Asylum seekers

Twirling towards freedom

We Don’t Live Here Anymore

"Australia is no longer in Australia's migration zone" sounds like an Onion headline, but unfortunately it's straight out of the government's playbook. Yesterday, Parliament voted to excise the Australian mainland from Australia’s migration zone, closing the doors to refugees but opening the window for the rest of the world to make as much fun of us as they like. Our policies are beyond parody now.

Coalition Senator Michaelia Cash has told the press that yesterday Immigration Minister Brendan O’Connor “came to the Coalition quite literally on bended knee today and begged us, begged us to facilitate the passage of this legislation.” Receiving the go-ahead, O’Connor stood up and rushed off to Senate where the day’s original scheduling was re-ordered to ensure the bill was passed. If it turns out to be a popular policy – and indeed it might as a 2012 poll revealed that 60% of us think that Labor was “too soft” on refugees – it’s not one that’s likely to do much for Gillard’s tilt at the Prime Ministership. The legislation, after all, is almost identical to that put forward by the Howard government in 2006. But after an increase in boat arrivals and a decline in popularity, it seems that Gillard was left with few alternatives. On mainland Australia, anyway.

As this week’s political theatre played out, dull as it was for the most part, the one sentence that resonated for me was written by Jonathan Green for the Drum. “This was the week we became the largest recipients of our own largesse,” he wrote, referring to the $3 billion we’ll be plucking from foreign aid commitments to instead detain asylum seekers.

I’ve just finished reading George Saunders’ excellent book The 10th of December, wherein every grimly dystopian short story is about people who’ve become victims of their own deluded largesse. In one of the key stories, refugees are strung up as decorative status symbols in the front yards of the wealthy, kept alive, and placid, by a thin wire that threads through their temples. Saunders though, managed to accomplish what our government has not. His stories end on a note of hope.

As Australia’s own story of what a wealthy society can apparently afford to do to refugees plays out over the next weeks, months and years, is it going to be one we're happy to recount to future generations?

Greens leader Christine Milne doesn’t think so. Milne has cautioned the Government to learn from the recent apologies to the children of the Stolen Generation. "In 10, 15, 20 years when there is a national apology to the children detained indefinitely in detention for the sole, supposed crime of seeking a better life in our country because they are running away for persecution with their families,” she said, “Not one of you will be able to stand up and say "Oh we didn't, oh, it was the culture of the period'”.

That Australia isn’t really Australia anymore is probably too surreal a notion for many to grasp just yet, and its effect is unlikely to be seen anytime soon. It’s hard to imagine that people who are so desperate to flee their home countries that they’ll risk boarding a leaky fishing boat will decide that they’re better off where they are than in a country that is only pretending not to exist. This newest piece of legislation wherein Australia turns off the lights, draws the blinds and covers up its eyes may well amount to nothing more than an expensive and embarrassing game of hide and seek. 

Michaela McGuire

Michaela McGuire is a journalist and the author of Last Bets: A True Story of Gambling, Morality and the Law and the Penguin Special A Story of Grief. Visit her blog, Twirling Towards Freedom.


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