At a sparsely attended audience well past prime time at the United Nations General Assembly, Malcolm Turnbull used his pulpit to proclaim that Australia’s border security was the world’s best.
And it is – up to a point. Not since the demolition of the Berlin Wall has there been such ruthless sealing of our frontiers. The boats may not have stopped entirely, but they have been very effectively repelled from our shores.
We have, as even Peter Dutton, Turnbull’s hanger on in New York, admitted, something of a natural boundary; the country is, as our national anthem notes, girt by sea. No other major nation on earth has such an advantage.
Were the countries of Europe – the current target of the greatest mass migration of refugees in 70 years – to seek such barriers, they would have to erect other walls, such as the one proposed by Donald Trump between the United States and Mexico. And for all sorts of reasons, no–one –- at least no one deemed sane – is suggesting such a course.
So when Turnbull preaches about the need for secure borders, it is not entirely clear just what he means. His ideas for keeping out terrorists and other undesirables will no doubt have resonance; everyone who matters is already doing their utmost. But the root problem, the push factors that drive the desperate to find some kind of safety from war, death and persecution will not be deterred by customs officers, however well armed or well informed by intelligence or any other method known to science.
Thus Turnbull’s second nostrum – that this is the way to achieve social harmony, promoting genuine humanitarian migration and a system of publicly accepted multiculturalism – are not really relevant to any country other than his own.
And his third panacea – international cooperation has been exemplified by his unexpected move to bring in some refugees from Costa Rica. Given there are plenty of refugees in our own region, not to mention the crisis proportions in the Middle East, this has been seen as a blatant suck-up to the United States, either to buy his way into Barack Obama’s summit in the first place, or, more conspiratorially, as a people swap: your Costa Ricans for our Nauruans.
But the latter is surely unlikely: Turnbull and Dutton, have repeatedly refused offers of support from friendly countries such as New Zealand because they are just too nice. The way to deal with boat people is to put in the boot and keep it on their necks: brutality is the essence of the policy.
And this brings us back to the domestic issue: is border security the only method by which the two laudable aims of humanitarian intake and international cooperation can be achieved? Turnbull calls them the three pillars: a kind of policy trinity, three in one, self evident and indissoluble.
But even the most cursory reading of Australian history will reveal that the connections are neither necessary nor sufficient. Large scale humanitarian migration arrived very early in the piece; it has been part of the Australian practice well before federation. It has been selective and discriminatory, but until the last couple of years it has never needed or demanded the kind of Border Force devised by Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison.
The influx from refugees and asylum seekers from Vietnam in the late 1970s was seldom queried: there were no cries to stop the boats, let alone for those arriving to go back to where they came from. The public is well accustomed to migration at all levels: for workers, for family reunion, for business migration and for refugees. The debates have rarely about the composition, but about Australian resources and jobs. And those arguments have had absolutely nothibg to do with the fulminations of Morrison and Dutton, nor the homilies of Turnbull.
And the same applies, in spades, to multiculturalism. The brave and successful experiment with this initiative came directly out of the post-war reconstruction plans of Labor in the 1940s. It was nurtured and expanded by all governments of all persuasions, with few exceptions; there were hiccups in the 1990s in the age of John Howard and Pauline Hanson, and there are now hiccups now.
Turnbull claims that the way to ensure multiculturalism, which he passionately espouses, is through strong border security – the policies of Abbott which he has now so enthusiastically adopted. The hiccups, he says, came as a result of the wave of asylum seeker arrivals in the Rudd-Gillard years.
But it can be equally argued that the real hiccup in public approval came not from the arrivals themselves, but from the relentless demonization of them through cynical propaganda fostered largely by the Howard government and pursued, on and off, ever since. We were told that the asylum seekers were not the wretched of the earth fleeing from persecution: they were at best queue jumpers and economic migrants (you know, the ones we encourage by offering large payments for visas from those offering to buy into businesses) and at worst bringers of disease, drug smugglers, terrorists and child drowners.
We did not want those people here; and the corollary was that we did not want their compatriots here either – indeed, we did not really want any “foreigners” here, and we would like a lot of those who had already settled to go away. The actual threat to what has been a largely harmonious multicultural society has not been the fact that a couple of MCGs full of boat people had landed: it was the way they were demonised by the politicians. The campaign for fear and loathing has worked for the undecided voters in the marginal electorates, but it has spilled over with dangerous consequences for the polity as a whole.
Thus the extraordinary poll that showed almost half of Australians reject Moslem immigration. The only way to repair the situation – to ensure that Turnbull’s belief in multiculturalism can be reaffirmed and celebrated – is to change the rhetoric, and that in itself may not be enough.
Until the paranoia and secrecy surrounding the shame and disgrace of our gulags on Nauru and Manus are finally expunged we will continue to be diminished – as acceptable participants in the international community, and, more immediately and importantly, as Australians.
Mungo MacCallum is a veteran journalist who worked for many years in the Canberra Press Gallery.