Suspicion and Fear


During and before World War I (1914-18), Great Britain (as it was called then) was gripped by spy mania. This was caused by chauvinism, officialdom, racism and national suspicion. And there were many popular novels about spies, the German invasion and occupation of England and the nefarious activities of Irish (Fenian) terrorists. Two of these novels which are still read are Erskine Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands (1903) and Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907). The British Way of Life was under threat. If it wasn’t the Germans, it was the Irish terrorists or the Bolsheviks.

The immigration and customs officials at Britain’s points of entry were told to keep an eagle eye out for ‘suspicious’ people. ‘Suspicious’ people in those days of chauvinism and fear were those men and women with flaxen hair, blue eyes and strange accents; or dark skins, unkempt beards, untidy clothes, shifty eyes and whose papers were not in order. An Irish or ‘foreign’ accent was a dead giveaway.

Thanks to Bill Leak

Thanks to Bill Leak

This view of the world lasted well beyond the years of the Great War, emerged again in World War II, and is, alas, still with us today. (The 1930s and 40s boys’ novels of Captain W. E. Johns, for example, perpetuated this anti-foreign view in the Biggles books. ‘Never turn your back on a native,’ Biggles once advised. Or to an Italian waiter: ‘Take that, you garlic-eating dishwiper,’ Biggles said, and landed a punch squarely on the Eyetie’s jaw.)

When all is said and done, it is the person on the spot who makes the first decision, and sets the tone of the subsequent enquiry and inquisition. It is the immigration official, the customs officer, the policeman. How does he/she make that decision? Initially, by physical appearance – does the person under scrutiny have a coloured skin, slanty eyes, a strange accent, a straggly beard? Is he/she evasive under questioning; are his/her answers confused or inconsistent; are his/her papers or passport in order? Is he/she acting strangely? Is he/she wearing odd clothes? Does he/she appear confused? Is this one for the higher-ups?

This is a time of racial and political suspicion – the nameless enemy, who threatens our existence; and Australia is well and truly caught up in it. Be alert, but not alarmed. This is the dark world that Franz Kafka wrote novels about. But this is not the world of tax cuts or interest rates. It is the dark world of John Howard, Philip Ruddock, Amanda Vanstone – and Laurie Ferguson (the shadow Minister for Immigration) and Kim Beazley. (Beazley, let it be noted, nailed his Labor colours to the mast, not about immigration and detention camps, but about tax cuts. He always has his eye on what he perceives to be the electoral main chance, but never on issues of principle, which could be damaging. The Big Fellow wants to be driven in that big white car, with the Australian flag fluttering.)

Australian citizenship is no guarantee against discrimination, imprisonment or deportation – as the Cornelia Rau and Vivian Solon cases have shown. But looks, accent and circumstances can make you appear ‘suspicious’. (And mental condition is another factor. Loonies should be locked way.)

If, for example, one is of Asian or Middle Eastern appearance, the chances of having one’s baggage opened by customs officers are greater. If there is some query concerning one’s immigration declaration, the chances of being ‘interviewed’ by an immigration official are greater.

The picking up and apprehension of ‘suspicious’ people in, say, an airline queue is a delicate and hazardous operation. Ideally, it should be done by disinterested and trained people – not by gung- ho security personnel. The ‘selection’ should, as far as possible, be free from bias and prejudice. The ‘climate of apprehension’ should be set by the Minister of the day and his/her senior officers.

Sadly, this has not been possible with the past or present Minister for Immigration. Furthermore, the Federal Government has created a climate of fear and suspicion among immigration officials and the wider Australian society. We are not far from the situation that obtained in Britain some 90-odd years ago.

The condition of Australian society is complicated by the waves of immigration, particularly from Asia in the 1970s and 80s. There are, in the phone book, many ‘foreign’ names. But the Anglo-Celt culture is strong; and the tendency from immigrated Australians is to keep new arrivals out – especially if they have arrived ‘illegally’.

There is also the feeling among many Anglo-Celt Australians that the immigration policies pursued by the Whitlam and Fraser governments were a mistake.

‘Multiculturalism’ – the cliché of both the Liberal and Labor governments – has proven to be so much wallpaper. The presence of ‘ethnic’ communities has had no effect on the Anglo-Celt power structure whatsoever. Food, yes; politics, no. The only effect multiculturalism has had is on slavish political correctness.

There is, in this country, official racism. This has been evidenced by the Solon case – and the detention camps.

With her studied grumpiness and strong-arm approach, Amanda Vanstone has been a spectacular failure as the Minister for Immigration. Hers is the siege mentality – as was Ruddock’s. There is no sign of compassion in either politician.

Paul Keating once said: ‘You change the government and you change the nation.’ This has turned out to be true. But it was a Labor government which brought in the policy of mandatory detention – a policy which the ALP seems loath to discard.

The Solon case has proven that the chances of being picked up by officials from the Department of Immigration are greater if you have a dark skin or Asian features – or if you are acting ‘strangely’ and cannot answer to the official’s satisfaction.

We are, indeed, living in interesting times.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.