On Friday the Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced that all asylum seekers arriving on boats will be re-directed to the developing nation Papua New Guinea. After claims are processed those who are granted asylum (in recent history, over 90% of asylum seekers are successful in their bid) will be granted residency in PNG. The Government has bought advertising space in all possible mediums to sell this policy: ‘Asylum seekers who arrive by boat will never be settled in Australia’. The hardline stance on asylum seekers, though shocking, is certainly not surprising in light of the Australian political landscape. This policy is largely the culmination of several decades of effective spin by the campaign managers and speech writers of the two major Australian political parties , with Australian journalists playing along with very little resistance.
Though the party produced fear relates to the dangers of people smuggling and the criminals who exploit the vulnerable, a (sadly now) classic Islamophobia and racism has helped fuel the debate . (This recent blog post, published after the tragic death of 13 asylum seekers in June, exemplifies a common response to middle eastern asylum seekers). During these years policy has seen a number of disastrous interventions in the water (including the infamous ‘Children Overboard’ scandal,)and repeated flawed attempts to utilise offshore processing. The detention centres used to house the children, women, and men who have arrived by boat are widely known to be overcrowded and unsafe; conditions that have lead to rampant mental health issues and even young children taking to self harm. That this has not incurred any significant pushback from the Australian public says something about the success of the STOP THE BOATS campaigns and the public fear that has ensued.
But this success, I would argue, is more accurately explained through the extent in which STOP THE BOATS rhetoric is tied to the capitalist/nationalistic myth. In this myth Australia exists in as much as we own the land and are thereby mandated to enact economies of resource commodification solely for our benefit. The fear so easily sold by politicians and the media is an all too easy veil for our fundamental concern about what is ours and what we don’t want to share. The fact that Australians are now largely in support of such a shameful asylum seeker policy is symptomatic of the extent to which this contemporary nation state is enslaved by capitalism (note; this current policy has been enacted by our historically left wing party). This is neatly played out in the constant costing of asylum seeking processing procedures and the recent re-classifying of maritime asylum seekers as ‘economic immigrants’ by the current immigration Minister. Perhaps the public resonance with the economic/pragmatic aims of asylum seeker policies can be attributed to the kind of subjects produced through economies of private property ownership. That is, the manner in which this subject must comply with the nation state in order to secure the rights to such ownership. But given Australia’s white history, the discourse mirrors a conversation all too familiar.
By invoking a doctrine of Terra Nullius, white Australians impressed upon the Australian consciousness – in a particular land oriented form – the idea that certain peoples group existed outside the nation. In turn, these people groups had neither a direct responsibility to the Sovereign (so that indigenous Australians were only subject to the law in matters that affected white settlers), nor any claim upon it. For indigenous Australians this essentially meant ‘this land can never be yours’. Driven by the economic concerns of the British Empire, such legal maneuvering is hardly surprising. Nor is it surprising that colonial expansion strategy was happily married into the more contemporary forms of industrialised capitalism. Australia, as it now exists, continues to enact similar claims to the people groups deemed outside the nation: ‘this land can never be yours’. But of course the sense of national rights drives deeper into conceptions of ownership (at least for those non indigenous Australians who buy and sell land and resources with an eye solely focused on the market). At the core is this wonderfully democratic assumption that we own the nation. As long as we command possession of our borders, our culture, our policies, we can ensure the future prosperity of our commonwealth. Under this regime, those deemed outside the nation will always threaten what is ours. It may seem rather circular, and that is because it is. In the end, the ends will always justify the means (that is why a nine year old asylum seeker held in detention can intentionally overdose and the nation barely skips a beat).
In recent decades indigenous Australians have challenged the sovereignty of Australia with successful claims to native title, but on the whole indigenous communities of this land still live largely outside national interest. The stark reality is that indigenous Australians are likely to be radically affected by every medical and social issue listed in demographic surveys. Not only has Australia failed to come to terms with white settlement history, the nation has failed in almost every policy directed towards indigenous communities. What I am arguing is that there is a parallel between the rhetoric aimed at asylum seekers and the historic (and ongoing) posture towards native peoples – at least in Australia. As long as the ideology of nation state is inextricably linked to capitalist notions of ownership, native people will never be truly recognised as people of the nation. Which is also to say: unless we can detach current asylum seeker policy from this ownership ideology, the nation will remain unable to get beneath the veneer of native people’s claims to the land and life. Failure to do so, in both instances, is The Peoples way of saying ‘this nation can never be yours’.