Thursday, October 21, 2010

Welcome To Country*

A few days ago an announcement was made for which I had been waiting some months, ever since I realised that from a political and 'practical' perspective, it made so much sense as to be a virtual dead cert.  My home town (the one I live in now, that is) of Northam will shortly become also home to Australia's largest mainland Immigration Detention Centre.  It will be designed to accommodate 1500 single men at the old Northam Army Barracks, about 4 or so kilometres from where I sit right now.



Assuming just for the moment that placing asylum seekers in detention is a given, then why does this facility make sense?

1)  The overwhelming majority of boat-propelled asylum seekers (which comprises a tiny minority of 'illegal' entrants, btw) are detected and apprehended in waters off Western Australia.
2)  Northam is near enough to Western Australia's capital (and only large) city, Perth, so is close to transport hubs like the airport and also services like large hospitals etc.
3)  Northam is not in Perth, with the commensurately large NIMBY pressures that would engender.
4)  The State and Federal Electorates here have essentially been safe Liberal/National seats ever since mankind stood upright ('Liberal' is synonymous with 'conservative' in Australia, for anyone confused) so voter backlash to the Labor Federal government from this electorate or the Liberal State government is not really going to cause them any harm.  Plus there'll be the sop to the electorate/state of tasty Federal funding for stuff.  And perhaps local employment.  Perhaps.
5)  It was actually the Liberal State Premier's suggestion.  Now he says he's worried.  Tool.
6)  We have this great big unused Army barracks with maybe half of the infrastructure needs for this new political prison - let's not call a spade an earth inverting horticultural implement - already in place.
7)  There is just nowhere else on the planet that makes as much sense today politically or logistically as this.

"You're a spade."  I always call it that.

And yet as late as last week, assurances that nothing would be decided or announced without a full and exhaustive community consultation were still being bandied about.  Pfft.  Along with the local council saying they could not get any more current information, that was the clincher.

As I tweeted or FBd or something the other night, the evening of the announcement you could feel the conversation in homes around town:  The apprehension, and the seethe of hurt and anger, and the weary sigh of resignation.  But there were other things you could feel too underneath all that, like simple fear of the unknown, and a strange kind of hopefulness that there might be some good come of all this.  Who knows?

Then there's the compassion.  Much as those who would control the public agenda - politicians and media sellers in the main - have done a wonderful job of taking the long-held Australian fear of our relative smallness and strategic defenselessness and perverting it into a seeming hysteria of angst about terrorist invasion, population pressure on infrastructure (ironic), cultural erosion and the ghettoisation of Australian cities, there is a deep and abiding sense of compassion and I believe it's there in the majority of us.  Much effort has been put in to turn our culturally prescribed sense of a 'fair go' into a rant against these 'illegal queue jumpers' and away from the simple application of human decency towards someone in serious need and hope of a better life.  But when I see the issue boiled down on someone's face when they consider looking into the eyes of a fearful new arrival....that's when I feel good to know I live in a fundamentally decent society.  The compassion is there when the bullshit is stripped away.  And I do count racism and bigotry as bullshit.

The figures differ depending on their source, but I think the lowest figure I've seen shows that 95% of these boat arrivals end up being assessed as genuine refugees.  Most of those who don't are those who are classed as the 'people smugglers' who piloted the boats.  Just sayin'.

Meet your first Australian.

A humourist recently posted the observation that : "(WA Premier) Colin is worried about all those Muslim men near Northam.  Me too.  Northam would have to be one of the most parochial redneck shitholes in the history of shitholes.  Let us pray for those men."

He has a point, albeit comically exaggerated, but for sure there is no shortage of ugly rural bogan redneck types with their Bundy Fuelled, RM Williams emblazoned utes carrying "Fuck Off We're Full" stickers ready to mouth off ignorantly about queue jumpers and terrorists and fraudsters and "looking after Aussies first" and if pushed hard enough will even get all straightforwardly anti-Islam.  These would all be white people, here.  The 6 o'clock news services love 'em.  And in truth they are everywhere in this country, only the uniforms change from place to place.  Then there are the quieter closet racists; quieter because unlike our neighbouring more tourist-oriented towns where the unspoken apartheid has worked its magic seamlessly, Northam's population is maybe 20% Aboriginal.  Moreso in my part of town.  York and Toodyay would have, I'm guessing, closer to zero.  But this and Northam's status as a regional hub for outlying districts is what gives us the saving grace of a genuine diversity and larger spread of demographics than many regional centres.  And I think we'll thrive with this new challenge, much as Australia has the chance to if it chooses to more fully embrace, celebrate and share its good fortune with the wider region we inhabit - the world.

