Can Rudd avoid another bout of xenophobia?

How things change.

As a keen follower of Italian media, Australia is hardly mentioned. However in August 2001 it was quite a news item due to the Tampa. Italian governments were (as they are now) struggling with the issue of refugees coming from Africa (which is a flood, comparing to the trickle Australia gets).

How to deal with asylum seekers was a contencious political issue between the third Berlusconi government and the opposition. The fact that Australia chose to get the SAS to board the Tampa was seen as a dangerous precedence in international affairs. The Italian left was afraid that allies of Berlusconi, who were anti-refugees in their thinking such as the National Alliance and the Northern League, would look at Australia as an example. So the attack on Australia was pretty strong (and in some cases quite wrong).

The irony now is that the tables are turned. In an opinion piece in The Age today, Pamela Curr, campaign co-ordinator at the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre in Melbourne, writes that we shouldn’t take Italy’s example where boats are turned back to Lybia after a deal done with Gheddafi.

In the same edition we have Paul Sheehan stating that the current policies of the Government towards refugees are making us a ‘soft target’. That Sheehan writes this sort of opinion piece is not surprising. He was after all the darling of the anti-multicultural set when he wrote Among the Barbarians: the dividing of Australia, back in 1998. A book that Tim Costello in a review described as ‘skating on xenophobic ice’.

Fortunately at this stage we haven’t yet reached the xenophobic hysteria that we reached in those depressing times during the Tampa. There are different factors at play. Labor is in government and failry popular, while the opposition seems divided. Terrorism is not at the height of That period of 2001, when 9/11 occurred. However ever since that time I am wary.

I think it was Thomas Keneally that said that xenophobia in Australia is like malaria. Once you get it you can’t get rid of it. It may lie dormant for a while but prone to re-surface if the conditions are right.

This issue is discussed by Mark in Larvatus Prodeo where he raises the point that the same old issues tend to come up again and again once asylum seekers are mentioned.

Andrew Bartlett, who has been a consistent advocate for asylum seekers in Australia has a great post in the Crikey blog. Where he highlights the fact that the local paper is advocating for a white South African family to stay in Australia because they not meet the criteria for a state-sponsored business-owner visa. I wonder if they would do that for a Sri Lankan family of a family from Afghanistan.

Eva Cox also on the Crikey blog berates Ruddock. And Guy Rundle discussed how the latest discussion on refugees raises the spectre of the politics of fear.

On one hand we don’t want the Rudd government to return to the bad old days of the ‘We decide who comes here’ Howard government, where refugees were shunted in holes across the Pacific indefinetely and were offered temporary visas with no opportunity of support or work. But Rudd also needs to keep the xenophobic genie in check. This is a sad reality, especially when a desperate opposition will exploit every boat arrival with Sharman Stone hyperbollically stating that the Rudd government ‘has lost control of our borders’ – the yellow peril revisited.

How this is done humanely and without Australia going back into a punishing mode against asylum seekers is not something that is going to be easy. It is certainly a delicate balance act. But have another bout of xenophobia would be dreadful.

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