Australia Day – no celebration here

This Australia day, I implore you: let’s stop and think about what we really believe in, what we would like being ‘Australian’ to really mean… And then let this inform how we speak, what behaviour and speech we tolerate around us, how we vote, how we raise our children…

Australia day is a few days away but I feel no reason to celebrate this year.

I am disappointed and ashamed of what it appears to mean to be ‘Australian’ these days.

I have never been a huge ‘fan’ of nationalism in any form – here or in my birth country of South Africa – because I feel it is an artificially cultivated concept that only divides us, and obscures our shared humanity. However, my lifelong reluctance to join overtly nationalistic events has now grown into something even more – revulsion.

Having returned to Australia after four years living overseas, I am shocked at the change in the national discourse about immigrants, refugees and human rights in general. And I am completely outraged by the treatment of would-be asylum seekers – so-called ‘boat people’ – in ‘our’ name.

(I haven’t the space to cover the great debt of justice and self-determination due to the aboriginal people of Australia here, but this is another seething undercurrent in our national psyche)

This government appears to have its own agenda – no amount of outcry from public or human rights groups has dissuaded them from their current policy on what they have cunningly and inaccurately renamed ‘illegal maritime arrivals’.

In doing so, they have not only forgotten that government is appointed by and for the people (not for corporate and other special interests groups alone) – but they are blatantly ignoring their (‘our’!) international obligations, under human rights and refugee agreements Australia has signed, and is legally bound to honour! So just who is acting illegally here?

In a further blow to our so-called democracy, this government doesn’t even see the need to be transparent anymore. There is now an official media ‘blackout’ – no comments or information forthcoming from the government about the exact tactics they are now employing to ‘turn back the boats’, and no media coverage allowed of these aggressive actions by (‘our’) navy boats.

This policy has now also caused international tensions, as the navy boats had the nerve to enter Indonesian territorial waters without permission – the insanity, the immaturity, the sheer incompetence, of our current leaders …is astounding!

Human Rights Watch have just released their ‘World Report 2014’ criticising Australia’s treatment of refugees, its flouting of international treaties, as well as its lack of leadership on human rights in the Asia-Pacific region (See their media release here or the full report here).

We are now no longer a country that can be seen as an advocate of human rights in our region, a beacon of civilisation, compassion and tolerance – but rather we have become one of the pariahs of the international community. Nothing to feel proud about, if you consider some of the company we are keeping in that category!

However what concerns me more than the current government’s policies and attitudes (and let’s face it, the previous government weren’t faring too well on asylum-seeker policy either!) – is the apathy and even antipathy of the general Australian public towards asylum seekers and immigrants in general now. The ‘national conversation’ in the media and in social media has become narrow-minded, shallow and even hateful.

This apparent approval of ‘stronger borders’ by whatever means – harsher policies and military tactics against unarmed civilians – flies in the face of the much-touted Australian values of ‘a fair go’ (equal opportunities, a fresh start for everyone who came here?) and ‘mateship’ (equality, a classless society?), I’m sorry.

No longer can this country claim to be tolerant and welcoming, easygoing and friendly. Now we are more concerned with preserving ‘our way of life’ – our lattes, SUVs, Mac-mansions and latest-fashionable-label clothing – than ‘doing the right thing’ (a much-used phrase in ‘Aussy’ society in the past – from parents to government advertising campaigns).

No, now it’s all about entitlement – by which we appear to mean something along the lines of “we deserve MORE of everything: ‘better homes and gardens’ (just one of a million home improvement/ lifestyle shows Australia can’t seem to get enough of), better salaries, better sex lives… and much, much more stuff.” It’s this rampant materialism that requires us to preserve the status quo at all costs – if we let ‘those people’ in, it might mean LESS for us…!

(Even more sinister, when a previous Prime Minister, John Howard explained our reason for joining the war in Iraq many years ago, he actually said – ‘we have to defend our way of life’…why fight a war on foreign soils to do this? Well, to ensure access to the oil that our greedy, exploitative, unsustainable society is so dependent on of course!)

