MUNGO MacCALLUM. Girt by Sea – Australia, the refugees and the politics of fear.

Some at least of the South Africans who have come here, and no doubt most of those Dutton is promoting, want to emigrate to get away from blacks.  

It may have taken almost 16 years, but finally the whirligig of time is bringing in its revenges.

In the wake of the 2001 Tampa election, Morrie Swartz  commissioned me to write a Quarterly Essay which became Girt By Sea – Australia, the Refugees and the Politics of Fear.

In a chapter entitled What Dare Not Speak Its Name I asked the forbidden question: was our Prime Minister, and by extension his government, actually racist?

John Howard already had form; he had suspended the Racial Discrimination Act to enact the Wik response that favoured farmers over Aboriginal traditional owners, he had called for a slowdown on Asian immigration, and the entire basis of his campaign – “We will decide who comes into this country and the circumstances in which they come” – was one of jingoism if not xenophobia.

But did it go the whole way to outright racism? So I offered the observation: “It is hard to believe that, had those recued by the Tampa been white Zimbabwean farmers fleeing the brutal regime of President Mugabe, they would have been treated as hostile invaders and denigrated as economic migrants, illegals, and finally potential terrorists.”

Then I waited for the government or one of its many media boosters to offer a rebuttal. Deafening silence – until at last, the emergence of Peter Dutton, blatantly and shamelessly demanding that white South African farmers should be encouraged to jump the queue in favour of those already languishing in the various camps – including, of course, those sponsored by Australia in Nauru and Manus Island.

It is worth noting that while the South African farmers do not like legislation which may – after due court process – take away some or all of their property, thus qualifying them as economic migrants, it is a big stretch to claim that they, as a class, let alone a race (as Dutton seeks to define them) are facing deliberate political persecution.

Certainly there have been deaths – far more black deaths than white, if that matters, which it obviously doesn’t to Dutton. But much of South Africa is a violent, though not a lawless, society. To declare that all the 78 farm deaths last year, which Tony Abbott effortlessly ramps up to 400, were all political reeks more of propaganda than evidence.

Dutton is more than dog-whistling; he is quite overtly promoting return to his version of White Australia, in which all but unquestioning preference is to be accorded to whites who want residence and the rest can rot away in whichever gulags they can find – we will decide.

Dutton says the South Africans will make model Australian citizens, and he should know because he has a lot in his marginal electorate. And probably most of them will, just as a great many Chinese, Vietnamese, Indians, Sri Lankans, Iranians, Afghans make fine citizens when given the chance. But there is a caveat: some at least of the South Africans who have come here, and no doubt most of those Dutton is promoting, want to emigrate to get away from blacks.

This is not a good qualification for settlement in what Malcolm Turnbull boasts is the most successful multicultural nation in the world. But perhaps that’s why Dutton wants to bring them here.

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Mungo MacCallum is a veteran political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy.

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