September 2013


Why Australia hates asylum seekers

By Christos Tsiolkas
Why Australia hates asylum seekers

Photos of asylum seekers by Emmanuel Santos, taken at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre.
They did not wish to be named, to protect their families in their countries of origin.

Our governments and press have demonised boat people for 15 years. Organisations like the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre worry they’re fighting a losing battle.

“I received a text from one of my colleagues, and he wrote, I feel like we have failed,” says Kon Karapanagiotidis. “I texted back and wrote, Yeah, so do I.”

It is a few days after Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced his “PNG solution” to his latest political crisis, whereby no asylum seeker arriving by boat will be settled in Australia. My friend and colleague Karapanagiotidis, the founder and CEO of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre (ASRC), shows a rare moment of doubt and confusion. But it doesn’t last long before he’s thumping the table, remarshalling his forces.

“We are going to have to fight harder, push harder. We are going to have to become even more outspoken. We are going to have to go out there and be as fearless as we can. The success of the Centre is in fighting from adversity. I learnt that lesson from childhood, at school.” That would be the primary school in regional Victoria, at Mount Beauty, where the kids taunted him with, “Wog, wog, why don’t you go back to your own country, dirty wog?”

Such is the man’s charisma that I am sold: I believe that the result of a 15-year campaign that has bred fear, misconceptions and fury about asylum seekers can still be turned around. But listening back to the interview later that day at home, the words that resonate most are: I feel like we have failed.

The ASRC itself hasn’t failed. That is crucial to note. Over the 12 years since Karapanagiotidis and his welfare studies students started up the organisation in a small shopfront in Melbourne’s inner west with only a few hundred dollars, it has provided legal, employment, community and health services to nearly 10,000 asylum seekers. Now situated in a three-storey building in the CBD, it employs 45 staff and 872 volunteers, and has a thousand more people wanting to help in any way they can. Every single woman, man and child the ASRC has assisted counts as a success, but the fact remains that broader efforts to change Australians’ hearts and minds about the treatment of asylum seekers haven’t succeeded. We’ll lock up asylum seekers in offshore detention centres, we’ll stand idly by as they slowly go crazy or harm themselves, we’ll refuse journalists the right to speak to them or to name them, we’ll redefine our borders to not let them in, we’ll farm them off to our impoverished, under-developed neighbours rather than construct a humane and efficient system to process their claims for asylum. It doesn’t matter to us that more than 85% of asylum seekers who arrive here by boat are found to be genuine refugees, and that as signatories to the UN Refugee Convention we are obliged to offer these people refuge.

We have failed. You can’t rewrite this recent history, centred on the abandonment of a bipartisan agreement on immigration policy and multiculturalism, a reactionary moment that stretches from One Nation to Tampa to the “Stop the Boats” sloganeering to the PNG solution. Those of us who wanted and fought for a just and compassionate response to this issue must now face some hard questions: what are the consequences of this failure for progressive politics? What does it mean for the kind of Australia we are now? And the kind of Australia we will become?

The shambolic and unedifying leadership challenges of Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd have blinded us to the real problem facing the ALP, the one that goes back to Kim Beazley, and to the Labor Party’s inability at the start of the 21st century to decide what it stood for and who it represented – whether it wanted to become a social democratic party that continued the economic liberalisation reforms initiated by Bob Hawke and Paul Keating or remain a traditionally working-class movement that argued for a tactical and sceptical distance from the market. Under Beazley, then Simon Crean, Mark Latham, Beazley again, Rudd and Gillard and now back to Rudd, the ALP couldn’t make up its mind, flirting with the moguls when it came to media laws, for example, but playing the class-warfare card when it came to mining. The electorate sensed the confusion and, already anxious about the pace of change, traditional working-class voters have largely abandoned the party.

The rise of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party from 1997 was ultimately evidence of the Australian public’s resentment and fear of globalisation. The media focused on that party’s incendiary rhetoric on race and immigration, but lost in the noise was that One Nation also articulated people’s legitimate concerns about the pace of economic change. The party tapped into a desire among many working-class Australians to wind back the economic reforms of the previous decades, particularly those that were seen to lead to the loss of permanent full-time work in favour of casual jobs and the retreat of manufacturing industries offshore. Meanwhile, John Howard was canny enough to catch onto the xenophobia and the rejection of multiculturalism underpinning One Nation’s platform and, through “wedge politics”, to bring disaffected voters into the Coalition’s fold. A sizeable portion of the disaffected could have been brought back to Labor had the party managed to find a way of addressing concerns about globalisation and its effects that did not rely on fanning the insular response stoked by One Nation. But then, two months out from the 2001 election, Tampa happened, and Beazley blinked. His collusion with the Howard government to demonise the asylum seekers on board the Norwegian freighter indicated the weakness of both his leader-ship and the party he represented. The Labor Party bled members and votes.

