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Australia, It Doesn't Have to Be This Way

Australia used to be a country that embraced the idea of altruism and equanimity. We used to be generous and welcoming. We used to take pride in it. Some of us still do.
April 16, 2014, 1:00pm

Australia in the 1980s—a happier time, when political campaigns weren't based around keeping asylum seekers out of the country (Photo via)

I was born in Melbourne in 1978. My childhood encompassed the heady economic glory of the 1980s, my adolescence the crushing recession of the early 90s—the worst Australia's economy had been since the Great Depression. Next was my political awakening, which coincided with the beginning of what are now known as the Howard Years—the decade that conservative Prime Minister John Howard and his Liberal Party spent in power, beginning in 1996 and ending with the Australian Labor Party's election victory in December of 2007.

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Australia has, of course, never been an idyllic middle class wonderland (its short history is surprisingly bloody and brutal), but it has always enjoyed certain advantages. It's a continent rich in natural resources; it's never been split by the sort of entrenched ethnic and political divides that exist in most other regions around the world; and, most importantly, it's had the entirety of world history to learn from—it was colonized in 1788 and only federated in 1901.

There's no other country in the world that's as young and as blessed with so many advantages; it's not for nothing that 1960s social theorist Donald Horne called Australia "the lucky country," a reference to how its unique historical advantages have given it the prosperity and comfort that other nations have had to secure by revolution and bloodshed.

The Australia in which I grew up wasn't a perfect country by any means. But it was still a country that was coming to appreciate its luck. It was a country leaving its legacy of racism behind, a country that was looking out to the world. The year I turned 14, the High Court recognized native title, the first step towards acknowledging the hideous wrongs done to Australia's native population by British colonizers. The establishment of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC)—an economic forum for 21 Pacific Rim member countries—meant Australia was economically looking more to its neighbors and less to its colonial past. It was a society facing outwards, and on the whole one that was friendly, welcoming and tolerant.

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And, perhaps most relevantly, it was a country that, by and large, had embraced the concept of multiculturalism. Mass immigration after the Second World War had brought a large Greek and Italian community to Australia, and a similar process after the Vietnam War resulted in the establishment of a significant Vietnamese community. Tiananmen Square and the impending Hong Kong handover deadline brought a rise in Chinese immigration (of which there is a long history in Australia). On my block there were Greeks, Germans, Indians, and white Australians. Our next-door neighbors were a multi-racial couple who had two adopted children, one black and one white.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott (Photo via)

I'm telling you all this because there are moments on which things pivot. Sometimes you know when those moments are happening, when a certain choice will influence the outcome of your life. But sometimes they pass by unnoticed, their significance revealing itself only in retrospect. The country I grew up in is still there, of course, and you might well think that it's the same as it's ever been. But Australia has changed. There's been a fundamental political shift to the right, one that's found its fullest expression in the ultra-conservative government of Tony Abbott, who was elected last year. Australia these days is known as much for its offshore detention camps as it is for its kangaroos and koalas.

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But it doesn't have to be this way. We tend to see the world as a series of accepted truths, and, at the moment, these truths largely revolve around a fundamentally pessimistic view of humanity—that humans are self-interested, that given the choice we act in a way that benefits ourselves over benefiting others. It's a view that's rooted not in social theory but in neo-liberal economics, in Adam Smith's declaration that, "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves not to their humanity, but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their advantages."

The fact that these truths are accepted on both sides of the political equation is one of the reasons that, since about 1980, there has been a general shift to the right in liberal democracies, a shift that coincided with the adoption of free market economics as the dictum of both left and right. in Australia, for instance, it was the ostensibly left-wing Labor government of the 1980s who deregulated the country's financial system, floated the dollar and started the process of privatizing utilities.

A solidarity vigil outside an immigrant detention center in Melbourne. (Image via)

Whether Smith's ideas work in an economic sense is a debate for another forum, but their implications have been catastrophic in a social sense. It's a short leap from Smith to Margaret Thatcher's famous declaration that "there is no such thing as society," and from there it's an even shorter leap to working on the assumption that your electorate is made up of a bunch of selfish assholes whose only interest is their own personal comfort.

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The thing is, these prophecies are self-fulfilling. Of course, you can argue that it's Australia that's changed Australian politics, not vice versa. There are people who argue that the electorate gets the politicians it deserves, but I'd argue that it's as much at least the opposite as anything else—that the actions of politicians can have real and lasting effects on the nature of political discourse. If you treat people as adults, they behave as adults. If you treat them as spoiled children, they behave as spoiled children.

There were two moments on which Australian history pivoted during the Howard years. The first was Howard's reaction to the first stirrings of far-right sentiment. In 1996, former Liberal party candidate Pauline Hanson was elected to the federal lower house as an independent, on a platform based around your usual far-right rhetoric, and founded the nationalist One Nation party. Howard chose to neutralize the threat to his party's traditional support base by refusing to condemn One Nation's populist rhetoric, and instead adopting it as his own. If Australia had been drifting rightwards, Howard's embrace of the far-right was the moment it took a massive lurch in that direction, and it's never really moved back.

The second was sheer political opportunism. It came in 2001, when Howard was headed for a federal election defeat but was presented a political gift when a boat full of Afghani refugees foundered in international waters, northwest of the Australian territory of Christmas Island. Howard milked the crisis for all it was worth, claiming (falsely) that the unfortunate people on the boat had thrown their children overboard in a bid to force the crew of the MV Tampa—a Norwegian freighter—to rescue them. It was all horseshit, but it won him the election. If you're looking for a textbook example of the demonization of foreigners for political gain, you really couldn't do much better than that.

A camp in Manus, Papua New Guinea, one of the detention centers where refugees and asylum seekers caught entering Australia are sent (via)

But you can't dance with the devil like this without consequences. Anti-immigration sentiment has gone from being a political expedient for the Australian right to being its raison d'etre. Every election campaign since the MV Tampa incident has been fought on questions of "stopping the boats." Labor, to their eternal discredit, have embraced this anti-immigration fervor with just as much enthusiasm as the Liberals. The result is the ongoing national disgrace that is our incarceration and implicit criminalization—and flat-out abuse—of refugees.

It doesn't have to be this way. People have the capacity for altruism and generosity as much as they do for selfishness and greed. But if you pander to and legitimize their baser instincts, then it's those instincts that find expression in their behavior. Australia used to be a country that embraced the idea of altruism and equanimity. We used to be generous and welcoming. We used to take pride in it. Some of us still do. But not the people running the country—they're more interested in defending their right to bigotry, turning over national parks to loggers, and dredging the Great Barrier Reef.

It used to make me angry, this stuff. And there's still a spark of anger there. But now, as much as anything, it just makes me sad. Australia is as lucky as it ever was, but there are two ways to deal with luck—to share your good fortune, or to guard it jealously. Australia used to be a country that made some effort to do the former. I know, because I remember that country. But I remember it less every day.

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