Minds wide shut

I’ve been struggling to come up with a valid response to asylum seekers lately.

The only worthwhile one is to maybe substitute some of our politicians on the boats, and send them back to wherever.

The unsavoury race we’ve witnessed in Parliament to play off public fears with political grandstanding hasn’t reflected favourably on a country that prides itself on giving people a fair go. And on any objective evaluation, you’d think these people deserve one.

Sure they’ve jumped the queue. But wouldn’t you if you were living in a war zone like Afghanistan where the Taliban runs amok and there’s violence and uncertainty at every turn?

We seem to be losing sight of that fact as hundreds of men, women and children drown off our shore. Some commentators say it’s the queue jumpers’ fault. Talk about blaming the victims.

So instead we blame the evil people smugglers and are presented with a choice between the lesser of two cruelties – turn back the boats before they get to Aussie soil or send the cargo to somewhere like Malaysia, where in all likelihood they’ll rot. Bottom line, ‘‘she’ll be right mate’’ so long as they’re not on our lawn.

But is that good enough in this new millennium when Australia’s relevance to Asia and the world is being re-evaluated and we supposedly aspire to a leadership role in the region? Can’t we address this issue a little more credibly?

It’s not like we’re the only Western nation dealing with the problem. Other advanced economies accept far higher numbers of asylum seekers.

But we quibble about the thin edge. It’s not a good look internationally and can only harm our reputation in the long run.

But the pollies aren’t aiming the debate offshore, it’s more about domestic consumption. They seem to think fear works on the electorate.

John Howard famously politicised the issue in 2001 with the children overboard affair. Turns out they weren’t thrown overboard, but that didn’t matter. Howard promised to get tough on border security by presenting these unfortunate desperates as the problem, then posing as the solution by shipping them off to Nauru.

Cynics suggested it took our attention off the unpopular war in Iraq, and who’d ever accuse a government of such a lowly distraction? When the boats stopped coming it was hailed a policy triumph of tough love. We love the people of the country we’re bombing, but if they want to escape the bombing, tough.

Now it’s playing out all over again in Afghanistan. The same buttons being pressed about the same border security game. First rule, don’t look soft. Second rule, don’t look like you’re doing what the opposition says you should. Third rule, try not to think about the people caught in the crossfire.

That’s not easy when Australia has a military presence in Afghanistan and we see first-hand the troubles the locals are dealing with.

The asylum seekers have shown amazing courage to make it to the boats. The fact their hopes and dreams are literally being scuttled on our northern coastline is an abomination.

As shows like SBS’s Go Back To Where You Came From illustrate, Aussies aren’t as hardline as some politicians would have us believe when confronted in detail with the horrors that refugees endure. Most accept that in such situations, if you don’t make a play, that’s where you’ll stay.

Which is reassuring given the fact the majority of us are refugees in this country anyhow.

The idea of putting up a short-sighted political roadblock now is, to coin another familiar catch cry, un-Australian.

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