For many moons, Australia has been a proudly developing first world nation. It has economic wealth, social freedoms and opportunities for its population that many nations can only dream about. It has an ethnic diversity of immigrants who have come to Australia from all over the world at different times, whose contribution to the socio-economic structures that we know to exist in Australia today, are difficult to overestimate. Australia is also a nation that many New Zealanders have moved to over the years and which we enjoy some of the closest economic ties as can be imagined whilst still being sovereign nations.
But that Australia has the most appalling stain when it comes to dealing with some of the worlds most vulnerable people. Despite the many hundreds of thousands of people who have arrived from elsewhere as immigrants being given permanent residency or citizenship, Australia has this almost paranoid fear/hatred of asylum seekers fleeing war zones, be they Rohingya from Myanmar, Afghani’s, Syrians, Iraqi’s. The rampant fear is a deep vein that has driven numerous Liberal Party election campaigns, giving them a platform of scare mongering to run.
In 2001, with an election campaign going badly, the then Prime Minister of Australia John Howard was looking for something that might galvanize his supporters. It came in the form of an asylum seeker boat that had run into difficulty carrying a load of Afghan refugees fleeing their brutal war. A freighter called the M.V. Tampa had answered the distress call and gone to their aid. It had in compliance with international law contacted the Australian marine authorities and asked them for help. Now commonly known as the Tampa Freighter incident, it was Australian paranoia at its worst. In response the Australian Government sent the Royal Australian Navy to make sure that – contrary to maritime law – neither the Tampa or the asylum seeker boat could reach an Australian port. They sent troops to board the boat. The Norwegian Government told Australia not to make the ship turn around against the will of the captain.
Since Mr Howard was beaten in the 2007 elections, Australian Prime Ministers have maintained this stance. No we cannot have them says former Prime Minister Tony Abbott. No, we cannot have them said former Prime Minister Julia Gillard. No we cannot have them said former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. We cannot have these terrorists, these rapists, these militants, women bashers – they’ll breed like flies and there will be hell to pay. No, no, no! Or so seems to be the (il)logical thinking of the Australian Government regardless of stripe.
Australia – and New Zealand – would be much better served by dealing with the problems that lead to these people wanting to seek asylum in the first place. By failing to do so, they are in effect ensuring that not only will asylum issues continue, but that they might grow worse and potentially lead to a major tragedy on the high seas.
New Zealand has a chance to undo some of the damage its reputation has suffered in the last decade by telling Australia that we consider their maltreatment of asylum seekers to be unbecoming of a nation that fought for the freedom and well being of millions during World War 2. As one of two wealthy first world nations in the South Pacific we have a responsibility to show the developing nations in our corner of the world how a responsible nation acts on the world stage. Right now that is not happening. As a tax paying New Zealander with a social conscience I cannot tolerate this non-acceptance of our responsibility.