Dec 11, 2005

Debating Australia

Got involved in a discussion on SM for the first time in a long time, about racism in Australia. Rather than post there, and because of limited time, I decided to just to keep my thoughts here. If you're visiting from that thread, feel free to pile on here.

Australia has been extremely xenophobic as a matter of national policy. Of course, the United States is certainly not a beacon of openness in the world community (for a good example of this, and a call to immediate action this week, click here about HR 4437, an ugly bill that turns aiding undocumented immigrants into a felony) and more of Europe is moving in this direction, but Australia has been there for a long time - and my statement that you couldn't pay me to go there is a personal statement of my own fear of what may happen to me, even though I have relative privilege of gender, class, and status.

Discrimination is one thing - overt xenophobia as espoused by national policy (see Australia's refugee policy), is another. Of course the United States is a beacon on this, from exclusionary immigration acts to the death blow of the 1996 Welfare reform legislation, and even what's going through Congress right now.

Admittedly, I don't know enough about Australia first hand, but I would definitely want to hear the perspective of different people - when you listen to middle-class desis talk about the United States or the UK, the perspective is very different from that of more working class or recent immigrants.

I wonder if the same is true for different classes of immigrants and refugees in Australia, even from the same broader diasporic community. How is it for non-English speakers? How is for folks who live more on the margins of Australian society? Has Australia moved forward from its xenophobic past, the way that Canada has? Or does it remain in a way more troubling than just fringe groups or politicians, sorta how it does in the United States.

Though it's reassuring to hear some positivity out there about Australian society, individual accounts of "I'm okay, you're okay" don't seem convincing enough to me. For every person profiled or harassed for being of a particular religion or ancestry in the United States, there's always someone else ready to supply a soundbite of "I've had no problem, I'm very thankful for being here." Neither picture fully represents what's happening, and I guess it's hard to really get an accurate macro picture.

And it's also a question of more at stake than just "what's going to happen to desis here, there, or wherever." Distilling racist and anti-immigrant instances into a "what's the brown factor" analysis amounts more to a "tell me why I should care" lens that threatens the basis of coalition-building. The point isn't how this affects your future vacation plans to Australia. The point is that the fundamental infringement of peoples' rights to live without fear and to migrate peacefully are at risk, and the basic values espoused by international human rights law are being undermined.

So I've been thinking about it not just as a desi, but as a member of an immigrant community - and I've been wondering for the many different paths and peoples who have made their way to the shores of Oz, what were their experiences? Is there tension? Or is there a thin veneer of 'tolerance,' which need only be scratched lightly to reveal the animosity that festers beneath. I'm not really convinced that Australia is a welcoming place to communities of color, and I'm not convinced that it's analogous to places like Canada or the UK, which while still facing racism and other issues of difference, have a large enough immigrant/non-white community to have to deal with these issues.

The United States is still stuck in passive "multicultural" window-dressing mode, rather than more active anti-racist work, but then again, we still have our heads up our asses about global warming and radical climate shift, so I'm not holding my breath about an honest confrontation of the American tolerance myth.

I'm just driven by hope that the world will grow up quickly, so that the brat in the room (us) can follow suit.


Splat Guy said...

As an Australian, my view is obviously biased, but it is informed. You're right that Australia has racists, but you'd have trouble convincing me that the country is xenophobic.

Take the immigration issue. Australia has a policy of detaining foreigners who arrive or are found in Australia without a valid visa. You might be surprised to know that Britons and Americans are more likely to end up there than any other nationality, simply because they frequently overstay their visas. (75% of detainees are held because they've overstayed their visas.) The difference is that when they are found, they are routinely deported (usually with a bar on entry for three years). Asylum seekers don't want to go home, so they will remain in detention for longer. Sometimes that has been a very long time - one extraordinary case saw a man in detention for seven years before the minister intervened - but typically it is much, much less - well under a year. Often they will be released with a temporary protection visa until their case is decided. When it is, they are either granted refugee status and allowed to stay permanently, or are deported.

Detention has existed since the 1990s, but it became mandatory in 2001. For several years to that point, people in Indonesia - either Indonesians or genuine refugees from elsewhere - were paying people-smugglers about $10,000 to sail to Australia illegally. It got to the point where many hundreds of people were arriving each month.