I want to believe that if Beazley had stood his ground, if he had refuted the hysteria that drove the “Tampa election” and had sustained an objection to the misinformation about asylum seekers throwing “children overboard”, then Labor would have consolidated itself as a genuine social democratic party. The alternative, and it might have been even more effective, was for the party to have explicitly prioritised working-class concerns over other socially progressive issues. It would have meant losing voters like me to the Greens, but that occurred anyway. A decision by the Labor Party to affirm its traditional base would have forced left-wingers to articulate their politics as they related to life outside the inner cities: not only the politics of asylum seekers and immigration, but also the politics of feminism, sexuality, Aboriginal rights and sovereignty, climate change and the environment. It would have led to an acknowledgement that the left couldn’t take Labor for granted and that they couldn’t leave the hard work to activists like Karapanagiotidis. It would have meant the left had to get off their arses.

Obviously, the winner in all this seems to be the Coalition. But when and if the Coalition gains power there will still be contradictions to be confronted. The anger at the effects of globalisation – the deterioration in services and infrastructure across the country, the increasing “casualisation” of the Australian workforce, the growing gap between the inner city and the rest of society, the ageing working population, the degradation of our transport, education and health systems – can’t be addressed through “stopping the boats”. Howard, it should not be forgotten, lost his popularity once he introduced the WorkChoices industrial reforms.

The last 15 years of political history in Australia have shown that the electorate is not convinced of globalisation’s benefits. It is why asylum seeker policy has been at the centre of the Coalition’s attempts to undermine both the Rudd and Gillard governments. It dare not be upfront about the effects of neoliberalism. It is also why Rudd’s PNG solution initially blindsided the Coalition, reducing its members to searching for evidence that it won’t work, trying to top it until they finally came up with an even more desperate and ungenerous policy. Yet all of us, no matter which side of the asylum seeker debate we fall on, know that even if all the bloody boats were stopped, if they were all sent back into Indonesian waters, if we put all those on board into camps in a deprived satellite nation, if we exterminated the whole fucking lot of them – every blighted man, woman and child – none of this would speed up the two-hour drive on choked roads that we take to and from work, boost the numbers of nurses and doctors in our public hospitals, make our education system any better, or increase wages, the dole or our pension payments. We all know this.

The reality is that there isn’t “one nation” that makes up Australia, only competing notions of “nationhood”. There is the cosmopolitan, educated nation of the inner cities and the parochial, anxious communities of the urban fringes and the bush. Asylum seeker rights are easily understood and supported by cosmopolitan Australians. We are well-travelled, we are not suspicious of multiculturalism and we are confident of processing and adjusting to change. At the same time, we rubbish their McMansions while gentrification makes the inner city unaffordable, and we castigate them for their cashed-up lack of generosity while it is in fact their kids mixing with the children of refugees.  

Karapanagiotidis refers to focus-group testing over the last decade that consistently shows that when Australians are asked about the issues that affect daily life most significantly, asylum seekers have never made it into the top 20. Fixating on the treatment of asylum seekers, currently the most destitute class among our body politic, is the easiest way for those anxious and sceptical of globalisation to get to their real target: us, the cosmopolitans. The asylum seekers are collateral damage. We’re really the ones they want to blame.

The first day I visit the ASRC, I notice a group of five men, all young, all Middle Eastern, sitting outside the Centre chatting. I tense up. I am astonished at my response. Their gaze falls on me, and then very quickly they turn away. Walking past them, I do my best not to look these young men in the eye. Nothing they do is threatening. They are a group of good-looking young men enjoying a brief break of sunshine in the middle of a Melbourne winter. Nevertheless I am intimidated and, if I am honest, this feeling sparks resentment. It is an ugly, ungenerous moment but it makes me aware that I am not untouched by the shame and fear that is my country’s dominant response to asylum seekers.

