THE Australian Liberal Party and its National Party allies were known for using the tactic of dog-whistling during their 11 years — 1996 to 2007 — in power, with any section of society the target as long as the opinion poll numbers improved.
It looks like nothing much has changed with the coalition in opposition – having gained little traction in the opinion polls against a dominant Labor Party over the last two years, the leader of the opposition, Malcolm Turnbull, has finally picked on the vulnerable to try and boost his ratings.
The former Liberal leader, John Howard, was a mealy-mouthed individual who knew how to appeal to the lowest common denominator in Australia. Turnbull, despite his professed interest in the arts and a republic, appears to be no different.
Seventy-eight Sri Lankans are all it has taken to turn Turnbull into what one might call Howard Lite. The Sri Lankans were picked up by an Australian Customs ship when they were in trouble on the high seas. They are now in Indonesian waters and refusing to get off the ship.
The Indonesian government does not want them on its hands – and, not being a signatory to the international convention on refugees, is not obligated to let them enter its territory. Australia, being a signatory, has to allow anyone who rocks up through land, sea of air to apply for asylum and then judge the applicant on his or her merits.
Twenty-two of the 78 have now agreed to get off and be processed in Indonesia after Australia provided some assurances of a fast-track in processing. The remainder are still holding up and there are reports that Indonesia wants Australia to settle the issue within the next two weeks.
If one were to rationally analyse the arguments put forward by Turnbull, the whole thing is a joke. Countries like Pakistan face a problem with millions on their borders; Australia gets a few hundred and starts shouting about border protection.
There is some mythical queue which is often referred to when it comes to asylum-seekers. That no such thing exists is never pointed out.
People who come looking for asylum in Australia are referred to as illegal arrivals. It is never pointed out that once a country has signed up to the international convention on refugees, any son or daughter of a sea gherkin can come to the borders – air, land or sea – of that country and ask for asylum. It is the responsibility of the country concerned to assess the claims and either allow the person in or send them back.
There is nothing like an illegal arrival once a country has signed up to this convention. None.
But one needs a modicum of intelligence to understand that. It should be explained in clear terms to the masses. Neither major political grouping is prepared to do that. Both have their eyes on the next general election which is a year away.
It is easy to prey on differences — of caste or creed or colour — in any country. Politicians who do this deserve to be treated with contempt. Unfortunately, as a politician in Israel, an extreme right-wing type once said, “I am only saying what deep inside you believe.”
Australia had harsh laws in place to deal with would-be migrants during the 11 years of coalition rule. The laws have become somewhat more humane after Labor came to power. The ugliness is coming back again as Turnbull attempts to capitalise on divisions in a country which is made up more or less exclusively of migrants. The only people who are native to this dry, harsh land are the Aborigines – everyone else is a migrant.
But Turnbull is an ambitious man and known for either crashing through or else simply crashing. He wants to be prime minister and if he gets there on the back of a few Tamil asylum-seekers it really wouldn’t prevent him from sleeping peacefully at night.
At times like this, I am ashamed to be an Australian citizen.