About Me

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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Monday, December 27, 2010

"Stop the boats!" - or not ...

This piece by Ben Eltham, entitled "Stop the fear, not the boats", contains a great deal of wisdom about the manufactured crisis that we've had in Australia for many years now, over the arrival of boatloads of would-be refugees. I don't claim to have the perfect policy, but, like Eltham, I'm not so sure that there is really such a big problem here, at least not the one that is commonly imagined.

I endorse Eltham's view that: "What Australia needs most is a new policy to change the attitudes of Australians, not the practices of people smugglers. We need a national effort to stop the fear, not the boats. A sustained campaign by government, the media and informed citizens to demystify the issues around refugees and to allay the fears of ordinary Australians might help change the debate. Rather than mounting a hysterical reaction as boat after boat reaches our shores, we might instead reflect on the opportunities we are offering desperate people to start a new life."

What I'd like to focus on for the moment, however, is something a bit different. I haven't ploughed through the 400+ comments, BUT I've looked at enough to be appalled. Perhaps if you read further than I did you'll conclude I'm overstating things. But from what I see, here's how it looks to me. Eltham has put a very careful and rationally persuasive argument, in which, among other things, he sets out what seems like strong evidence that the number of boat arrivals is driven by events in hell-holes countries that people are fleeing, not by policies in Australia and other countries that people try to flee to.

But few commenters really want to deal with that at all. Those who disagree don't even try to follow the argument or examine it, or engage with it, fairly - they simply express widely-aired, but superficial, talking points that could have come from one of the many populist journalists, commentators, shock jocks, and politicians with which Australia is well stocked. It's depressing if you think about it too hard, as, I suppose, I am hereby encouraging you to do.

Sorry about that.

1 comment:

Greg Egan said...

While a certain amount of this is just ordinary, dismal human nature, there's been a prolonged campaign by politicians and much of the media to inflame resentment on this issue, to the point where there probably isn't much hope of rational discussion of the matter for at least a generation.

I was at a party a few months ago where a woman started mouthing off about the privileges she believed were given to refugees, including extra welfare payments and priority access to public housing. Having helped settle half a dozen people who'd been released from detention into the community, I knew from first-hand experience that this was nonsense.

But she was convinced that because The West Australian had published a letter to the editor that asserted these things, they had to be true. (I wonder if even The New York Times fact-checks readers' letters?) And these particular false claims are part of a package of lies that are circulated by email and keep turning up in newspaper letters pages and on talkback radio; Media Watch has discussed the phenomenon and debunked the misinformation several times. But newspaper editors are apparently happy to keep publishing the claims in this form, because they can't be held accountable for readers' opinions. It's their classy way of giving currency to outright lies, to bolster the sentiments they're encouraging more obliquely in their news stories and opinion columns.

For what it's worth, I certainly wish we could stop the boats; 353 people died on Siev-X, and the recent shipwreck off Christmas Island was horrendous. But we need to do it by taking people straight from Indonesia (or East Timor, if that can be made to work), not by claiming (as the Coalition Immigration Spokesman Scott Morrison disingenuously asserts) that people who are deterred from trying to come to Australia would be "waiting safely in a refugee camp".