The Centre is full of people, from across Asia, Africa and the Middle East. A young African girl, no more than three or four, is playing gleefully at a piano while her mother is chatting. Among the children and the women I feel safe, but the men scare me. Inadvertently I turn away from them, as they do from me. We seem to recognise that there is some gulf, something that separates us.

I imagine that Jana Favero, the director of the “community pillar” of the ASRC, would be impatient with me if I were to reveal such trepidation. From childhood she has experienced and understood the conditions refugees live under. Her Italian father met her Australian mother in the 1970s, travelling through Afghanistan. Both fell in love with the country, so much so that Favero’s father converted to Islam. After the Soviet invasion in 1979, he started work on a documentary, Frontline Afghanistan. He was killed on the last day of filming. Favero’s mother received the news as the family waited for him to join them in Bali. Determined to finish the documentary, which would go on eventually to win a Logie, her mother returned with the children to Afghanistan. Favero remembers being a seven-year-old, visiting a refugee camp and having young Afghan children run away from her, screaming. Favero had blonde hair and the children were terrified of her, thinking she was a Russian invader. Her mother’s solution was to dye her children’s hair black.

Such experiences must contribute to the air of confidence that Favero exudes. She was a highly paid marketing professional before she began working for the ASRC. I ask her if she has any regrets and she answers, “God, no!” Her corporate experience allows her to speak effectively to the business community. As the ASRC is reliant on donations, receiving no federal government money, this expertise is vital. It also means she can communicate with politicians from both sides of politics.

“They all say the same thing,” she tells me. “That they agree the policies are harsh, short-sighted, but they insist we need to change people’s opinions first. Change the electorate first and then we’ll follow, is what they all say.”

“This is from both Labor and Coalition politicians?”

She nods. Her small smile is playful and speaks volumes about the venality of our political class.

“How do we change hearts and minds? That is the work we need to do.”

“Whose are the hardest to change?” I ask her.

“Older males over 50, largely Anglo-Celtic. Then, second- and third-generation migrants, from the families that immigrated to Australia after World War Two.”

Favero outlines the work she thinks the ASRC needs to do in the future, including finding ways to reach the long-term migrant communities whose first language isn’t English. Meanwhile, I am trying to process that she is speaking of my community, that the wogs are one of the hardest communities to make understand that asylum seekers are neither danger nor threat.

“I agree with Malcolm Fraser,” Favero continues. “We haven’t had the discussion about challenging racism in this country.”

I look up. There it is: the “R word”. It’s the word that slips in and out of my interviews with Karapanagiotidis, that beats quietly but insistently in conversations, arguments and debates about asylum seeker policy.

How do we talk about the R word?

The nervousness that kept me from looking in the direction of the young asylum seekers arises from a racist fear. I am not going to deny that. The fear need not be rational. It was not, in that case, and therefore it led to shame, which soured into anger and resentment. I have experienced this exact same situation before, walking in an Alice Springs mall, averting my eyes from the Aborigines I passed, just as they did not look in my direction. Don’t blame me, it’s not my fucking fault.

At one point in our discussions, Karapanagiotidis refers to racism as the “elephant in the room” when it comes to debates on asylum seeker policy. By not confronting the reality of racism, we can only look at the issue through a distorted lens. At the same time – and this is a point overlooked by the left, another of our failures – reducing the whole debate to the question of racism is equally problematic and unsatisfactory.

Howard’s appeasement of One Nation supporters was a tacit endorsement of both Australian racism and parochialism. Similarly, the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 seemed to legitimate a fear of Islam. Our sensationalist popular media has no qualms about provoking fear of asylum seekers, and of Muslims. But we buy into parochialism if we fail to see that racism and xenophobia are not specifically Australian but undercurrents that are challenging social democracies across the Western world. The Australian who claims this continent to be “God’s own” and the one who dismisses it as “the most racist shithole on Earth” share a certain insularity. Both reactions curtail conversation, and neither will admit qualification. The question is why there has been a rise in anti-multicultural and anti-immigration policies across Europe, Australia and North America.

I am reminded of a moment during the 2010 election when a friend, who had been door-knocking for the Greens in Melbourne’s inner north, challenged me about the number of Greeks and Italians who openly expressed hostility to asylum seekers and refugees. “Why is that, Christos?” he asked. “Why are immigrants from your part of the world so racist?” At that moment I felt shamed, inarticulate. As with Karapanagiotidis, my identity has been formed partly through my experiences of racism. Consequently, resisting and battling racism has become central to my ethics, but racism in the Australian Greek community is something I have been aware of all my life.

