It’s probably not a coincidence that both the UK and Australia are in the grip of a synthetic moral panic over asylum seekers. It’s meat and drink to the tabloid press and to politicians who know that pushing the right button is a great way to get wavering supporters back on side. Never mind that the numbers are tiny, and so are the costs, relatively speaking; it’s the over-60s who suck up the vast majority of the benefits budget in the UK, and I dare say it’s the same in Oz.
I’m still getting to grips with the feral nature of Australian politics. We have our lunatic fringe too, to be sure, but by and large our senior politicians tend towards the suave and oily end of the spectrum. Whereas in the vulpine Tony Abbott we find the authentic testosterone-fuelled voice of the bullying frontiersman. Speaking out in support of his beleaguered immigration minister, Scott Morrison, over the latest detention centre horrorshow on Manus Island, he said, ‘You don’t want a wimp running border protection, you want someone who is strong, who is decent and Scott Morrison is both strong and decent.’ It’s not too much of a stretch to hear in that the voice of some Western cattle baron: ‘We need someone to rid us of those pesky Injuns, and the sheriff is the man for the job.’ If I were Mr Morrison, I’d be clearing out my desk, just in case he turns out to be a wimp after all.
I can quite see why Mr Abbott wouldn’t want a wimp running border protection, but it would seem that quite a lot of Australians, thank goodness, would prefer someone with a more sophisticated and sensitive approach. The thousands taking part in no less than 750 candlelit vigils across the country (organised in 36 hours), in memory of Reza Berati, the 23-year-old Iranian who was killed in the Manus riot, suggest that’s the case.
Of course, people arriving by sea are a powerful symbol and a gift to a politician who cares to use it; it’s easy to spin a few leaky boats into a full-blown maritime invasion. The UK coalition has to make do with a few dozen people at a time, half frozen to death in a container lorry at Dover. Mr Abbott seems to have forgotten that the last wave of boat people, the Vietnamese, are now fully integrated into Australian society. And the descendants of the very first wave to arrive like to give themselves tremendous airs...
Talking of which, this is the most humane and thoughtful piece I’ve read so far on the way Australia’s tying herself in knots over this. It’s a few months old, but no matter. It’s by Julian Burnside, a barrister and human rights advocate, who is a man I’d like to shake by the hand.