Australian politics, society & culture

The Greasy Pole

Bogans and boat people (Pt 2)

Read part 1 here

Western Sydney and the shallows of abundance

“We are a wealthy country” is a familiar phrase of entreaty in refugee advocacy. Implicit in it is an understanding, even if it’s an indirect one, that generosity is driven by abundance. That’s particularly true in Australia, where in the recent past attitudes to immigration have been driven more by unemployment levels than an unshakeable core of hard-line racism. Why then with the economy performing relatively well would we turn on boat people? Why do so many Australians still feel they’re at the mercy of cost of living pressures? And why are both of these impulses at their strongest in Western Sydney?

In the wake of John Howard’s statement that ‘We will decide who comes to this country, and the circumstances in which they come’, Tim Dunlop came up with what he called an ‘unpopular and unproveable’ theory to explain its popularity. When Australia was still feeling the aftershocks of deregulation and privatisation, Howard’s statement wasn’t a dogwhistle but a rallying cry. Boat arrivals weren’t just a televised proxy for unchecked immigration, they were both evidence of globalisation and a symbol of it, and Howard’s statement was some kind of restoration of agency and control over the process.

Since then the boats issue has become the way in which the different classes of Australian society argue about globalisation. The inner city, the deregulated economy’s chief beneficiaries, laud its virtues and opportunities, but also warn of the responsibility to protect its global victims. The outer city worries about the nature and scale of the change, which is up close and personal. Beyond a raw appeal to compassion, an appeal to abundance has been the chief way that the former has addressed the latter. But that reaffirmation of wealth and certainty hasn’t got very far in Western Sydney, where even the concern over boats is multicultural.

When Laurie Ferguson spoke about concerns over boat arrivals in migrant communities west of Parramatta, there was little curiosity for what might cause this unlikely standoff. Where it was acknowledged at all it was written off as internalised racism, or a political tactic, like saying “some of my best friends are Muslims who hate boat people”. But it was in fact a powerful indicator of how widespread and how immediate concerns over globalisation had become. Even those most recently benefitting from it felt it was veering out of control, and that the government was beginning to lose control of their circumstances. Fundamentally, those fears were well founded.

To look at indicators of rising income inequality or unemployment in Western Sydney is to get only a partial idea of where this fear and anxiety is coming from. This approach misses something more significant: a change in the relationship between citizen and state. Signs of this shift can be found in the upper echelons of policy architecture – start digging through something like the NSW Treasury Long-Term Fiscal Pressures Report and you wonder why its implications are not more widely publicised.

The Report’s answer to the fiscal ‘challenge’ of Australia’s ageing population is to increase immigration, restrain public sector pay, and – the quote here is direct – through “lowering community expectations” of services. For someone like a cleaner on a government contract living in Western Sydney, the plan couldn’t be a more comprehensive screwing: flat-lining pay, stagnating services, and increased competition for both.

In the past, this kind of quality-of-life issue would have been a frontline one for the left, but these aren’t the kind of dwindling resources progressives are interested in right now. There’s no Get Up! outrage over humdrum issues like 10 year-long queues for public housing, or ballooning hospital waiting times, or the fact that only 2% of rents in Sydney-Illawara are affordable for very low income workers. The campaign to increase the Newstart allowance has idled for so long it’s been taken up by the Business Council of Australia, perhaps the world’s only example of a fatcat lobby group trying to jack up the dole.

Apart from notable exceptions among the Greens and in the charity sector, activism has drifted away from this kind of grinding economic territory towards issues like gay marriage and climate change. There’s a sense that the left has been disappointed by the working class, who were emancipated only to vote for John Howard at the first hurdle. The old image of the working poor has been replaced with cashed-up bogans, no matter how incomplete the picture.

Over the past decade, many progressives came to believe that the domestic disadvantaged were only relatively so, and that the real danger was to the environment. They were in a way making their own attempt at “lowering community expectations”, attempting to repeal the McMansion brand of consumption. There were some extreme examples. In July 2011 the Sydney Morning Herald printed a piece by Elizabeth Farrelly that ended like this:

“(Relatively) poor Australians, despite decades of education campaigns, still see conspicuous consumption – of land, leisure, energy, alcohol, food – as a norm, not a mortal danger. This is what no one will say: diabetes may be dreadful but it is, largely, a choice. It’s a matter of will. The coming question for us, equivalent in its way to the throwing of cash at African famines, is this: for how long are we happy to fund the expensive treatment of people whose diabesity reflects their refusal to stop overconsuming… But like it or not, the time is nigh when we’ll have to choose, not just who needs treatment, but who deserves it.”

The same opinion pages, and sometimes the same people, that upbraided Australia for its lack of compassion were arguing, with not very well concealed enthusiasm, for fat westies to be denied health care for treatable, terminal chronic illness. The west was finding that both its traditional political allies and the state itself were arguing that their present circumstances not only were unlikely to improve, but would actually have to diminish due to scant resources. Already watching the most vulnerable among them failing behind, the prevailing political mood among those with below average incomes was not just to help the disadvantaged already in their communities, but also to avoid their fate. This is not a mindset readily compatible with then welcoming the world’s most vulnerable as well. 

Western Sydney’s response to entreaties to be compassionate towards asylum seekers has been mixed. But overall, it has been to reply, often angrily and inarticulately, not just with prejudice but with legitimate concerns about their own circumstances and the overwhelmed provisions for pensioners, the homeless and others already in need. These counter-empathy cases have been attacked as flimsy Trojan horses filled with racism, or rapacious expressions of an endlessly expanding desire to consume. This has not been a successful strategy.

This pantomime has been repeated for more than a decade, with the appeals becoming more impassioned, and the responses more rigidly cemented. It has now ended in despair for refugee advocates, a genuinely held belief that a majority of Australians must have something wrong with them. It’s not hopeless though – the people of Western Sydney and other places like it are slowly persuadable, if spoken to in the right way. But first, they have to be listened to.

Read part 1 here


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