The successive waves of immigrants coming to Australia after the abolition of the White Australia Policy have been mostly of peasant stock, from Europe, from Asia, and then from Africa and the Middle East. All those communities have known struggle and experienced exile, but you don’t have to spend a long time in the villages my parents came from to recognise an ingrained suspicion of outsiders. To those still living there, even I am a foreigner, let alone someone of another ethnicity or religion. Of course, the shared experience of war, poverty and exile elicits empathy, too. This is why both my friend and I assumed immigrants and refugees would show compassion for others in the same plight. This empathy can be instilled into the second and third and even maybe subsequent generations. (Isn’t that what working-class pride was all about?) It is Karapanagiotidis’ strong sense of his parents’ struggles, first as tobacco pickers in rural Victoria and then as factory workers in the city, that inspires his work. That is the case for Favero as well. But, again, we are taking too much for granted if we assume that a Greek immigrant answering the door knows the names of any asylum seekers, has been told their individual stories or heard anything beyond what has been spouted on Today Tonight or Nine News.

Like Favero, I firmly agree with Malcolm Fraser, but we can’t assume racial politics are fixed and unchanging. Just as 20 years ago I would have not foreseen writing, “I firmly agree with Malcolm Fraser”, maybe there is something positive to be gleaned from the wogs being as casually racist and uninformed as “the Aussies”. Maybe it speaks to a certain success of multiculturalism. It took Karapanagiotidis and me a long time to accept being Australians; we were too conscious of the racism directed at us and our families. I am in no way justifying that ignorance, only indicating something of the complexity in mapping our racial and immigrant histories. Wog, wog, why don’t you go back to your own country, dirty wog? That was said to us once, then it was said to Asians and now it is said to Muslims. I assume it is also clear this is no ground for complacency. But if One Nation and the subsequent political reactions to Hanson’s party revealed a chasm in Australia – on one side monarchist, nationalist and proudly Anglo-Celtic; on the other, republican, cosmopolitan and equally proudly multicultural – then maybe the appearance of the Aussie wog or the Aussie Asian or the Aussie Jew or the Aussie Lebo or, yes, the Aussie Aborigine indicates that the divide isn’t unbridgeable. We can’t get there without clear-headed and bold political leadership. We can’t get there by turning up our pious, righteous noses at flag-waving. We have to have the discussion first.

“I have lied. It has been a Friday night at the pub and it has been an exhausting week, then someone drunk asks me what I do and I just make something up.” Hayley Mansfield, the director of the “justice pillar” at the ASRC, is responding to my question on how she musters the energy to keep battling misconceptions about asylum seekers.

“I am so proud of my work,” she insists, and then laughs. “I am really proud of this Centre. It is just sometimes easier to say I work as a receptionist at Big W.”

There have been moments in conversations with my relatives, or at barbecues, or at weddings, when I, too, have had to steel myself to hear another bout of vitriol on the topic. I don’t work with asylum seekers every day; I don’t have to think about the issue constantly. I can shut it off.

Mansfield shows no sign of bitterness. She maps out the importance of advocacy and is convinced that real change can occur through education. She is also upfront that, as a young adolescent in rural Victoria, she believed that asylum seekers were dangerous or not authentic refugees, that they were queue jumpers who were rorting the system. That’s what she heard and saw in the media, that was the conversation at school and at the dinner table. It wasn’t till she started university in Melbourne that she began accessing information that told her another story. It wasn’t until she started volunteering at the ASRC and meeting asylum seekers that her opinions changed.

“Australians are racist,” my parents would say to me as I was growing up. “They are racist and they are amorphoté. That’s the real problem in this country.”

How do I translate this Greek word? Literally, it means to be uneducated but this is inadequate. My parents were not educated people; born to peasant families, they didn’t undergo secondary schooling. What Mum and Dad were referring to was a code of behaviour, a civility that they believed Australians lacked. Compassion and generosity, kindness: these are integral to Hayley Mansfield’s character. But those qualities don’t exist as givens. If Karapanagiotidis was animated by the racism dished out to his parents and himself, Mansfield’s passion for this issue was built on educating herself, on questioning the media spin. I know that if my mother were to meet Mansfield, she would think her the opposite of amorphoté.