The new immigration laws, coupled with very tough penalties for people-smugglers, have meant there have not been any such "boatpeople" in the last four years. To compensate, Australia has dramatically lifted its intake of refugees through legal channels.

The biggest sources of immigration in Australia are the UK and New Zealand, but that is not surprising given how many Australians are of British origin and how close ties are between the three countries. Next up are China, India, and South Africa.

Regarding the Sydney riots, well, first thing is to acknowledge that the people involved are total animals. Mob justice is no justice at all. Without trying to justify it, it is also important to recognise that Australia has a big problem along its entire east coast, especially in the south east (where Sydney is), with Lebanese gangs. Any mid-sized town's CBD on Saturday night will see frequent acts of harassment. Young Lebanese men have got into forming packs that roam around in cars. They scream obscenities, throw things at people, do burnouts on public roads, and graffiti buildings and cars. Even more notoriously, there have been half-a-dozen or so gang rapes in Sydney over the last few years; all have been perpetrated by Lebanese gangs.

As for the people in Cronulla, everything is explained in the Wikipedia article on bogans.

When you have some Cronulla bogans with latent rage against Lebanese gangs, you start to understand why the seemingly minor incident of lifesavers being attacked on Cronulla beach led to such a massive response.

Extrapolating from that, or from Australia's very successful immigration policy, that the whole country is racist and that you would be in danger is simplistic and unfair - maybe even xenophobic. After all, you've judged 20 million people by the idiotic, roundly condemned actions of several thousand.

99.999% of Australian life is a model of different cultural groups living harmoniously and uncontroversially together. Cronulla doesn't change that in the slightest.

Rage said...

I appreciate your comments - It's very helpful to get perspective from someone who's actually thought more about this issue. I think part of my frustration was with the forum where this was being discussed, as I mentioned throughout the piece.

I think that clearly, there's no objectivity in this kind of discussion, but we should at least try to look at things from a perspective that stretches beyond our own comfort zones (or interest groups).

But I'm still wary of dismissing Australia's white only policies, just as I am the same for the United States, of which I am far more critical - from experience. The United States was built on policies of xenophobia and racism, and I think it would be a fool's message to think that vestiges (or full-blown remnants) of those policies don't remain. Just a casual glance at institutional racism and the refusal of the nation to acknowledge its most egregious faults underscore that issue. And it's not enough for individuals to say "I'm fine, you're fine" when there are broader themes at play.

So perhaps I'm biased as an American of color who has dug below the surface, but I think it's worth investigating further.

flygirl said...

Hi Rage,

I started trying to write a response to your posts both here and on Sepia but find myself writing reams of material. So I'll try and stick to a few points and be as brief as possible.

As one of the posters of my experiences as a desi immigrant, I'd like to clarify my position. In commenting here I'll be using what I see as the common, filter.

The immigrant experience here is indeed dependent on your particular ethnic background socio-economic background, suburb, city and state of residence. You are less *likely* to experience racism if you are from a higher socio-economic background, or at least a more educated background. However, this still doesn't define the response of your neighbours, schoolmates, workmates.

The experience of racism and racial tension will vary according to where you live. In Sydney there is a greater degree of "ghettoisation" of ethnic groups than in Melbourne. There certainly is some ghettoisation in Melbourne but it is significantly less in degree and there's more varied distribution of ethnic groups. Growing up in southeastern (East Asian and Anglo-Celtic) Melbourne can be different to growing up in southwestern (Greek, now mostly Desi-Sri Lankan etc) Melbourne. It's impossible to determine what your experience will be.

In Australia, the most significantly visible "other" group are the East Asians (or Asians, as they are referred to here). Their population is double that of Desis. They've borne the brunt of most racism since they began arriving in significant numbers in the late 70s. The Chinese have had a presence here since the late 1800s. Part of the longstanding racism against Asians is due to the "Yellow Peril" bogeyman of the 1900s, the supposed threat of an exoticised, opium-smoking, libidinous, corrupt Asian Menace, hordes of which would take over the country if they were let in.

In more recent times, Muslim Australians of various backgrounds have faced a backlash. This is directly linked to the current international climate, but in no small way influenced by the current government. The issues of Tampa and Hansonism were manipulated by the govt for its own purposes (I think Splat Guy would disagree with me here :-) ). Instead of dealing appropriately or adequately with the rise of Hansonism, basic ignorance and suspicion was allowed to fester into something more sinister. I do identify this as a particular trait of this govt as it was quite different from attitudes of most governments post White Australia Policy.

