Boats and Borders

Why would we believe a pledge from Julia Gillard’s government that detention on Nauru or Manus Island will be restricted to an acceptable length of time and no more? Why would we think that better detention centres will be built and that they will make the difference to the range of problems endured by refugees under John Howard’s enforcement of the Pacific Solution?

Even if it were possible to say what an acceptable period in detention was, even if vast amounts of money are now to be spent redecorating, why would we believe progress will be made by a government that promised so much on humanitarian grounds, not entirely dissimilarly, in the case of the Northern Territory Intervention? Remember that this Labor government promised it would do things differently from the Howard era. Yet not only do we find in the Intervention that child sexual abuse has not been the focus of legal action (see Maggie Knight’s article in this issue); that the number of promised new dwellings is pitiable; that income management has not increased school attendance; that the institution of the white community manager has not actually encouraged sobriety, probity or entrepreneurship: we know that these apparent goals were subverted from the outset by the way ‘the problem’ was constructed and by the assumptions behind the engineering of solutions―settler colonialist, technocratic and in effect punitive (see the last issue of Arena Magazine). We see that good intentions are as nothing in the stream of ideologically submerged ideas and the powers’ machinery of action once crunched into gear and set upon its course.

Is it just too terrible, though, to be so cynical in the case of the refugees? Is there nothing that can be done to save people from dying at sea?

It’s actually hard not to be deeply cynical, since the recent emotional outpouring about the fate of refugees on the high seas has something of the manipulative justification/imperative of ‘saving children’ in the case of the Intervention (if you were against the Intervention you were for the suffering of little children). Rather like the moral shift that seemed to occur when Noel Pearson offered Howard a way out of his apparent racism (supporting Aborigines is OK if they are neoliberal too) and self-determination could finally be thrown out the window because a new basis for assimilation had been found, a simple ‘line through’ the difficulties of the refugee debate has been found that unites diverse parties. This discursive shift away from debate polarised around the fate of detainees on the one hand, and border protection of the other, to a focus on saving lives at sea has for the time being recalibrated what is possible to say and what is not. And this new object of bipartisan policy sounds enlightened, just like saving little children did.

Ironically, the members of parliament who were clearly deeply affected by refugee deaths at sea, and perhaps by Robert Manne’s influential logical accounting and readjustment of his position on these grounds, seems to have handed Gillard, and even core institutions of the Australian Right, the basis for bipartisan support for the ‘Pacific Solution Mark II’. Even The Australian could headline: ‘Finally, People before Politics’, surely one of the most cynical of headlines, referring to the popular line taken up everywhere in the media that politicians, including the Greens, couldn’t put aside their irrelevant spats to solve a dire problem. Very effectively, the rug was pulled from beneath the Greens—an amazing coup de main that meant the Greens’ established arguments suddenly seemed irrelevant, if not heartless and, in the words of journalists as they merely amplified what politicians said, self-serving too. The Greens went from being moral guardians of the issue to moral pariahs in the flick of a wrist.

One could not say that this outcome was orchestrated like the campaign leading to intervention in the Northern Territory. Minister for Immigration Chris Bowen some time ago became convinced that Nauru was a practical and politically viable option, and of course Gillard, like Rudd, had been looking for offshore solutions for years. But crucially, it was Julia Gillard’s taking the opportunity of a political moment, riding a politically dangerous shift in feeling and attempting to turn it to her government’s advantage that was the defining move here. High-risk opportunism, but more expertly handled this time than in previous cases of refugee policy on the hoof (the East Timor option, for example). Certainly the convening of a committee of respected persons and the reiteration of Labor’s long-term commitment to an increased intake of (‘legitimate’) refugees make Labor’s approach different from Tony Abbott’s; but the new solution’s rhetorical focus on saving lives remains heavily in service to border protection. Punitive and heavily restrictive conditions are already in train intended to deter refugees, like changes to appeal processes and bans on family reunion for refugees accepted into Australia.

‘Border protection’ is itself a specific notion, again the sign of a particular discursive contest, and again a sign that the right wing has won the terms of the debate. In Ghassan Hage’s terms, ‘border protection’ institutes a paranoid nationalist machinery in relation to ‘others’, and as Coalition members have elaborated many times, refers to a territorial boundary (despite their masterstroke legislative changes to the status of some outpost islands) said to be directly related to our ‘Australianness’. The Coalition having won that battle―so successfully linking nation, identity, territory, sovereignty and refugees for Australian voters today―Labor could not afford a fundamental shift in terms, even if it wanted to explore other possible approaches to nation, border or refuge. Some elements of Labor surely do want to do this; but in reality others don’t, for the defining limit of Labor today is that impossible mix of humanitarian gesture, technocratic certainty and opportunistic reactionism within the terms of a common sense acceptance of globalised neoliberal reality.

