Notes from the asylum.

     The result of the Australian federal election a couple of weeks ago, as you may or may not know or even care, was a cliff-hanger. In other words, apparently the rest of the nation’s voters found it as hard to choose between the policies and personalities of the two principal parties as I did.

In fact it didn’t seem to really matter much which side won given that they’re fundamentally similar in their total commitment to the ideals and institutions of democracy, and opposition to such anti-democratic diseases as corruption, repression and injustice.

But there was also a less desirable similarity between the major parties that persuaded me to vote for the minority Greens instead of either of them: their pandering to a small but vocal element of popular prejudice against the on-shore processing of so-called ‘boat people’.

On the surface the objection to the admittance of boat people seems reasonable, on the grounds that they’re unfairly jumping the queue ahead of all those would-be refugees who apply and patiently await entry through legitimate channels.

But those of us who sympathise with the desperation that drives men, women and children to set sail for Australia in leaky, overcrowded boats argue that the vast majority of would-be illegal immigrants arrive by air. And in any case the numbers of boat-people reaching Australian shores is pathetically small compared with the floods of illegals that pour into the U.S. and some European countries every year.

But these statistical realities didn’t deter the former Liberal-National coalition Howard government from instituting the so-called ‘Pacific solution’, in which the territory of Christmas Island and the mini-nation of Nauru were turned into off-shore detention and processing centres for those surviving the perilous voyage into Australian waters.

This draconian move was not anti-refugee, they claimed, or a cynical ploy to land the votes of the smug and ugly anti-immigration electoral minority, but aimed at putting an end to the evil crime of people-smuggling. Which it didn’t, of course, as people-smugglers thrive on the very corruption and other crimes against innocent humanity that refugees are fleeing in the first place, and continue to ply their sordid trade wherever lawlessness prevails.

In Indonesia, for example, where almost anything goes as long as there are sufficient rupiah involved, and Malaysia, where, rather and shooting or shooing boat people as Mahathir used to propose, corrupt immigration officials and their cronies now welcome them as a rich source of extortion and people-trafficking revenue.

Kevin Rudd led Labour into office three years ago partly on a promise to abandon the Pacific solution as overly harsh and punitive. But his replacement as prime minister, Julia Gillard, proposed a solution even less terrific than the Pacific one, which was to intercept and detain them in Indonesia or East Timor with the help of the governments there. And the Liberal-National candidate for the prime ministership, Tony Abbott, promises to do everything in his power to bring back the Pacific solution.

So whichever major party scratches-together enough seats or some kind of coalition to form a government this week, the boat people’s prospects aren’t looking any too rosy.

My only consolation in this regard is that neither side of politics here shows any sign of stemming the steady flow of about 170,000 legal migrants and refugees to Australia every year. Because immigration is the very life-blood of this country, having transformed it in the course of my lifetime from a somewhat monochrome, monocultural and monotonous outpost of British colonialism into a virtual advertisement for the vibrancy of multiculturalism.

Or as I prefer to think of it, melticulturalism, given how happily and harmoniously, by and large, people of all colours and creeds seem to blend together here in a kind of microcosm of the human race. For example, judging by the people surging by on the sidewalk in front of the cafe where I’m writing this, in Sydney’s Central Square close to Chinatown and the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), I could easily be in Singapore, KL or Hong Kong.

This cafe itself is staffed by people from Lebanon, Turkey, Thailand and Korea. The writing class I’ll be tutoring in an hour or so includes, along with some Caucasian Australians whose overseas origins are no longer discernible, newer citizens from China, Burma, Korea, Taiwan, Canada and the UK. And my authors group on Monday nights includes a Scot and the son of migrants from Malta.

My wife and daughter were both born in Malaysia. We do our household shopping in the nearby suburb of Marrickville, where most of the businesses are run by people who originally hail from Vietnam, Greece, Lebanon and the Philippines.

My wife has friends who came here from countries including Italy, Russia, South Africa, the Philippines and Portugal. Among my own friends are a second-generation Australian Chinese, an English woman from New Zealand, a Scot, a Sri Lankan and a Russian who arrived in Australia via a refugee camp in Norway.

My federal member of parliament is an Australian-born Italian. My state member, as far as I can guess from her name, is of Polish origin. The governor of my state of New South Wales, the much-loved Marie Bashir, is Lebanese.

Not that I’m claiming that Australia’s multicultural society is entirely harmonious or free of racism. But at least racial and ethnic discrimination are entirely against the law here. And with the Greens that I and a great many fellow Australians voted for holding the balance of power in the Senate, maybe there’s a chance that boat-people will someday be better-protected too.

After all, Australia’s supposed to be a country with as much heart as it has space; a place where poor, oppressed and persecuted and otherwise disadvantaged fellow human beings can, along with the rest of us who’ve arrived here in the past 220 years, find refuge, safety and new hope. In other words, this should be an asylum in the best sense of the word, not a funny-farm or hospital bahagia for those so deranged as to deny a welcome to newcomers who happen to arrive here after them.


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