There is a level of racism here. It's not universal but it is there, that "soft underbelly." You can scratch the surface and find a basic ignorance which, while easily influenced, for the most part can be removed over time. There is less of the extreme element amongst the general populace. Generally, Australians really are very decent, generous and welcoming people. We do live here, all of these ethnicities, largely in harmony.

Cronulla is a snapshot of a very particular Sydney community vs another Sydney community. It isn't a reflection on general race relations in this country.

Sorry to have taken so much space.

Rage said...

Flygirl - thanks so much for taking the time to respond. I actually find this exchange very useful for my own understanding, and definitely value hearing from people who know more through their personal experience. I get a little frustrated stateside, because folks here end up shooting down an anti-racist agenda based solely on their personal experience of "I'm fine, so everyone's fine." So maybe there's a little transferrence going on there. :)

But again - thanks for taking the time to write - and clarify more of the diasporic viewpoint for me. It's easy for an outsider to take the squares of news that he gets and create a quilt of images that don't make up the whole of an experience. Feel free to keep writing here.

flygirl said...


Thanks for taking the time to really study the issue. I've been frustrated by the apparent obstinacy of Mutineers in viewing this issue and general race relations in Oz as a black and white issue, or that I'm being either wilfully or unwittingly blind about it. The implicationsof that attitude aren't impressive either. At the same time, I'm tickled to find myself defending Australia, on the verge of uttering the platitudes that John Howard and his ilk - well, any nationalist - tends to use. Next I'll be walking around draped in an Aussie this what patriotism feels like? ? *shakes head*

I suggest that you keep reading some of the Australian newspapers on line to get a feel for things here.

So do desis or other groups there just refuse to talk about it? I wouldn't say it's the case here. We are grateful for what we have, but we - or at least my generation - will still question and assert our rights. We're well aware of the situation, probably similar to the US, but hey, things won't change overnight. For a country a mere 40 years or so out from the White Australia Policy, Australia's doing pretty well. It's such a universal thing, though: most nations are going though enormous upheaval and reassessment of identity. Immigrant nations such as theUS, Canada, NZ and Canada are going through a more critical change as majority groups assert their perceived dominance and identity as the most valid. Our problem is the lack of maturity in our leadership in tackling these huge issues of race, nationalism and identity.

Peace :-)

Rage said...

I think that there is an uneasiness in the States, at least - and a philosophical gap that is widening not just between the first and second generation, which is natural, but also between members of different waves of newer immigration and a fractured native-born population of desis who are privileged, and somehow feel like they live in a post-race society, which is so far from the truth that it's silly.

I think that people get lulled into thinking that everything's fine because capitalism and American isolationism from the rest of the world mixes with their own inherited cultural/ancestral centrism and you have a class of people who are transnational in the cultural and even physical sense, but are still very limited in their ability to engage in a broader analysis of race relations, power dynamics, and the like.

I'm very interested in diasporic populations, and while I learned more recently that there was a relatively large desi community in Australia, I know far less about it than those in Canada, the UK, Trinidad, Guyana, or even Africa or Singapore. So it's really interesting to hear your perspective - especially (on top of it all) because you're not from the majority Indian population, which dominates the discourse in some mainstream spaces. As I'm sure you know - it's a challenge enough just to get people to understand that South Asian ? Indian, and that there are other communities, histories, and sensibilities to consider in the macro-analysis.

Not to mention that we're sort of the pioneers in this thinking - at least in the US, and I would imagine in Australia as well, the second generation is overwhelmingly our age or younger - there isn't an older second generation in place, and so we're very much at the forefront of where this community is going to go. So... I get frustrated in some spaces too - because I think that we have to become more sophisticated in our analyiss than just "how does it affect me/my immediate community." The lines are not so bright as some may want to believe between ourselves and the perceived other.

But to answer our question, there is definitely a radical/progressive segment of the community here, but it's still fairly young, and still working on how it can work together. I find that the folks who get it are engaged all over the place, but they aren't necessarily only working on South Asian Am. issues (which I personally think is a good thing, as long as they are plugged into social justice networks).

Anyway - would love to hear more about the Aussie-desi identity and where things are... do the different desi groups work together/find common ground as they did once in the UK? Or is it still separated?

Michael said...