As I am talking to her, I notice a handsome young man at the table across from us. Possibly Afghan, he is flicking through a magazine, awaiting food. From time to time he checks out Mansfield. I am not surprised; she is a beautiful woman. That small human moment – the universality and ubiquity of human desire – flusters me. I recall that earlier moment, walking past the group of men outside the ASRC. This time my shame isn’t deflected into selfish resentment. I want to laugh at myself, at the ridiculousness of my own fears. A state edifice has been built to keep me from encountering and knowing these men – they can’t be interviewed or named, their stories can’t be told. All it takes is one glimpse of an innocent expression of human desire to make the scaffolding fall away.

Mansfield’s next statement makes me think she has been reading my mind. She is talking of the work the legal team at the ASRC does in representing asylum seekers along their Kafkaesque journey through the refugee appeals process. It is a description studded with acronyms, a game of snakes and ladders, in which it is assumed first appeals will fail and asylum seekers are kept in a limbo that destroys their resolve and their psychic strength. Mansfield tells me the story of a young homosexual man who claimed refugee status on the grounds that if he returned to his own country, he would be imprisoned or killed. At the Refugee Review Tribunal he was asked to name five Madonna songs, as if his failure to do so might be telling.

I don’t think it’s because I am gay that this one small incident – a drop in the bucket in terms of the humiliations asylum seekers are put through in order to justify their claims – lays bare the banal evil of the system we have created to deal with the “asylum seeker problem”. Someone paid by the federal government, someone who has probably studied at a tertiary level, someone who must have had an inkling that the ubiquity of American popular culture may stop at the point where dictatorship and poverty and underdevelopment take over: this person has been allowed to ask such a question. This is what amorphoté means: it is not about academic education, it is barbarity, pure and simple.

We can’t understand what is now happening in our nation without understanding racism, but there is something more insidious and dangerous at work. Australia doesn’t have a monopoly on racism, and the statelessness of the asylum seeker is a global tragedy. There is also ignorance, a willed ignorance. It may just be this that is unique about Australia at the present moment. All our political parties know that we are underpopulated, facing an ageing citizenship, with an unsustainable welfare system. We are not alone in this: all social democracies are experiencing this huge demo-graphic and economic shift. It is a strange time, when all political and economic certainties have been washed away by the king tide of the global financial crisis.

How do any of us speak confidently about the future? What I know is that if I do make it to old age, I won’t be expecting those who’ll be wiping my arse or emptying my catheter bag in a nursing home to be Australian. It is going to be the newcomers who will do that work – whether they arrive by boat or plane, whether asylum seeker, refugee or migrant. If it isn’t the newcomers, if it isn’t the migrants, then Australians are going to have to radically restructure their labour laws, their aspirations, and their sense of entitlement regarding work conditions, benefits and pensions. That is the discussion that our political parties should be having, those are the discussions all of us should be having. That we are instead facing a sixth consecutive election where the asylum seeker issue lies at the heart of the choice the electorate must make says something about how deep in the sand we have placed our heads. We don’t talk about what is going to be happening here in 20 years because we are all bereft – left, right, Green, conservative – of such long-term vision.

As Karapanagiotidis keeps reiterating in our discussions, immigration has been great for this country. Immigration numbers are going to have to increase once more if we are to address the great infrastructure challenges awaiting us. It angers, frustrates and saddens him that a potential labour force has been lost through the punitive, kneejerk laws that prohibit asylum seekers from working. He talks of a visionary Australia where we are leaders in our region, where we are building and manufacturing and producing. He talks of how immigration can revive country towns, how he knows that from experience. A week later I am driving to the coast and have to wait in sprawling traffic on a small country road where they have been fixing a 25-metre bridge for over two years now. I won’t name the town or even the state. We’ve all driven across such bridges, know how long it takes for such works to be completed in this country. I don’t begrudge the workers their conditions and their rights; I strongly defend them, but those conditions and those rights aren’t going to build this country’s future. Labor knows it and, though you might not think it given its reactionary alignment with anti-globalisation groups, the Coalition knows this as well.

I was very fortunate, before he passed away, to have had time with my father when he talked about the hardships of his childhood and youth in a Greece destroyed by occupation and civil war. He also talked of when he first came to Australia. One of his most joyous memories was of the mountains of central Tasmania, near the township of Bronte, when he worked for the Australian government on the hydro-electric scheme. He loved the wilderness of the island but was astonished that so few people lived there. Till the very end he would say to me, “Christo, this country can support so many more people.”

