When I was in the United States last year I stopped over for the night in a town called Salem in Oregon. When went into service station to buy a cold drink I noticed the gentleman at the counter had an Australian accent and we started talking – turns out he was actually a Kiwi who moved to Australia when he was young and then to the U.S. I asked him what he does for A.N.Z.A.C. Day in the U.S. He said his family always took that day off and had a major dinner with a few other Australians. To him, as it is to me, it is the most important day on the calendar that is not our respective birthday.
When I think about what the New Zealand and Australian soldiers, sailors and airmen did in World War 1 and World War 2 – especially the latter because of the nature of the enemy we were fighting – I am both immensely thankful for the service of our war dead and those who came home. I am also very proud that they fought wars on the right side, saving hundreds of millions of people from unthinkable misery. In Korea, saving millions of people from Communist oppression was also a noble cause. But these men, and in some cases women serving in auxiliary roles to free up men for the front, went further and endured themselves some appalling treatment in prison camps.
Those men and women learnt lessons that have been passed down the generations about how apathetic people can bring catastrophe on themselves. I look at the conditions that led to the rise of Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini and Hideki Tojo. Aside from widespread distrust of mainstream politicians I also see an apathy at the erosion of liberties and the legal framework that is supposed to protect us.
When I look at how Australia, a country that graciously welcomed many refugees from post war Europe and those fleeing Communist persecution in eastern Europe, treats genuine refugees and asylum seekers today, it saddens me greatly. It saddens me because like New Zealand after the war it benefitted immensely from the culture and skills that these people brought over. It became a beacon for the good.
But there is also anger. There is anger that the Government of Australia is pursuing policies that show outright contempt for the very sort of people both countries welcomed with open arms and in return were rewarded by the social and economic contributions to our respective countries. The policies are fuelled by an almost infantile fear being irresponsibly whipped up by corporate media. In New Zealand’s case people do not distinguish between migrants and refugees, believing them to be all one and the same when the legal definition – and what brings them here – is vastly different. The general failure of media to explain the difference complicates matters further.
Because Prime Minister John Key and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull are friends and from the same ideological cloth, Mr Key does not want to be seen criticizing a mate about the appalling conditions refugees are being made to endure on Nauru and Manus Islands. And as anger grows around the world at Australia’s contemptuous treatment of the very type of people it once welcomed with open arms, questions are also starting to be asked of New Zealand’s indifference. If this is some sort of A.N.Z.A.C. mate ship between the two Prime Ministers on behalf of their respective nations, count me out.
I cannot help but wonder what the gentleman behind the service station counter thinks of Australia’s treatment of refugees. He spoke with some pride at the role that the A.N.Z.A.C.’s had in the two world wars and his grand father had seen one of the concentration camps – it was no surprise to him that the survivors wanted to get as far away from them as they could.