When I was an undergraduate teaching student, I had an incredible lecturer for my Society and Environment unit. (Society and Environment is what we used to call ‘Social Studies’). She was passionate and interested, and someone I felt I could have sat and chatted with for hours. I went by to see her one afternoon after class and she was telling me about a teaching aid she’d developed, and gave me a copy.
I got home and put the DVD into my computer. It was a game to teach students about government and democracy, but most importantly, about budgeting decisions. Obviously I knew about budgeting in my own household, but when you’re talking billions, it somehow seems not quite real, and you can’t really imagine why some decisions are made over others. The game showed, for example, that decreasing funding for public housing would mean fewer people who needed housing assistance would get it, which might lead to higher crime. Reducing the amount you spent on defence could prevent you from assisting neighbours in times of natural disasters, and thus impact on foreign relations. It’s the first time I really sat down and thought about the very complex decisions some politicians have to make when it comes to policies and allocation of resources. It’s actually very difficult.
Since then, when I read about decisions regarding foreign policies, or funding cuts, I try to keep an open mind. I think, well, there’s only so much money to go around. Resources have to be allocated, and sometimes reserved for later. And as much as I would like to hope, it’s unlikely that our politicians are going to ring me up and let me in on every state secret and plan for international relations. Possibly, there are things they know, to which I’m not privy.
I think this is particularly relevant when it’s an emotive issue. Take refugees, for example. Or don’t take them, which seems to be the policy at the moment. Australia is taking an ever stricter stance on asylum seekers, and it’s dividing the community. There are those who believe that Australia’s resources should be reserved for those who already live here, and those who prove themselves truly worthy of entering–not like the ‘queue-jumpers’ who attempt to come by boat. And there are those who believe that the harsh policy of disallowing refugees access to even basic needs, such as decent living conditions, is simply reprehensible, given Australia’s wealth, especially compared to the countries from where these refugees have fled.
I’ve been trying to keep my thoughts measured about this. I know that we need to consider many issues such as unemployment, the ability to provide for those people who already live here, and also the risk associated with integrating people into the community–as small a threat as it is, we do need to consider that some refugees are not be legitimate and really wish to do others harm. I can accept that it’s not as simple as it might seem at first glance.
Then I read an article about a man who has been trying to bring his younger brothers over to Australia from Pakistan, since that man’s wife and mother were recently killed, and the brothers are now orphaned. And the Australian government is now trying to ensure that anyone who has come here by boat and who wants to repatriate family members will have to ‘go to the back of the queue’. This means that it will now take several years to get such visas approved. Oh, and the government wants to backdate these cases to 2001.
OK. Now, that just seems really mean.
Then there is some speculation that the Australian Navy appears to have been sending asylum seekers found in Australian waters back into Indonesian waters (whence they came), to avoid, one would assume, having to process them.
Those who make it to Australian shores don’t get to stay here, either. They’re sent to offshore facilities in other countries, one of which is Manus Island, in Papua New Guinea. Recently, there was rioting in the detention centre, and subsequently, a person died.
Our government is trying to demonstrate how well it’s keeping its promise to ‘Stop the Boats’, but in fact, the boats are still coming, and pushing them back into the jurisdiction of another country is akin to us sticking our fingers in our ears and singing ‘lalala’ and hoping they will go away. Our government would like it to be someone else’s problem. And it is someone else’s problem, but not only theirs. It’s ours, too. We live on the same planet, and sooner or later, we all need help from other fellow global citizens.
I know that it’s important to be pragmatic about resources. Yet the vast majority of people don’t usually just up and flee their country of birth, not least with only the clothes on their back, travelling in unsafe and squalid conditions with no guarantee of safety or refuge, and not knowing if they will ever be able to return, or to see friends and family again. As a rich nation, in close proximity to many poorer ones, we do have an obligation, both on a moral level and as part of a global responsibility, to send aid, to assist in nation-building, and to take refugees. Long term, this also makes political sense. If we can help promote social and political stability in these nations, there will be fewer refugees. Those who want to leave their homeland would do it because they wanted to, rather than being forced.
I’ve been thinking of our national anthem, with regards to this. We usually only sing the first verse. I wonder if that’s because it just mentions the good bits?
Australians all, let us rejoice,
For we are young and free.
We’ve golden soil and wealth for toil, our home is girt by sea.
Our land abounds in nature’s gifts, of beauty rich and rare.
In history’s page let every stage,
Advance Australia Fair!
In joyful strains then let us sing,
Advance Australia Fair!
Aw, that’s nice, isn’t it? But then there is a second verse. Not only does it talk about working (ugh, that’s enough to put you off right there), it also gives an indication of how we should be behaving towards asylum seekers:
Beneath our radiant Southern Cross
We’ll toil with hearts and hands.
To make this Commonwealth of ours renowned through all the lands.
To those who come across the seas, we’ve boundless plains to share…
We do, really, don’t we? Yes, we have scarce water, and our infrastructure is lacking in some areas, and resources are limited. But that’s the same, everywhere. We live on the same planet. Look at some of the places these people used to live. There is social unrest, war, prejudice, pollution. They have it really bad, there. And in comparison, we have it really good.
The water is clean, so is the air. We are a lucky country, despite the obviously long list of criticisms one could make of us. We’re so very fortunate, to live here. And if we’re going to get very defensive about our borders, our politics, and how other people are (rightly) judging our treatment of those wanting to come and seek refuge here, perhaps we should remember how most of our forbears came here on boats. And how badly many of them behaved with regards to those who already lived here.
I know it’s a complex issue. But it’s time we stopped our ‘not-in-my-backyard’ mentality. They’re already in our backyard, and it’s time we invited them onto the verandah for a cold drink and a comfortable chair to sit in. They’ve had a long trip.