Alien Nation
September 18, 2013 8:13 PM   Subscribe

Australia in 2013. We have forgotten our origins and our good fortune, we are blind to our own selfishness. In place of memory we cling to a national myth of a generous, welcoming country, a land of new arrivals where everyone gets a fair go; a myth in which vanity fills the emptiness where the truth was forgotten. -- Julian Burnside writes on refugee policy and alienation in Australia

Contains one of the most surprising accounts of engaging with hate mail that I've ever read.
posted by deadwax (21 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
Great essay. Thanks.
posted by turbid dahlia at 9:24 PM on September 18, 2013

Burnside has the text of the original speech on his website, plus an appendix of sample hate mails.
posted by zamboni at 9:25 PM on September 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Contains one of the most surprising accounts of engaging with hate mail that I've ever read.

I heard Julian Burnside deliver a lecture similar to this last year, and I had (very cynically) figured that he spent much of his time preaching to the converted. It was heartening to hear him describe the change in the tone of argument when he corresponded with people who'd sent him hate mail.

That said, he did describe one email he'd received which was so outrageously offensive he'd simply replied with "Thank you for the offer of your sister."
posted by jaynewould at 9:49 PM on September 18, 2013

The Monthly has an excellent essay by Christos Tsiolkos, Why Australia hates asylum seekers, that was free for a day last week but is now unfortunately behind the paywall. Grab a dead tree edition if you can (or subscribe).
posted by wilful at 9:51 PM on September 18, 2013

One person who writes to me quite often is convinced that the police, and other government agencies, are spying on him all the time and that they have a secret control order against him. He is intelligent and well-educated. He sends video footage of ordinary street scenes, at the traffic lights, in shopping centres, in suburban streets and he asserts (and no doubt believes) that various people captured on his videos are in fact plain clothes operatives – stalking him, watching him, keeping him in a kind of open prison.

This person points out, rationally enough, that such conduct is a serious breach of his human rights. And if the innocuous scenes he sent showed what he sees, he would be right. But they do not show what he sees. They prove nothing at all. He insists that the Commonwealth government have a secret control order against him: but he can offer no explanation how a control order can work, if it is kept secret from everyone.

I have had this client - if not this particular guy, then someone exactly like him. It was heartbreaking - trying to explain to him how his theory made no sense, how there was nothing we could do because there was nothing to do, and then watching the gears spin in his head as he effortlessly folded us into the conspiracy. Of course we wouldn't help him; we were working for them.

Mental health support in this country is a disgrace.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 10:14 PM on September 18, 2013 [4 favorites]

I get a lot of unsolicited requests for pro bono help. It has been interesting, not to say distressing, to see the sort of troubles that plague people in our community...

What is distressing is that the majority of people who write to me this way do not in fact have a recognisable legal or human rights problem. Typically they are people who have had some bad luck, have made some bad choices, and find themselves trapped in a spiral of disadvantage, distress, unemployment and mental instability...

When I write to them with further questions, or with advice about what to do, it usually becomes clear that they have already been to just about every imaginable place for help: Legal Aid, a Community Legal Centre, government departments, their local doctor or MP. No-one can help them, because they have no single, clear problem apart from the fact that they feel alienated from everything. Part of their distress is caused by feeling so isolated.

This is so true. It's a tragedy and a disgrace.
posted by Salamander at 11:28 PM on September 18, 2013

I am disgusted by almost all our (I'm Australian) politicians in this regard, both how we treat the mentally ill, and how we treat asylum seekers. That both major parties went down the immigrant-bashing line this election cycle was horrendous.
posted by Neale at 11:41 PM on September 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Yes, disgusting and shameful. Nice article, wish the people who need to read it, would.
posted by Kaleidoscope at 12:32 AM on September 19, 2013

Fantastic article. I am a big Burnside fan. I helped organise an event that he spoke at, not long after the Tampa incident, when he spoke about the growing fear and hostility towards asylum seekers - some of whom also shared their stories. The thing that resonated with me most was his comment that it's easy for fear, suspicion and hatred to flourish where there is ignorance, poverty and powerlessness; it's harder to acknowledge that they can also flourish where there is education, opportunity and prosperity.

There's also this piece in the Guardian a few days ago.
posted by andraste at 12:48 AM on September 19, 2013

And what I meant to add was that in this piece he's delving into some of the reasons that fear, suspicion and hatred flourish even here, and it's illuminating and depressing. I used to take phone calls and emails from some of those alienated people too, and I'm sure I did not handle them with anything like the compassion and intelligence with which he obviously does.
posted by andraste at 12:51 AM on September 19, 2013

I am, indeed, an alien in my home country. Shame filled. Bless Julian Burnside and his ilk.

I am the person (sole person) that handles support for an online casting site here in Australia - and I can certainly vouch for responding personally, personably even, to people who are immediately angry, defensive and demanding when they experience some kind of issue. I have tried different tacts - templated, personal, etc. When I engage people meaningfully and without judgement - I am no longer surprised how understanding, and gracious they immediately become (which is no mean feat, given Big Brother is one of my clients) - it is 100% guaranteed (the mods here would understand this phenomena - I've experienced and learned from them). I actually get that kick out of that feeling that I've made someone's life better for a moment (despite what I think about their cheap desires for meaningless fame). If only I could engage them in something more meaningful... sigh.

