While I’ve written about Australia’s policy towards asylum seekers before, it’s hard to avoid the temptation of coming back to it. It’s the thing that frustrates me the most about my passport country, and it taps into a nasty undercurrent of xenophobia in Australian society. This policy of exclusion towards asylum seekers seems to be personified at the moment by the Prime Minister, Tony Abbott – a man who seems to be an endless cycle of gaffes and plain awful comments. So just how bad is his record on this issue?
His latest statement was in response to a report by the UN that accuses Australia of violating children’s rights to be free from torture. Not exactly the sort of thing that you can just pass over. The children in this case are asylum seekers locked up on Manus Island, a stinking hot Papua New Guinean camp. The torture is the fact that children are unable to go to school, suffering self-harm and mental illness, and exposed to sexual abuse by guards. But as I said, I’ve written about this national disgrace twice before, and it’s Abbott’s response that interests me today.
“Australians are sick of being lectured to by the United Nations, particularly given that we have stopped the boats…we have ended the deaths at sea”. Instead of promising action, or even merely defending his policies, Abbott responded like a petulant child who’s tired of being told to clean his room. It’s not how someone who sees themselves as a world leader should behave, and it’s not the first time he’s reacted like this to criticism. The national broadcaster was told to “join the home team”, and the head of Australia’s human rights commission was pressured to resign after releasing a report that criticised the government.
While he’s correct that the deaths at sea have ended, that’s been achieved by ignoring Australia’s obligations to care for refugees. The deaths at sea have been replaced by cruelty in camps, migrants towed back to their countries of origin – to face prosecution in some cases – and a simple lack of care for people trying to escape the threat of death. Abbott just doesn’t seem to care about the people who are locked up, and attacks anyone who criticises him. Unfortunately, this disdain for people seen as the ‘other’ is a bit of a trend.
Another area in which he has been attacked this week is for his comments on Indigenous Australians. They’ve been treated literally like animals since Australia was founded, and up to the 1970s their children were taken away to be raised in white families. Today, many still live in remote communities on their ancestral land. However, Tony Abbott, sees this as “lifestyle choices…not conducive to the kind of full participation in Australian society that everyone should have”. In one sentence their connection to the land is devalued as both merely a ‘lifestyle choice’ and as not contributing to Australian society. It’s not the first time either. Earlier this year he described Sydney before the English arrived as “nothing but bush“.
In a country where at least 1 in 4 Australians is born overseas, and society is becoming more multicultural by the day, Tony Abbott is a throwback to an Anglo-Saxon conservative past. He’s not only out of touch, but also incredibly poor at leadership. Last month a third of his party voted to remove him as leader. An expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in the US has even called him the “most incompetent leader in the democratic industrialised world”. To Australians as ashamed of our leader as I am, this can at least be a source of some hope.