Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Camping out

A couple of nights ago a young man caused a stir on Big Brother, a programme Mrs Zen watches and I pretend not to enjoy.

On his eviction from the house, he refused to talk to the hostess. Instead he taped over his mouth and help up a sign that but for a couple of loose letters would have read Free the refugees.

It is our dirty secret (not such a secret these days but it no longer makes the headlines it once did). If you run from persecution, torture, poverty, coming to Australia means a sentence in our concentration camps. I was powerfully reminded by the similarities between this description and that of Monowitz in If this is a man.

For years, Australia welcomed (white) immigrants. Most of its citizens, if they are not immigrants, are their children, or at most the grandchildren. I am of course one of those immigrants. But times changed. The citizens of Italy and Greece -- almost incomprehensibly known as "wogs" here and never really welcomed by the original whites (Australia has a history of not welcoming successive waves of incomers -- the convicts hated the Irish who hated the ten-pounders who hated the wogs, and so it goes on) -- stopped being poor enough to want to leave, and the newer immigrants are Chinese, Vietnamese, Malay, Afghans, Arabs, Indians. A key difference between Australia and the UK, and one that takes a great deal of getting used to, is that you will hear obnoxious racist views at the dinner table. Your guests will look on aghast if you take someone to task for describing east Asians as "slopeheads" or claiming that the "brown menace" will overwhelm us if we turn our backs (I'm not kidding -- I've heard both).

A pernicious, right-wing media, which has stilled most competition, has helped create a society that does not welcome other cultures. Australia prides itself on its "multiculturalism", but this is not the American melting pot or even the English pick-and-choose mentality. This is a land where different cultures live side by side rather than mixing together. This is a place where you can still get dumped by a girlfriend because you're not a Catholic and there can be no future (yes, but I got over it).

This is a land of plenty. In many ways, it is as good a place to live as you can imagine. Unemployment is low, the standard of living excellent. Even the poorest have a living far better than they would in most countries of the world (although the right-wing government has done its best to erode that). It is not intolerant (preferring to ignore rather than embrace) and the people have a belief in being pleasant that makes daily life smooth, if anodyne.

It has those things, people here forget, because of the massive investment in it by the English. Not so much the government, but the capitalists who sought their profit here. And they took their money out of the backs of dark people around the world.

We could share. Australia needs more people (the chancellor begged us in the Budget to have more kids - three: one for mum, one for dad, and one for the state). It doesn't have a large enough population to power its economy. It suffers shortages of skilled workers. In short, it does need people. But it doesn't want Afghans, Iraqis, Chinese, Indians, Africans etc. For them, there is no "Aussie dream", no house on a bit of land, no opportunity, no future: just a small piece of desert, a cell block and our contempt.


We are all human beings. Forget that and you face damnation. Love is sometimes as small a thing as remembering that your neighbour is a person like you. Sometimes, something that small is too big for a land of plenty. I don't say Free the refugees. I say Free yourselves.


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