What's happened in Australia feels like a heinous psychological experiment.

I am so sorry.
posted by a non e mouse at 4:00 AM on September 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

Andraste: I noticed Burnside's suggested Tasmanian Solution over the weekend. It's an interesting idea, but knowing the LNP's charming attitude toward welfare, the rights of refugees, and the merits of multiculturalism, it wouldn't surprise me to see a warped adaptation of the plan where the existing population of Tasmania were first offered incentives to move to the mainland. Give it ten years of neglect and a visiting Tony Abbott will be getting extracted from Hobart by Snake Plissken.
posted by MarchHare at 4:06 AM on September 19, 2013

That actually sounds pretty badass, though. I mean bad-arse.
posted by No-sword at 5:07 AM on September 19, 2013

The sight of the major parties competing to promise greater cruelty to boat people is new in Australian politics. We have never been perfect, but this was something without precedent.

But some of us remember how things once were, some of us see how things could be.

And we grieve: aliens in our own land.

What he said.

Sometimes I wonder whether this man has regrets about the Children Overboard lies and the appalling treatment of vulnerable people that followed from them. And sometimes I see a glimmer that in fact he just might.

I was in Form Two (eighth grade) when Malcolm Fraser finally succeeded in engineering the dismissal of the Whitlam Government, and I spent the decade following that piece of outrageous political bastardry loathing him as a result. But he's consistently been head and shoulders above any of the rest of our elder statesman on refugee policy; it must surely pain him to ponder his part in elevating to power a crew of spivs and chancers so egregiously lacking in basic human decency.
posted by flabdablet at 9:36 AM on September 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

What a brilliant speech. What a depressing appendix.
posted by rory at 2:59 PM on September 19, 2013

I'm late in on this one, but wanted to add that while I think that his 'Tasmanian solution' is silly (social services are nowhere near close to coping with existing demand, let alone a larger group of highly vulnerable people needing significant support), this is a great piece.

The account of engaging with the mountains of hate mail should remind people of the importance of engaging ignorance with civility, rather than ridicule. Many people remain capable of changing their mind when acquainted with facts. I think that it is a point that many on the left in this country have missed. If you're trying to argue from a moral position, you just can't afford to get down in the mud with your opponent (however dishonest or ignorant they prove to be).
posted by Tasmanian_Kris at 6:41 PM on September 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

You know, there are refugees in places other than Indonesia, and we actually bring some of them to Australia. We can't bring all of them, of course, because there are just so many. But we do bring some. The number of people who migrate to Australia every year is limited by what is socially and politically possible. If we had more people migrating in one category we would find it necessary to reduce the intake of migrants from other categories. You might argue that this limit should be higher, but there must be a limit of some sort. Every migrant admitted is a choice: this person rather than that person.

Julian Burnside addresses concerns over the net migration level by saying that the number of people arriving by boat is less than a sixth of those arriving by other means, but still: every admission is a decision to exclude someone else. Also, he seems to think that the number of arrivals is independent of our admission policies, but we know that's not true: changes in refugee policy change the number of people who try to come by boat, just as they change the number of people who use other means. If we admitted everyone claiming to be a refugee (which is quite possibly our duty under treaties we have signed) then we wouldn't have 28,000 arrivals; we'd have everyone who is currently discouraged. I have no idea how many that might be, but I'd like to see the author address that. What does he think our policy should be? Should we have an open intake? If so, how many people does he think we would have to take in? I don't know what would be the right thing to do, but just for once I'd like to hear someone actually address this.
posted by Joe in Australia at 9:09 PM on September 21, 2013

Burnside addresses his preferred policy on The Conversation:
I do not advocate an open borders policy. Initial detention for people who arrive without papers is reasonable. But it should be limited to one month, for preliminary health and security checks. After that, release them on interim visas with conditions which allow them to work or study and access to Centrelink and Medicare benefits. But require them to live in specified rural or regional towns until their refugee status has been determined.

There are plenty of country towns which are slowly shrinking as people leave. Given that AgForce Queensland, a leading industry body, estimates that there are an estimated 96,000 unfilled full-time argicultural jobs in country areas, the likelihood is that many asylum seekers would get jobs. But even if all of the asylum seekers who were required to live in country towns stayed on Centrelink benefits, they would spend those benefits on rent, food and clothing, to the benefit of the economy of the town where they lived.

If this approach were adopted, and if every asylum seeker remained on benefits, it would cost about $30,000 per person per year, making a generous allowance for administrative overheads.
posted by zamboni at 9:53 PM on September 21, 2013

But that is an open borders policy. It basically means that anyone can migrate to Australia, as long as they live in a "specified rural or regional town". I don't think that policy is practical, unless you have people showing their papers to police on demand all the time; I also don't think it's consistent with our duty to give refugees similar rights to lawful residents. But mostly, I don't see any difference between this and an open borders policy.
posted by Joe in Australia at 10:25 PM on September 21, 2013

It's only an "open borders policy" for refugees. Which we did, you know, sign up for.
posted by flabdablet at 7:33 AM on September 22, 2013

But mostly, I don't see any difference between this and an open borders policy.

until their refugee status has been determined.
posted by zamboni at 3:03 PM on September 22, 2013

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