There needs to be some system to minimise boat arrivals, and a fair-minded and workable regional solution would indeed save lives. Indonesia cannot be let off the hook for catalysing such human tragedy. Our neighbour’s covert legitimation of people-smuggling shows we have competition in the race to the bottom when it comes to the treatment of asylum seekers.

There needs to be an alternative to settling people here that reaches beyond welfare and the ghetto. We are an island nation and we are not going to have open borders. That means there should be obligations and responsibilities that asylum seekers will have to take on if they arrive outside the auspices of the UN; that is, those who come here by boat. Might that be working to build infrastructure for five or seven years in remote areas, the way my father paid for his passage here? Is it being settled in rural Australia, to work in hospitals and on farms where there are labour shortages? I don’t know. I am not a politician or a social planner but I think those are precisely the conversations we should be having. In forgoing a humane and economically viable way of dealing with asylum seekers, we have squandered opportunities.

There is a photograph of my father from when he first arrived in this country, attached to his immigration documents. He is terribly thin, his cheeks sunken, his eyes downcast; though he is very young he looks so very beaten. That is what poverty and civil war can do. He looks like the men outside the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, the men who scared me. He looks exactly like them.

In Footscray, in Melbourne’s inner west, Pamela Curr, the ASRC’s detention rights advocate, takes me on a visit to see the conditions that asylum seekers live in. “It used to be a nursing home and now it has been requisitioned to house asylum seekers just out of detention,” she says. It is a squat and ugly ’60s building, and as soon as we walk through the foyer, we are surrounded by young women and men, and by children. Curr is a dignified and strikingly handsome older woman and it is clear that for many of the asylum seekers she is a friend. We meet Sister Brigid Arthur, an elderly nun who has been looking after asylum seekers for years. She is already at work when we enter, answering questions, trying to allocate rooms and set up appointments with volunteer lawyers. She, too, has these young people’s trust. One of the men turns to me and whispers in his broken English, “They are angels, these women.”

I am introduced to another young man, his pregnant wife and their three-year-old daughter. His English is excellent and he tells me he is a lawyer. The family are originally from Pakistan, near the border with Afghanistan. This polite and chivalrous man, his smiling partner and their laughing daughter have fled the Taliban, they have made a perilous ocean journey on a fishing boat, they have been locked up in an offshore detention centre. Now they share a small cubicle, and sleep together on a single mattress that only just fits in the cramped space. But the man is excited: today they are off to see a unit in neighbouring Maidstone that he hopes to rent for his family. I come along, and as we walk up to the gate, he says to me, “I just want to work. Why won’t they let me work? All I want to do is work.” But the Labor government’s “no advantage” legislation means he is not permitted to work. He and his family depend on charity.

The unit is a brick-veneer shit-box, with only one bedroom and no laundry except for a basin outside that is smeared with bird faeces. The family seem ecstatic; they might finally have a place of their own. They would still have to wait on a mattress promised to them by the Department of Immigration. There is also no fridge, no other bedding; they are fortunate that the unit has a gas heater installed.

As I am about to leave, the man grabs my hand and shakes it vigorously, telling me he wishes he had something to offer me. I have more than I need. This is shame. All I can do is wish him luck.

I wave my goodbye to Curr and jump on a train to take me home. It is the middle of the afternoon but the carriage is nearly full. I make my way down the aisle. There are two Aussie men, off their faces and calling out abuse. There are a drunk teenage couple, a white boy and an indigenous girl, taking swigs from a bottle. When a young Asian student looks up at them, just for an instant, the girl snarls, “What are you looking at, cunt?”

I know where to sit. I don’t sit next to the teenagers or anywhere near the two blokes on ice. I sit across from an Indian woman and her child, next to an elderly Italian gentle-man who proffers a smile. The two Aussie guys are still shouting and cursing and the old Italian shrugs, his eyes twinkle, as if saying, What do you do?

Yeah, what do you do with the amorphoté?

At this moment, all I want is to seize the two men, the teenage couple, to grab all those whining, whingeing, ignorant shits, put them on a boat and send them off to sea. At that moment, I’d happily exchange tens of thousands of people from Iran and Sri Lanka and Afghanistan and Sudan for these Aussies and all those Aussies like them. I reckon that would be an exchange worth making.