In practice, if not theorised or elaborated for public consumption, the Greens could be suggesting alternative notions of border and refuge in their policies of assisting boats to Australia by creating safe conditions for refugees’ passage. They could be suggesting a model of care and hospitality and a less closed ‘Australianness’ that recognises that borders are to a degree always porous; that control of them is to a degree impossible; and that at times it is also morally indefensible. But as they have learnt in the recent policy process, and now gung-ho implementation phase, the purchase of (non-mainstream) value politics is low. Indeed, if this is what Green politics is, merely value politics, or is all it is willing to appear, then being wedged and out-manoeuvred by Labor opportunism on one hand, and Coalition authoritarianism on the other, is wholly to be expected. Discursive switchpoints like this one―to deaths at sea trumping all other terms of debate―are hard to anticipate, just as was John Howard and Mal Brough’s sudden compassion for Aboriginal children, which left advocates of self-determination staggering in disbelief (in part at their own apparent irrelevance).

There’s no doubt it’s a forbidding political field for anything like a left wing or real alternative attempting to break through to a larger public. But one point to make here is surely that this political context needs to be seriously diagnosed, the conditions of its volatility understood, and the anxiety of the public enmeshed in profound social and cultural change taken seriously, at a number of levels. It’s not just a matter of logically pointing out the numbers of refugee arrivals by boat compared to other modes of arrival or examples of immigration illegality. It’s not sufficient to propound a humanitarian morality that centres on human rights as unchanging truths, which often belies inadequate attention to what is driving historical change, and is perhaps just as reactive, or perhaps knee jerk, in the end, as some of the other responses noted above. It may not be enough either to put up the kind of ‘utopian’ notions I have above, of new models of hospitality or of national identity, although attempting to explain that systematically as a different kind of ethic for the public would be a more encompassing mode of engagement than what usually comes across in Greens’ policy pronouncements.

More generally, we have to come to grips with and convey how refugee flows are not only often caused by us in the West through the wars we start and support, but that the very processes and conditions of neoliberal globalisation that make us materially rich often destroy other nations’ lifeways and long-established institutions, creating new waves of refugees. Whether it is climate change in the Sudan, rising sea levels in the Pacific, the destruction of West African food economies by borderless European ‘supertrawlers’, we need to be told how our refugee issues are caused by our governments and the convergence of our two-party political systems around the productivist, materialist assumptions that constitute our way of life.

In this issue of Arena Magazine Tom Nairn considers the benefits and creativity of borders and the irrepressible existence of ‘nations’. He is addressing the situation of ‘Great Britain’ and its possible ‘break-up’ in the context of globalisation, in which not only are borders shifting but their nature changing; where Nationalism, with a capital ‘N’, and its aggressive–defensive postures, might give way to nations along smaller lines, with less grandiose views of themselves as engines of power. Borders are fruitful; territory, identity (culture) and sovereignty are still enmeshed; and yet the implication is that modest national identities may reap benefits in rich exchanges at their borders. And in this hopeful scenario it is not inconsistent to say that some cultures may need protection from predators and colonists. In out feature section, Patrick Jones suggests more modest ways of living and being in closer connection with land and community through an ethic of permaculture and cooperation. In our food section, Clive Marks traces the real meaning of Epicureanism and Nick Rose suggests an Australian agriculture that contests Gillard’s macho agri-business solutions to other countries’ food problems.

As we go to press, borders are likewise in the news with Equador’s granting of asylum to Julian Assange and England’s heavy-handed response to that small nation’s preparedness to stand up in its little bit of London to a once Great Power. WikiLeaks’ borderless network-based operation, and thus its disregard for the borders that define Great Power, is without doubt an important, if ambiguous, counterforce in today’s field of power. Knowing child of globalisation’s fundamentally networked form, yet perhaps conceived only within the horizon of that society, Assange and WikiLeaks will be a subject for reflection in our next issue.

Categorised: Arena Magazine, Arena Magazine Editorial

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