Reading these posts and the articles about the race riots in Australia made me think about why I have such a poor impression of Australia. I've worked with Australians who were quite normal, but my overall impression of Australians is that they are xenophobic simian yobs. I am quite sure I would never want to visit that country.

How are such impressions formed? Let's revisit the chief sources of information available about Australia to someone who depends on the newspapers.

1. Australia denies entry to refugees recently rescued from a sinking vessel on the open sea, leaving them to rot on a ship not designed to hold them, until the Norwegian captain takes the initiative to move towards land without permission. Whatever your views on legality, the morals and origins of the refugees, or any other such issues, a people that deliberately prevents people at sea from making their way to safety on land is one that has fundamentally lost touch with what it means to be human.

2. Periodic riots at horrific detention centres in the Australian desert where asylum seekers are consigned in legal limbo for indefinite periods. The Australian Immigration Minister criticises Australians who seek to visit detainees. Australian policy of "mandatory detention" applies to children a few years old. Australians quoted in the news spout pat denunciations of "lawbreakers". Countries like the UK have problems with immigrants who break the law to get here too, but they don't stoop to this level of inhumanity and disproportionate punishment against them. Again, how can one classify the Australian people within the human race after reading this?

3. Australia, unlike the UK, refuses to help its citizens in Guantanamo Bay. Why not? Australia's legal limbo for asylum seekers is after all not very different from the legal limbo at Guantanamo Bay. What's the big deal, asks Australia, bemused by other countries that consider Gitmo a scandal.

flygirl said...

Gentlemen, I'd just like to quickly respond to Michael's post very briefly for now:

1)Tampa was a national disgrace. It was carried out in a climate of fear and hysteria, soon after September 11. What about the response here? Well, it was xenophobic and short term. The story disappeared very quickly as with any such issue or controversy has been recently. As in the US, there is little media coverage for dissenting views.

2) Riots in Detention Centres

Our ongoing shame. This is a hugely complex issue. However, as above, there is little or no media or mainstream interest in these events. Interestingly, a number of mishaps with the Dept of Immigration here, this policy has been placed it under fire. Consequently, there was suddenly a much faster processing of some applications. There is now a move towards community based housing for asylum seekers, at least for those with children.

3) Australia has not defended David Hicks

It doesn't matter which party is in power here, there is little support for Australians of any make for whatever trouble they might be in when they are overseas. Basically, if you are overseas, particularly in a trouble spot, don't expect help. Not only is David Hicks stuck in Gitmo, but several Australians now face a possible death penalty (which we oppose here) for drug trafficking in Indonesia, one has been jailed for 30 years (it was considered an achievement that the death sentence wasn't given), and an Australian was executed in Singapore. The latter case was paritrcularly controversial; the govt did plead clemency on a number of occaisions but failed, and claimed that it was entirely up to the Singaporean government. However, France and other countries were able to extradite their nationals to prevent the execution which is illegal in their countries.

Alot of this ties in with the leader of the current government and stresses of the world wide climate. however, in spite of this, most Australians are, oddly enough, quite welcoming. You would not be unwelcome here, you will not necessarily find a bunch of simian xenphobes (you'll find the simians at the cricket though). It's impossible to respond to this adequately with little space and time. Please don't make a judgement on the entire country with out understanding the nuances of society and politics here.

I am really glad, though, that Australia is being debated and that we are forced to analyse these issues. By all means, take us to task.

flygirl said...

Sorry I should also mention that since the Howard government is a member of the Coalition of the Willing, it is politically expedient for them to keep Hicks in Gitmo indefinitely. It suits is policies of detention, the new draconian anti-terrorism laws, the stifling of public debate on any issue of social justice or any alternate view of our history (cf. the term "Stolen Generations" as a "black armband view" of our history), its denial that multiculturalism is a fact rather than interpretation of Australia and its presentation of Australia as a great militaristic nation.

Sorry, that was only half rant :-)

Rage said...

Michael and flygirl - thanks for your thoughts. Michael - do you see a wide gap between the UK and Australia? I only have American media and what I have time on the web to read about the UK situation, but how are things there in the aftermath of the tube bombings? Clearly all nations have to work on the relations between majority and minority populations, but I've read enough to say that the UK is in a more unique position than places like the US and France. What re your thoughts?

flygirl - definitely interesting to continue reading your perspective on this. Especially on the point of Australia and the conduct of its people overseas. That's starkly different from what I've seen of other similar nations, and something that I didn't know about AU. Is that just understood by the population - that when you're not home, you're not protected?

flygirl said...