So I am not in any mood for the fireworks or large celebratory crowds (ahem, did anyone say ‘drunken violence and mayhem’? – Another reason not to be proud of ‘Aussy’ behaviour at the moment).

If only we could rather spend those millions (City of Sydney alone spent around 7 million dollars on this New Year’s celebrations!) on decent research, community consultation and communication campaigns to create and implement the robust policies we so desperately need… And if only Australians would come together in the same huge crowds we see at any celebration or sports event, to lend our voices to advancing the cause of the voiceless!

A quick digression about my own background here: while back in South Africa, the Marikana massacre in August 2012 (when 36 miners were killed by police during a strike) was the final straw when deciding whether to stay there longer or return to Australia. Sadly, I am feeling similar feelings of disgust and alienation from the current heartless culture and political debate about refugees (more of my critique on Marikana here).

Not to say you should move countries or renounce your nationality every time there is something you disagree with of course – there are so many better ways of taking a stand instead, and trying to change the ‘status quo’. Mostly cultural and political change happens slowly over time, and requires a lifelong commitment by the country’s citizens.

However, the Marikana massacre was the last in a long line of concerns for me – personal safety (the escalating violent crime rates are alarming), and the future of my daughter (South Africa has less opportunities and a culture of gender discrimination and gender violence) were foremost of these.

For me, Marikana was the ‘canary in the mine’ indicating the direction of the government and its police force; and the general lack of concern or outrage shown by my fellow South Africans made me fundamentally question whether I wanted to be a part of that country anymore. I couldn’t see enough desire for change around me to encourage my staying to help bring about change, and most importantly, I didn’t want my daughter to grow up in this sort of heartless culture, thinking this was ‘normal’.

Luckily I had choices though – having been a resident of Australia since I was 16 and a citizen since some time after that (more than half my life now) – we returned here easily and rejoined the ranks of the many, many English-speaking, white-skinned, highly educated migrants who have been welcomed (at the time anyway) into this country.

We have been so grateful and blessed in building our lives here over the years. I love the general Australian culture, sense of humour and yes, the ‘way of life’ is wonderful.

Many others have not been as blessed, or as welcomed. Many people from other Nations came here over the course of the twentieth century with nothing, had to make huge adjustments to ‘fit in’ to the language and culture, and were mocked, discriminated against and even physically attacked.

Now, I have encountered a surprising amount of bigotry and ignorance even towards South Africans (who are so similar to Australians it’s hard to understand the reason for this) in my twenty-something years living, studying and working in this country…

But our stories – from the slightly-misunderstood South Africans, to those Italians and others who were mocked and labelled ‘wogs’, to the blatantly vilified Asians discussed as ‘the yellow peril’ – have not been anything like the heartbreaking and horrific experiences of today’s asylum-seekers.

My heart is heavy as I write these words. What does this say of the heart and character of Australia as a nation, of all of us as individuals and communities? We can’t let this go on.

I know it’s a complex issue – believe me, I have been one of the concerned minority discussing and researching this issue for at least ten years now… But complex issues require deep thought and discussion, not media sound-bites; multi-layered policies and approaches, not shallow, violent knee-jerk reactions; and multiple perspectives, not just those of the political ‘elites’ – in order to find workable, equitable, sustainable solutions…

How do we want to be represented – in government, in the media, to our regional neighbours, to the rest of the world, and to the real people begging for our mercy as they risk their lives in boats simply to find a place that will let them live…?

We need to rewrite our myths of ‘nationhood’ and ‘nationality’ to include others, and to value compassion and decency above such selfish narratives as ‘lifestyle’ or outdated notions of a static culture that may not be ‘messed with’. Culture, like language, is a fluid, organic thing that has always changed with every new generation, with every new wave of people that joined the conversation.

So let’s do just that – let’s change the conversation, the culture, the country… Let’s change our future! We start by changing our own hearts.

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