TMS PEACE JOURNALISM, 19 Apr 2010
Australia is often a good place to observe the workings of political agency. There is a blatancy here, in the connection between cause and consequence, and the alacrity with which sectional interests exploit procedures, that is both appalling and, in a perverse kind of a way, simultaneously appealing. Political parties and business lobbies seem to feel little compulsion to concealment: there is not the sense of layers of subtlety having to be peeled back to reveal what is ‘really going on’, that one might encounter in Washington, say, or London, Paris, Delhi or Jakarta.
So, a review of defence spending, ordered by the government in Canberra, is manipulated by the simple expedient of putting an arms dealer in charge of public hearings and getting former arms dealers to serve as advisers. An ‘intervention’ in response to an inquiry revealing the extent of child abuse in Aboriginal communities turns out to require a(nother) land grab to fund the extension of decent public services to some of Australia’s poorest citizens. Someone remarked this week on the habit of mining companies, faced with planning appeals by people whose villages are earmarked for excavation, to talk about what they will do “when” they win – not “if” (they are never disappointed).
Media, too, often present as an ‘open book’. The public broadcaster, the ABC, adopted a statement of ‘news values’ to exempt it from having to carry out its own obligations to balanced coverage, to make sure nothing ruffles the cosy political consensus on ever-increasing ‘defence’ spending (in spite of sceptical public opinion). James Packer and Lachlan Murdoch, scions of Australia’s two best-known business families, are treated as celebrities despite their obvious lack of charisma or notable achievement. And lately, Australians have been misled – again – into believing their way of life is under threat from the arrival of ‘boat people’ seeking asylum.
The total number of refugees to reach our shores by sea, over a 20-year period, is about 35,000; which means it would take nearly a century before they attained sufficient numbers to fill the country’s premier sports stadium, the iconic Melbourne Cricket Ground. Initially they came from Vietnam, but, as in every other developed country, the geographical spread of Australia’s asylum claims offers a record of the conflicts and crises of our times. Two of the biggest groups in the last few years have come from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka.
This is an election year, and the Labor government of Kevin Rudd is, sad to say, showing no semblance of leadership over the issue. Instead, it is it is trimming its sails in the face of a chill blast from the Liberal opposition, who have presented asylum-seekers as a threat to the ‘security of Australia’s borders’: an opportunity to set the political agenda in their favour. Like other notionally social democratic parties around the world, Labor is discovering the truism that it is impossible to ‘triangulate’ on questions relating to immigration – imbricated, as they invariably are, with race – because there is no scruple, and no limit to how far an avowed party of the right will go in exploiting them. The ground will simply carry on shifting rightwards, becoming ever more uncomfortable in the process.
One recent gambit by ministers has been to declare that no asylum claims by people from Afghanistan or Sri Lanka will be processed for a period of months, while the UN High Commission for Refugees reviews its assessment of the two countries. The implication is that conditions there are improving. Immediately before this announcement, Murdoch’s Australian newspaper – which has led the way, in ‘serious’ media, in alarmist coverage over ‘waves’ of refugee arrivals – ran a column by an obscure ‘expert’, claiming that Sri Lanka should now be regarded as safe, and that Australia therefore had no need to accept any more Tamils seeking asylum.
We did at least manage to get the paper to print a letter in rebuttal, which can be found here:
Victims are being victimised all over again, and Australians and the wider world are, in effect, being urged, ‘don’t mention the war’. Next year, the Sri Lankan government will launch a major advertising campaign aimed at winning back tourist trade, and the country’s cricketers will turn up here in a few months, as if insouciant to the ongoing violations of human rights and – in the closing stages of the civil war, a year ago – international laws providing for the protection of civilians in combat.
Perhaps we should not be too hard on Australia. Perhaps the blatancy is a product of what Edward Hall calls a “low-context” culture, in which acts and utterances are expected to be explicit, logical and linear. That is, after all, what has allowed generations of arrivals here, from a myriad of different ‘home’ cultures, to thrive: hidden barriers to participation are fewer, and lower, than in many other places. Somehow, though, it has led the inhabitants of a colossal, outlandishly wealthy and sparsely-populated island continent to fear movements of people that are, in overall terms, a drop in the Indian ocean.
It’s doubly important, now, to keep Sri Lanka in focus and to insist on peace with justice. That must eventually entail political justice for the Tamils, and there must be some component of that which reflects the unacceptability of killing civilians, as documented in a US State Department report last year, detailing no fewer than 158 reports of bombings and shellings that can only have come from the government side. Impunity incentivises repetition, and not just in the same place: ‘they got away with it, why shouldn’t we?’
Please take the opportunity, also, to read the excellent article by Sam Thampapillai, my colleague in the Sri Lanka Human Rights Project at our Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney, on the ongoing human rights emergency in Sri Lanka.
You can find it here:
Jake Lynch is Associate Professor and Director of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney.
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 19 Apr 2010.
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