On the train I have taken out my notebook, wanting to write down my impressions of the world Curr introduced me to. After a few short points I find myself doodling: I have drawn a map of this country and in the middle written the words: This is an immigrant’s nation: if you don’t like it, fuck off!

Kon Karapanagiotidis is a kinder man than I am. After more than 20 years of volunteer work with Melbourne’s poor and homeless, with people just like those kids and guys on the train, he has learnt to resist the rash leap to judgement. He tells me of his first experience working at a shelter for homeless men.

Karapanagiotidis has tattooed on his arm “pathos”, the Greek word for passion. Passion has driven this man to take on both small-town racism and big-city bigotry, it has led him to work tirelessly with people living with AIDS and HIV, with prostitutes and junkies, as well as with homeless men. He has five degrees and is currently studying at the Melbourne Business School: he’s going for his sixth. How does he not get bitter, how does he not give in to the hate that stewed in me on my train journey home?

“I need to think this: that at their heart the Australians are good, compassionate, decent people ... but [this belief] is tested. I look at what is happening and think, Do I want to imagine that or is it that most Australians really are racist? I don’t want to think that because thinking that is untenable, I don’t want to believe that ... I love this country, its natural beauty, I love its landscape, the extraordinary culture and contribution of its indigenous peoples, its mix of incredible cultures. I love my city; Melbourne is the place I call home. The sense of peace and safety and diversity.”

It is a vision. At this moment, I think it is a failed one. Without our politicians finding a vision to match or challenge that of Karapanagiotidis, it doesn’t really matter which party wins the election. Whoever wins, we’ll just stumble along, not talking about climate change or population or immigration, not letting any of the hard challenges ahead disturb our torpor.

Christos Tsiolkas

Christos Tsiolkas is the author of five novels, including DamascusThe Slap and Barracuda, and the short-story collection Merciless Gods.

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Whose ABC?

Amid questions of relevance and culture war hostilities, the ABC’s charter clearly makes the case for a government-funded national broadcaster

Tony McNamara in New York City, January 2024

Pure things: Tony McNamara

How the Australian screenwriter of ‘Poor Things’, who cut his teeth on shows such as ‘The Secret Life of Us’, earnt his second Oscar nomination

In This Issue

Catherine Titasey’s ‘My Island Homicide’

Margaret Atwood's 'MaddAddam'

A cassowary visits Jan Shang’s backyard in Innisfail, Queensland. © Eddie Safarik / Newspix

Jim Sterba’s 'Nature Wars'

Alex Miller's 'Coal Creek'

More in The Monthly Essays

Kim Williams seen through window with arms half-raised

The interesting Mr Williams

At a time when the ABC faces more pressure than ever before, is its new chair the right person for the job?

Rehearsal for the ABC TV show ‘Cooking with Wine’, March 13, 1956

Whose ABC?

Amid questions of relevance and culture war hostilities, the ABC’s charter clearly makes the case for a government-funded national broadcaster

Andrew Tate in dark sunglasses flanked by two men, attending his trial in Bucharest, Romania, July 2023

The Tate race

Online misogyny touted by the likes of Andrew Tate (awaiting trial for human trafficking and rape) is radicalising Australian schoolboys

Close-up of smiling Kathleen Folbigg after being acquitted at the New South Wales Court of Criminal Appeal, December 14, 2023

By her own words

How systemic misconceptions around women’s guilt led to a 20-year miscarriage of justice for Kathleen Folbigg

Online latest

Osamah Sami with members of his local mosque

In ‘House of Gods’, Sydney’s Muslim community gets to be complicated

Plus, Barnaby Joyce shines in ‘Nemesis’, Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott deliver ‘Bottoms’, and Chloë Sevigny and Molly Ringwald step up for ‘Feud: Capote vs. The Swans’.

International Film Festival Rotterdam highlights

Films from Iran, Ukraine and Bundaberg were deserving winners at this year’s festival

Two women on a train smile and shake hands

‘Expats’ drills down on Hong Kong’s class divide

Plus, Netflix swallows Trent Dalton, Deborah Mailman remains in ‘Total Control’ and ‘Vanderpump Rules’ returns for another season

Image of a man playing music using electronics and the kora (West African harp)

Three overlooked albums of spiritual jazz from 2023

Recent releases by kora player John Haycock, trumpeter Matthew Halsall and 14-piece jazz ensemble Ancient Infinity Orchestra feel like a refuge from reality