The Greasy Pole
The failure of the pro-refugee movement
The Papua New Guinea solution marks the symbolic failure of the humanitarian case for refugee resettlement in Australia. More than a decade of persuasion, from the infographics posted on Facebook, the outraged theatre, the lip-sewing, the incantations that ‘there is no queue’ – none of it had the impact of Ray Hadley playing a foghorn sound on his show every time a new boat arrived. The one win of the pro-boats movement has been to shift their opponents onto faintly more compassionate grounds. The punitive treatment of boat-borne asylum seekers now comes with an added veneer – the prevention of drownings at sea. Around 80% of voters support never resettling boat people on the mainland.
In the ashes of defeat, progressive opinion has lighted on a dismaying explanation: that Australian society is incorrigibly and uniquely racist. Our attitudes in all this are the vestigial spleen of the White Australia policy, and the PNG policy is the final proof. After all, only an intolerant country would tolerate such barbarism being done in its name. There was no disgrace in failing to warm our dead heart, especially when all the shame was reserved for Australia.
In the effort to win hearts and minds, a few prescient people warned that compassion was both a morally and tactically limited framework on which to campaign – ‘The Trouble with Empathy’, David Burchill called it. It’s clear now that not only were these warnings correct, but that the pro-refugee forces never really understood their opposition at all. They were wrong when they identified racism as their primary motivation, and they’re wrong now when they diagnose that same racism as terminal. In fact progressives had dismissed the real reason - a profound sense of economic insecurity and a radically different experience of globalisation – as illusory or the product of consumerism. But before we turn there, we have to examine the charge of intolerance more carefully.
It’s a commonplace that if boat people were white, Australia would welcome them with open arms. Let’s ignore for a moment the counter-examples like the seething reception Polish immigrants get from their British hosts, and examine this idea’s implications. If Australians rejected boat people on the grounds of their race, this act would not occur in isolation. We would expect a series of tandem effects: that our attitudes to refugee intake and immigration would be in lockstep; that newly arrived immigrants here would hold opinions on refugees starkly different from their Australian neighbours, and that our views of other races are predominantly negative. None of these things is true.
Take Europe as a control group – it’s often favourably featured in those infographics – and the contrast is telling. Political parties far to the right of a One Nation wet dream hold serious political sway in Austria, the Netherlands, France, Finland, Italy, Greece, Belgium, Denmark, Hungary and the Baltic states. In many of these places they have the power to make or break governments, or even challenge for presidencies. Cynics might say Australia’s political system dealt with the lunar right by incorporating its ideas, but there is little in the Liberal or Labor platforms that would placate supporters of the Front National.
There’s a simple reason that other Western countries have more anti-immigration political parties than Australia – their populations are significantly more racially intolerant. In Italy 94% of people say immigration is a ‘big problem’. Three-quarters of the French say Islam is incompatible with their values. In 2003, at the height of ‘we will decide’ fever, Australia was the country polled second most favourably disposed to immigration, behind only Canada. More than 60% of us said we wanted immigration to increase or stay the same. In Germany that figure was 22%. These are not cherry-picked figures, but representations of a long-standing and broad trend. For a bunch of racists, we are unusually tolerant.
It’s not just fibbing in surveys either. In 2009 Australia had the highest level of immigration per capita in the OECD, eclipsing influxes that have caused tabloid pandemonium elsewhere. A quarter of us were born overseas, almost half have at least one overseas born parent. Interracial marriage, often identified by demographers as a truer indicator of racism than expressed attitudes, is the norm here. A majority of third generation non-English speaking immigrants intermarry, most to Anglo-Celtic Australians. Our treatment of boat people isn't just different to how other countries treat refugees. It's different to how Australians themselves treat immigrants of every other kind. It is also different to almost all our other expressed attitudes about race, and is so pervasive that it’s shared by immigrants, even, in some cases, by refugees themselves. Race is clearly part of the story - but by itself, it’s an insufficient explanation.
What would an alternative explanation look like? One clue gives us a place to start: over time, Australians’ changing attitudes to immigration have closely correlated with unemployment levels.