'They Have Betrayed Us All'


A remarkable gathering was held at Redfern Town Hall on 24 July 2013.

I have spoken at hundreds of meetings about refugees. I have never attended one which had neither seating nor standing room left. Many people who came were politically unaligned. There was not the typical right-left division.

Rather, people seemed genuinely concerned about what Australia was coming to, and what Australia is becoming. Over the past 12 years, political rhetoric about asylum seekers has become increasingly strident. Both major parties are now trying to outdo each other in nastiness. Each promises harsh treatment of asylum seekers, knowing that the political climate favours cruelty.

The astonishing thing is that this is justified by a feigned concern about asylum seekers drowning in their attempt to escape persecution. But the concern is not genuine: a moment’s reflection would show that people who risk their lives at sea are escaping something worse, and it is no kindness to cut off their line of escape.

The concern which was evident at the Redfern Town Hall meeting ran deeper. Many there recognised that it is uncommon, in Australia at least, to hope to win electoral popularity by being cruel. Normally that would not play well. But this issue is different. Asylum seekers have been the target of a bitter, cynical political campaign since Tampa in 2001. It began when Howard started calling them “illegals” and “queue-jumpers” and alleged that one group of them had thrown their children overboard.

“Border control” was referred to as “border protection”, carrying the suggestion that we needed to be protected from boat people. Each of these things was false. Howard did it to win votes off One Nation. Tony Abbott, and his immigration spokesman Scott Morrison, have revived the same language. They mask cruelty with falsehood, and they do it to get votes.

What the dishonesty of Howard, Abbott and Morrison has led to is this: the public have been conditioned to think of asylum seekers as criminals form whom we need to be protected, as people who have behaved so badly that we have to keep them out, as people who are less human that we are, so that they deserve cruelty instead of compassion. These lies, peddled by the Coalition and never contradicted by Labor, have so blunted our moral sense that we would prefer asylum seekers to stay home to be slaughtered by the Taliban rather than inconvenience us by drowning in their attempt to reach safety here.

They have so blinded us to simple facts that we think we are being swamped but do not notice the irony that Nauru, which would fit 20 times over into Penrith, and does not have enough food or water for its own population, is somehow better able to accommodate refugees than we are.

Labor and the Coalition have nearly identical policies on boat people now. Neither major party has the moral spine to recognise that their policies are changing Australia’s character: that by our conduct we have become selfish, greedy and cruel. We think we still believe in a fair go – but not for asylum seekers. What was apparent at the Redfern Town Hall was a sense of grief and despair that both major parties have betrayed the real values of this country, and by that they have betrayed us all.

Photos by Laila Kazak and Sean Davey. These were taken at the Redfern event and a second meeting, held at Sydney Town Hall on 28 July.

Photos by Laila Kazak and Sean Davey. These were taken at the Redfern event and a second meeting, held at Sydney Town Hall on 28 July.

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.