OK. Cards on the table before I start. We have been completely smitten by Australia. We have made the remark more than once that if we had discovered this country when we were in our thirties, our children would probably have Australian passports by now. All of the Aussies that we have met have been delightful. Outgoing, upbeat, utterly hospitable and generally very good company.
However, (and there is always a ‘however’ isn’t there!), at the top of Australian politics there is a streak of callousness, bordering on xenophobia, that is hard to reconcile with the generally ‘laid-back’ nature of many of the country’s citizens. It is this attitude, which flourished under the leadership of the previous Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, that has resulted in the fact that Australian is currently running internment camps to two other countries, Nauru and Papua New Guinea, both of which are too poor and too aid-dependent to be able to resist the lure of the Aussie dollar and the influence that that dollar buys.
In these camps, refugees, who have tried to reach Australia by boat, have been interned without trial and without any idea how long their incarceration will last. It’s called “Off-shore Processing”, which means solving your immigration problems by dumping refugees in someone else’s country.
Men, women and children are kept in poor conditions behind barbed wire, guarded by Australian security guards. Journalists are not allowed to visit the camps and the Abbott government even passed a gagging law that says that anyone who visits the camp, even in a medical capacity, and makes public what they have seen, will be liable to imprisonment for up to two years. So the security guards can do what they like, without fear of being exposed, and there are many rumours that that is exactly what they do.
Such a harsh and secretive regime runs counter to all the principles of an open democracy and is in contravention of Australia’s obligations under the UN Human Rights Convention. It is a source of shame and embarrassment to many Australians, some of whom are hoping that the government’s position will be modified under the direction of the new, and rather more grown-up, Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull. So far, however, there is no sign of anything of the sort actually happening.
The treatment of the ‘boat people’, who, for whatever reason have risked their lives to escape conditions in their native countries, (many dying in the process), has unfortunate echoes of this country’s “White Australia” policy of the 1950s and 60s where immigration was encouraged, but only by people from Britain, Ireland and one or two other countries, and even then, only people with white skin. This policy is credited with have plunged Australia into decades of economic decline and it was eventually abandoned, but not before many thousands of non-white applicants had had their requests for entry into the country refused.
One tactic used by Immigration Officers during that period was to insist that applicants for a visa should complete a dictation test. Not a bad idea, you might argue, if your aim is to ensure that new people coming into the country have a reasonable command of English.
However, it was not as simple as that. The Immigration Officer at the border had the unchallengeable discretion to decide which language the applicant should be tested in, so if the applicant was a black African civil servant, or a Malaysian taxi driver, the Immigration Officer could insist that the dictation test should be in Scottish Gaelic or in Serbian. If the applicant failed the test, the visa was denied. A shameful piece of officially sanctioned skulduggery? Certainly, but nonetheless widespread and widely supported by some Australians.
At the moment in Australia there is a fierce debate raging about the fate of several dozen children who were brought to this country from the internment camp on Nauru for medical treatment. Nauru is a tiny island state in the middle of the pacific Ocean. The Australian government is saying that, as soon as their medical condition has been dealt with, the children should be returned to Nauru and put back behind barbed wire.
Some doctors are arguing that the conditions in these camps are, in themselves, detrimental to children’s health and they are refusing to declare the children fit to travel. There are street protests outside the hospitals in support of the allowing the children to stay. Some doctors, at great professional risk, are going so far as to say that sending young children back to prison conditions is tantamount to child abuse, a phrase that is uppermost in everyone’s mind in Australia at the moment with the news being dominated by the case of a high profile, Roman Catholic Cardinal who has escaped to the Vatican rather than face the many people who are accusing him of either directly abusing children or covering up the abuse committed by other priests. He says that he now has a heart condition that prevents him from flying back to Australia to face court.
The public response to this has been a ‘crowd-funding’ appeal to raise funds to allow the accusers, the victims of abuse, to travel to Rome to confront the Cardinal. The target of AUS$60,000 was reached within days and has subsequently been doubled.
It is against this background that I was very pleased to walk over a certain bridge in Melbourne. It was a disused railway bridge, which is now used as a walk-way between one side of the river and the other. Just to make the walk more interesting, the city authorities have installed large information perspex panels, acknowledging and celebrating the contribution made to the life of the city by the various waves of immigrants that have come to Melbourne over the past century from all over the world and have helped to create the vibrant and dynamic city that we were now enjoying being part of.
The great irony that the current government seems to have overlooked is that, in the 1970s, when the Vietnam War ended in chaos and thousands of South Vietnamese took to boats to escape the retribution of the Viet Cong, Australia opened its doors. Today, the Vietnamese community is one of the most productive and successful communities in the country, making a major contribution to Australia’s economy. Funny old world!