Are we really scared of boat people?

Aurelien-Mondonthb Aurelien Mondon

First published in The National Times July 8, 2010 

Julia Gillard told Australians this week that they should not be scared to say "what they feel". Howardesque, she told them not to be put off by censorship and political correctness. Saluted by Pauline Hanson, she said that the "people" who are "anxious about border security" are "expressing a genuine view". In short, Gillard promised to be the voice of the people; the voice of those who feel for the children in detention and those who do not. The voice of those who are aware that a few thousand asylum seekers will not endanger Australia, and those who are encouraged by our politicians to think we should turn "leaky boats" back to sea.

Is this really what the "people" think? Are "the people" genuinely concerned by the arrival of boats, or are they made to be concerned by the very politicians seeking their votes? Should politicians be allowed to wage scaremongering campaigns based on simplistic exaggeration in order to become elected as representative of the Australian "people"? This is where the crux of the matter lies and this is where Australia will have to choose between becoming a more "genuine" democracy and falling into a reactionary populism that we have already witnessed under the Howard government.

The end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s saw Australia clearly and almost unanimously discard its ethno-exclusivist past. This period culminated in the burial of the White Australia policy and the enactment of the 1975 Racial Discrimination Act. At the time, it seemed the Australian "people" supported the process, as exemplified by the 1967 referendum, where an overwhelming majority of Australians rejected the discrimination that had been imposed on the Aborigines. The election of the Whitlam and Fraser governments also seemed to entrench the rejection of ethno-exclusivist politics in Australia. A consensus was reached between the "people" of Australia and their political leaders: race issues would be left outside the political realm and the country would move on in a more progressive, optimistic and inclusive manner.

Then began the 1980s and one of the two dramatic "revolutions" that shook Australia to its core. This period political commentator Paul Kelly aptly coined the "end of certainties". The first revolution was economic and neo-liberal. Symbolically, it was enacted in Australia by the Labor government, and was accepted as inevitable by both Labor and the Coalition. This new consensus created the first divide between the elite in power and a growing part of the "people" who felt abandoned and threatened by the dramatic changes looming. The second revolution was cultural and linked to former prime minister Paul Keating's "big picture" for Australia. While fervently pursuing a neo-liberal agenda, Keating became the face of many radical changes such as the split from Britain and the struggle for a republic, growing ties with Asia, and Aboriginal reconciliation and land rights. Most of the remaining markers of old Australia were dismantled by the Labor government; many Australians failed to recognise themselves in the "big picture" they had been forced to look at and look like.

While keeping with the neo-liberal agenda, the Liberals found that victory could only be achieved by diverting attention to cultural matters. Populism proved the perfect tool for such a diversion: the right could create a "people" in opposition to an elite and minorities they made to appear favoured by Labor. Groups such as refugees and Aborigines were too weak to be able to influence the campaign, yet could be perversely advertised as privileged. To allow the pursuit of radical economic reforms, Howard offered the scarred Australian population scapegoats responsible for their growing feeling of insecurity.

To assuage the fears and insecurities of the part of the population who felt they risked the most in the era of globalisation, Howard pledged to wage a war so that Australians could feel "relaxed and comfortable". To assuage deep-felt social and economic insecurities, he offered "the mainstream" a Manichean vision of Australian society where forces threatened the very existence of Australia as it was. In the name of "democracy" and "egalitarianism", Howard bravely attacked the "noisy" privileged minorities, and those refugee "queue jumpers", ready to throw their children overboard to take advantage of Australian generosity.

Instead of offering the Australians a more inclusive, fairer society, which would have put the neo-liberal model at risk, Howard offered the discontented a violent and pessimistic vision of society composed mostly of enemies. He relied on fear and proclaimed himself the saviour, the protector of the "mainstream" against all those dangerous minorities. When Howard was returned as leader of the Liberals, he would not govern for "special interests"; he would govern "for all of us": more precisely, for all of those within Howard's hazy "mainstream". Howard was not created by the people. He created his "people".

Gillard is following the same path, creating her Australian "people". Rather than explaining the insignificant impact of boat arrivals on Australia and stressing the otherwise welcoming nature of the Australian people, she has highlighted and exaggerated their fears. She has consciously legitimised the same ethno-exclusivist views that the people of Australia convincingly rejected 40 years ago, for they felt these views were backward-looking and their country ought to be progressive. In what appears as a merely short-sighted political move, and as she cut an extremely generous tax deal with some of the most powerful people in the world, she has diverted some Australians' insecurity onto some of the weakest. Is this what the people truly want? Let's hope not.