16 December 2010

Disaster on Christmas Island

The disaster on Christmas Island weighs heavily upon us all, and it should be a pivotal event in our history.

If we were in a time where we relied more heavily on the sea than we do today, it would be as significant as the wrecks of the Dunbar and the Malabar were to nineteenth-century Sydney; probably equivalent in impact on people individually and collectively to 11 September 2001. If a hundred or so whalewatchers, ferry passengers or surfers were dashed against cliffs it would be a tragedy. What compounds it here is how desperate these people were for the sort of freedom that whalewatchers, ferry passengers and surfers take for granted: how far they came to escape real danger, how they hoped for better from us, how close they came to getting it.

This event isn't quite the bankruptcy notice for the entire "remote processing" model, but hopefully it helps set things moving in that direction. The political response is fittingly sombre but beyond the deaths of the individuals concerned politicians are clearly, as it were, floundering. At yesterday's press conference with the Acting PM, some clown of a journalist asked him a question about banking reform that would have been inane even in context.

There is something in this for both sides. First of all, those people who scrambled down the rocks doing as much as they can demonstrated where Australia's attitude to refugees is really at, something that Scott Morrison and Phillip Ruddock cannot imagine let alone understand. Those who regard undocumented arrivals by boat as something that can and should be stopped, and those of us who regard boat arrivals as inevitable and deserving of better treatment than they experience, can all be sad about what has happened. Then comes the anger: you can be angry at the idea that lax government policies leading people to a false sense of security, or you can be angry that lives have been wasted because insistence on the fantasy of a "queue" overtakes the reality that people at sea need basic humanitariian assistance before they need "processing".

Surely the anger at "lax government policies" and "queue-jumping" should be balanced by acceptance for those who make it through the rigorous and time-consuming assessment system, and compassionate treatment of those going through it. Using this incident as another stick to beat Julia Gillard with in the absence of such compassion is stupid and wrong, and if the emotion behind such denunciations is confected then so too are notions of a "queue" or "assimilation"; and if your immigration policy is based on layers of bogus assumptions then perhaps such a policy ought not be imposed upon the way this nation is governed.

Now is the time to test the assumptions that we have about asylum seekers, and from that testing develop a policy that addresses what works for those who are genuine, and for Australia; and what works against those who aren't and those who merely profit from people-smuggling. It may be too much to ask any sitting politician to do a frontal assault on notions of bigotry, because you can't defeat a notion (just as you can't go to war against 'terrorism' or 'illiteracy').

It is not too much to ask them, however, to stop referring to those who arrive by boat without documentation as "illegals", or to pretend that they pose more of a threat to this country than a drunk and sunburned detachment of the Barmy Army - who has arrived by plane with documentation in order, like that matters - who roam the streets of our cities looking for a fight and a chunder. The perpetrators of September 11 arrived in the US by plane and had all their doco down too.

It is not too much to ask to stop referring to notions of a "queue" that can be "jumped". We are within our rights to, and we must, work out the bipolar relationship our government appears to have with the UN in deciding who is a refugee and who isn't, and how applications can be prioritised and expedited. It is not too much to ask to regard detention in the same way as a prison sentence or an enforced stay under medical treatment rather than a state in which one's rights are suspended indefinitely, guilty until proven innocent. We have a right to clear away notions underpinning government policy that bear no relationship to reality.

Let's get away from sleigh bells, let's get away from snow
Let's make a break some Christmas, Dear, I know the place to go
How'd ya like to spend Christmas on Christmas Island?
How'd ya like to spend the holiday away across the sea?
How'd ya like to spend Christmas on Christmas Island?
How'd ya like to hang a stocking on a great big coconut tree?

How'd ya like to stay up late, like the islanders do?
Wait for Santa to sail in with your presents in a canoe.
If you ever spend Christmas on Christmas Island
You will never stray for every day
Your Christmas dreams come true.

How'd ya like to stay up late like the islanders do?
Wait for Santa to sail in with your presents in a canoe
If you ever spend Christmas on Christmas Island
You will never stray, for every day
Your Christmas dreams come true

On Christmas Island your dreams come true.

- Jimmy Buffett Christmas Island

The disaster on Christmas Island isn't limited to the wreckage of one boat. The whole idea why the Howard Government put asylum seekers on Christmas Island was to keep it out of the public eye - and when it had to be in the public eye, to control access and pictures via the limited transport links with the island. When that decision was taken, all of a decade or so ago, mobile phone cameras were unknown. The internet hackers who brought us Wikileaks were, if not unknown, certainly underestimated in terms of their capacity to inflict reputational damage upon politicians and government.

The 'positive' reasons for locating a prison processing centre there are gone. The negative reasons - far from healthcare and a sizeable Australian community within which to find employment and other amenities of social life - are not only still there but brought into awful reflief by this incident.

By the time MSM get there, only mawkish talking-head shots and driftwood will be available to them: it is a story they can only follow, not lead. Perhaps this is why Jonathan Green's response is so perplexing:
This was of course a tragedy ... The details are still sketchy.

We're allowed to feel sad for those who have died, but we may not ask wider questions until the journosphere are good and ready to supply them. Until someone from Channel Nine puts a microphone in front of some bedraggled survivor who has lost their family and asks "how does it feel?", we do not have any right to form any opinions whatsoever based on the information before us, nor may we compare/contrast it with information gained from other sources.

Green clearly regards himself as a journalist in online exile rather than a practitioner of his occupation in a different medium. I always wonder what journalists mean when they talk about "the blogosphere" - Green clearly regards it as a sideline, subordinate to the MSM, the same way his site is and the same way Bolt-Blair are adjuncts to core business at News Ltd. The ABC usually takes great care to not position itself as a leftwing lightning-rod for News Ltd but pieces like Green's don't help, and nor do they lift the debate to a point where Bolt-Blair are shown to have little to offer. Yes, there are some boofhead commenters on those News Ltd blogs just as you'd find on talkback radio, but strangely this doesn't lead commentators like Green to condemn radio out of hand.

This blog, however, is not part of any wider media enterprise. It isn't printed in a newspaper and nor is it cross-promoted on radio or TV - therefore, according to Jonathan Green and hence The Drum and possibly even the ABC or even the MSM more broadly, we here at The Kidney Of The Nation are officially outside the "blogosphere", and thank goodness for that!

Now, my co-mates and brothers in exile,
Hath not old custom made this life more sweet
Than that of painted pomp? Are not these woods
More free from peril than the envious court?
Here feel we but the penalty of Adam,
The seasons' difference, as the icy fang
And churlish chiding of the winter's wind,
Which, when it bites and blows upon my body,
Even till I shrink with cold, I smile and say
'This is no flattery: these are counsellors
That feelingly persuade me what I am.'
Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;
And this our life exempt from publick haunt
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones and good in every thing.
I would not change it.

- Shakespeare As You Like It Act II Scene I

Merry Christmas everyone, and may 2011 be better for us all.

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