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Published in The Drum 22 september 2011

The name of the game in Australian politics is power, getting it and hanging on to it for the fun of exercising it and playing with it. It is student politics writ large. The spoils of office are an end in themselves.

The notion of exercising power for the creation of public policy is past. It is passé, a past participle of a long dead language which once was centred on service and servicing the basic and reasonable needs of people.

The political game being played is based on selfishness. It grew out of selfishness, nationalism and class and relies on selfishness and notions of exclusiveness in order to survive. The outsider needing or seeking our help, whether that be a homeless person, Aboriginal or asylum seeker arriving by boat are marginalised as being beyond the collective class and their demonization seen as necessary to reinforce our shaky but desired collectivism.

Howard’s crafted policy of fear, designed to drive us into the laager, succeeded. To the rest of the world we are now the frightened whites, plus honorary whites in the form of processed and birth-rite Asians, cowering at the foot of the world.

For most white South Africans in Apartheid South Africa, the rest of the world was wrong; in their fear and abject selfishness they knew what was right and how to hold onto power. In the process they trashed adherence to just about every UN Convention they had signed in the pre-Apartheid years after WWII; a war which they fought ,with considerable sacrifice, in order to uphold universal values and rights.

Australian Immigration and Refugee policy is about control, “We shall decide who comes here and when.” This was a line fed to Howard by the Department of Immigration, re-enforced the other day by the head of that department, Andrew Metcalf, in an unfortunate but all too truthful statement to the media that the Australian government and no one else controls and sets the terms of who is allowed to come to Australia under humanitarian visas. The statement completely overlooked the terms of the UN Refugee Convention; a Convention which is incorporated into Australian law.

This line with respect to refugees, sits at odds with the professed need for immigration to increase in order to meet the needs of a burgeoning economy. At a time when Apartheid South Africa had black labour begging for a job it was recruiting white immigrants from Europe, so it is with Australia; it has been recruiting 180,000 people a year to meet economic needs whilst at the same time thwarting and delaying the claims of boat refugees to enter our community.

It can harass, delay, bully and incarcerate refugees seeking protection in this country but it cannot erase or extinguish with such tactics the legitimate needs of people seeking our protection.

Australia cannot banish refugees and their needs and it cannot banish those refugees who wish to come to this country to have their needs met and the possibilities of their personalities and capabilities met. White South Africa tried and failed for good reason, how long will white Australia continue into the cul-de-sac. It is a policy which is inherently racist and denies humanity. The longer the current policy is in place the more violent and bloody the inevitable change will be.

By seeking to walk away from the Refugee Convention, the Australian Government sends a strong message, one which it has not been afraid to signal in the past; however this time around, in order to achieve a purely domestic political electoral outcome, it has demonstrated that ditching the Convention is more important in achieving this aim than its international reputation and obligations.
A dangerous development in ‘whatever it takes’; what other Conventions might Australia ditch in order to maintain a narrow and ideologically based social and political agenda.

A preparedness to break and ditch Conventions that have been acceded to sends a strong message to the international community. It puts us in league with Israel, a country by the way, which Australia supports, with its racially defined laws and policies directed at the Palestinians. It puts us in league with a host of countries we have condemned in the past, including Greece under the Colonels, Argentina under the Generals, modern day China, Sri Lanka, Syria and Indonesia.

Trashing the Convention on Refugees discards a hard fought and maintained record on human rights and refugees by many good Australians. It undermines our collective moral fibre; when we trash one Convention it will be so much easier to trash another. It is a slippery slide of momentary convenience, a slope descended that will be much harder to climb back up than it was to shoot down.

Australia is seeking a non permanent position on the UN Security Council. The world must be looking askance. Certainly there are countries with a worse record but there are none with the rhetoric Australia brings to forums on human rights who are actively seeking to dismantle long established protections. The impression is of a state going backwards, not from economic causes or war but from fear, lack of courage and the maintenance of a narrow and bigoted agenda.

The daily machinations of Australian politics following on from the High Court decision are farcical and not passing without notice by Canberra based diplomats and foreign correspondents. Twenty years ago it would have been the subject matter for an Australian TV comedy. Just how low have we sunk?

Bruce Haigh is political commentator and retired diplomat.