Our little valley.

Our prosperity is nothing for us to fear.  And the slavish adherence to protection of perceived or actual competitive advantage as the driver of all forms of commerce between the people and the peoples of the world not only has as a natural consequence the limiting of our compassion for our fellow man (and thus our own true happiness and fulfillment, I'd posit) but is in itself self-limiting and ultimately doomed to fail as a system to sustain us.  This population and poverty crisis really is a greater moral and survival challenge than the climate change issue - linked though these two things are.

I lived in Fremantle when we had the influx of Kosovar refugees during the Kosovo War and subsequent NATO incursion.  These folks did not arrive on boats but instead were seen to be temporary refugees taken from UNHCR processing camps in Europe and shared out amongst wealthier nations - for the duration.  The local community almost as one embraced them and rallied about to help and support them in all sorts of meaningful as well as practical ways.  But then again they weren't a real threat to us, being 'visitors', and of course, it was in liberal (note small 'l') Fremantle.  And they were sort of white; let's not pretend that's a non-issue for plenty of Australians whether they'll admit to it or not.  Of course, many were Muslim too, but that was before the whole 9/11 debacle, with its subsequent wars and irreligious animosity that continue unabated to this day.  I think it's time we're getting over all that now.

Northam could actually go a similar way - look at Christmas Island.  It's an even smaller community than Northam, and in a funny way less ethnically diverse, being 70% Hokkien Chinese, and another 10% or so Malay - this is not counting their asylum seekers in detention and elsewhere.  They appreciate the economic benefits the processing and detention centres have brought them, but there's also an undeniable compassion.  The arrivals are greeted by locals bearing gifts, alongside the Immigration officials, and some asylum seekers are eventually able to live within the community rather than behind the razor wire in the camps.

The Christmas Island detention centre.

We just may find that this massive change - an extra 25% population increase in the area, all single males in detention - brings us together in more and more lasting ways than the simple negative NIMBY response.  The local resignation has well and truly kicked in already anyway, a probable side-effect of having a relatively 'battling' and disenfranchised-feeling socioeconomic profile (on average) in town.  I can quite easily see a creeping spread of involvement in groups dedicated to supporting the detainees, to this sort of thing becoming fairly quickly something of which the town rightly becomes proud.  This is the sort of thing that genuinely changes how people think of themselves, when they see surprising changes in their neighbours, and find the courage to examine and change their own convictions also.

We could do it as a country, and I'm really glad that we're bringing the processing onshore.  I'm not glad we're still locking up people and segregating the men, women and children (how come single men have a lesser human right than women or children, who are now largely going to be able to live within the community?) but it's a step forward.

Note Base Safety Level today is 'bravo'.   ???

I don't have the answers to the complex questions around all of this; short of a Utopian dream whereby no-one wants to be a refugee anymore because everywhere's safe to live or - almost as good - a situation where all refugees can quickly find themselves safe and decent haven, supported by a community who truly cares.  We do not live in a planet of scarce resources per se, even at this late stage, but we do enshrine a system of economics, governance and polity that ensures scarcity for many.  This makes wars and famines and pushes people to do all sorts of environmentally and socially destructive things.  We are as a global people both increasingly world citizens and increasingly aware of the preciousness of our unique cultural differences and diversity.  We wish to harmonise but we want to sing our own notes.  But we can overcome these things.

It's only fear of having your stuff taken away; just like these asylum seekers have experienced.  As could any of us, at any time.  So let's not judge any longer, eh?  That'll make our search for the answers so much easier.



* "Welcome To Country" is a relatively modern institution based on extremely ancient Indigenous Australian practices of welcoming a person into "country", which in this sense means homeland, and in a deeper sense, as the homeland is spiritually inextricable from the people, a welcome into the people's sacred place.  A Welcome To Country is performed in a variety of ways (depending a lot on local culture) from a simple speech to a long presentation of dance and music and 'smoking' ceremonies to open major events and now almost all events in Australia feature an opening acknowledgement of the traditional owners of the land.

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