, absolutely. And as a piece to inspire some personal feeling, it’s great.

      My point is about what it’s trying to analyse.

      Q: ‘Why is Australian policy so cruel?’
      Adam: ‘Because Australians are cruel.’
      Mark: ‘Because every resettlement country in the world has an incentive to be (or to be seen to be) cruel.’

      country such as Australia has had a relatively unique journey

      Not actually true. There’s a presentation as Australia being somehow exceptional in its activities, particularly with rhetoric about Australia being an embarrassment overseas. It’s not in any way true.

      When we talk in overseas fora about travesties in the policing of irregular migration, Australia barely gets mentioned.

      Regional resettlement (what we refer to as the ‘PNG solution’) is being done by other countries. We adopted the idea from them (Google ‘Heads of RCPs’. There was a meeting in Bangkok a few years ago).

      If you legitimately oppose a policy because you believe it to be cruel, why not write about it?

      I’m not saying don’t write about it. I am saying be self-critical so you know what to write and for what purpose. At the moment, people are writing articles that are just making the ‘other side’ feel more righteous.

      I don’t assume these authors think the treatment is cruel because the sneaky government deviously planted the notion in their heads.

      I do. Or, rather, I think it’s a feedback loop (Governments reinforcing ideas which echo in the public and get fed back to the Government as authentic desire). And it’s done by all ‘sides’ of politics.

      I don’t see this as the determinant factor in policy making.

      Depends on which policy you mean.

      What should people do with a policy they disagree with?

      Convince other people to disagree with it as well. That means understanding the audience and, if need be, manipulating them.

      As someone who knows a lot about this area, what would you say to the ‘left’ who oppose these policies?

      Which policies? I’ve had dinner parties where I’ve convinced ASRC supporters to stop donating. I use the language of the ASRC, reveal the assumptions, and then use both to convince my audience that the campaign is mischievous. Admittedly, convincing people that Amnesty is terrible is much, much easier.

      If you wanted to convince people to adopt the Greens’ policies, you’d use the language of the LNP, identify the assumptions, and then use both to show that there’s a better approach. Not hard.

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