You know, I don't think it's "understood," as such, that you will not be protected; that was just my expression :-) The embassy will help, but its role tends to be more supportive than proactive. The Foregin Ministry and government as a whole rarely if ever engages foreign govts in attempts to help Australian citizens. In the specific case of Van Ngyuen, it could be argued that since he had been in jail for three years prior to execution, that proceedings for extradition could have begun earlier this year (mind you, I don't think there is a treaty with S'pore on this). The govt was under alot of pressure, which is what entailed the number of pleas but failed - as you would, trying this four weeks out from an execution. So it is distinctly different from many countries in this respect. I have no idea why that is, and as far as we know, it's not related to class and conncetions. If there has been diplomatic pressure exerted in such favour in the past, we're unlikely to hear about it :-)

In regard to your other comment, I think the UK is actually ahead of many of these countries in this and other respects. To take one example, Tony Blair's WMD fiasco brought greater debate and analysis there than it did here. There seems to be a lot more debate in the media about even basic issues of civil liberties under Anti-Terrorism legislation, their problem with illegal migrants is much bigger than ours but they still manage to deal with it in a more compassionate way etc. We have a tame media, where these things disappear quickly. Of course, the latter is not solely to blame for this situation...

Rage said...

I had a similar feeling about the UK, but sometimes the grass seems greener... just trying to get more insight from the inside, as it were. Who knows - against the powerful machinations of big government and corporate media, I guess at least we have these small alternative spaces to try to approximate what's happening out there.

Otherwise, we'd be left to the mercy of our respective gov't propaganda! Actually - what is/are the opposition parties like in AU? Are they basically the same side of the coin as the ruling party, or is there real difference, which the cynical Rage would say, is unlike the US.

flygirl said...

Rage, I'm grateful that we do have these alternative spaces. But then again, isn't the mainstream missing out? Some will come seeking to argue, some to debate, for some it's preaching to the converted. I've posted so many links to articles from broadsheets in my Sepia posts, but the widest circulating papers are tabloids. Ultimately its those voters who influence outcomes...

We do not have an opposition - Labor has gone the way of the Democrats: waffling, ineffectual, insecure, trying to be everything to everybody (but mostly the right) and succeeding nowhere. Our previous Opposition Leader ended up getting the worst primary vote for Labor in its 100year+ history. Then he quite the party and wrote a biography backstabbing his colleagues. Helps alot, you'll acknowledge. It's such a difficult situation though: you have to be seen to be tough on terrorism etc and yet doing so means you end up supporting bills which curb basic freedoms. You end up being indistinguishable from the other side. Trying to offer an alternative doesn't seem to help either...

Did someone say cynical?

sorry to rant so much dude, I've used so much space.

Rage said...

flygirl, no worries about space - I'm happy to have a discussion on here again after so long. It's inspiring me to write more. So thanks! :)

We have to have hope - otherwise what's the point of pushing forward? And what's the point of trying or keeping ourselves jazzed up about these issues?

flygirl said...

Hi Rage, I've come across as more negative than was my intention :-) It's more that when I surf the web looking at politcal sites, you tend to see the converted preaching to the converted. This is, of course, perfectly natural, but I just wonder how we can move beyond it (then again, who wants to read the shlock on Right Wing Death Bogan for balance?).

I do have a much higher measure of optimism than you would think. In 1998 we had a Constitutional Convention on the Australian Republic. While the final referendum failed in spite of 60% public support for a republic, it's interesting to note the dynamics of the debate that went on. The model presented for and Aust. republic government was popularly misconstrued. While a US-style executive Presidential model was not widely supported (or presented in the referendum), the more minimalist model of parliament-appointed President model fell see here for list of models. The only options were the Parliament Appointed and No Republic). Within the microcosm of the Convention, about 2/3 of participants changed their views on the minimalist model after 3-4 days of debate, many of the people who initally opposed the model changed their vote after the CC. Regardless of what you think of the models, I find it an extremely interesting result. It's not a question of indoctrination, so much as of the power of information and debate. So, see you at the weekly debate/flame fest!

Rage said...

Thanks, flygirl, for your writing on the subject - stepped away for a bit, but anxious to write again in the new year. Do hope you tune in again!