Saturday, July 10, 2010



Sad as it makes me to do so, and after a couple of unhappy days, I have to recommend this disturbing but persuasive piece from last week at The Drum Unleashed, unequivocally critical of Julia Gillard and her plans for asylum seekers, by former diplomat and peerless walker of the walk Bruce Haigh. It contains the words 'I was a people smuggler' and so he was; among other things he is the Bruce played by John Hargreaves in Cry Freedom, the friend of Steve Biko's who helped to smuggle Donald Woods out of South Africa -- though he did not, so far as I am aware, ever pocket a lot of money from desperate people to crowd them onto a leaky tub and push them out to sea.

I have the utmost respect for Haigh (apart from anything else, he's one of the funniest blokes I've ever met) and perforce take anything he says about refugees, asylum seekers or the subject of Australia in an international context very seriously, if for no other reason because he knows more about those things -- most of this knowledge from first-hand experience -- than anyone else I can think of of. And in this matter I fear he may be right. But I like the way he is keeping the emphasis -- as Gillard does herself -- on considering this country in the context of the region, and on the fact that seeing ourselves as a self-sufficient entity in a vacuum is a big part of several different national problems. About where Gillard's actually going with this, I can only hope he's wrong. Or, at the very least, too harsh.


Those expressing outraged surprise at current Labor Party policy on asylum seekers, such as it is, must be harbouring what I would argue is in 2010 not much more than a nostalgic fantasy indulged in by people either too young, too uneducated or too deeply in denial to know or remember that it was Paul Keating's government that first introduced mandatory detention for asylum seekers, much less that the Australian Labor Party is traditionally the bastion of institutionalised racism in this country. If you don't believe me, you have only to google the phrase 'White Australia Policy'.

It's one of the tragedies of the Australian cultural/soft left that they -- we -- stupidly persist in expecting the Labor Party to be in lockstep with us on things like feminism, internationalism, refugee advocacy, cultural pluralism, the arts, and intellectual practices and pursuits. South Australians in particular are eternally re-bewildered to find it's not, because we remember Don Dunstan. One had hoped that Gillard might remember him too.

But Dunstan was an aberration. By and large the ALP don't follow that pattern, they never have, they never will, they never said they would, and it's kind of mad to expect them to. In the leadup to this year's SA state election my mate Darcy forcibly opened my eyes to a truth I had been avoiding: SA Labor was openly disregarding one of its support bases, the one to which we all at coffee that morning (only some of us were sipping lattes, however) belonged: a loose affiliation of artists, intellectuals, academics, writers, journalists and left-leaning professionals who wanted Labor to win the election for the usual reason -- so that the other mob wouldn't get in -- but were frankly and often stridently critical of the way they were going about it. As Julia Gillard and before her Kevin Rudd have done, SA Labor openly signalled its determination to capture the middle, at the expense of our particular margin, with the sort of broad populism that, in SA, tends to focus on phrases like 'tough on law and order' and promises to lock up the bad guys and throw away the key.

When you think about that, it's not so different from most of the asylum seeker policies this country has thus far come up with: in both cases, it's a matter of fostering an 'us and them' mentality, and then simply assigning virtue to Us and the other thing to Them. Or if you want to look at it psychoanalytically, think of it as a Kristevan rejection of impurities, a violent expulsion of the Other from the boundaries of the civic or the national self: what Judith Butler calls 'the process by which Others become shit.'


I have always been, and albeit with deepening reservations remain, a fan of Julia Gillard's. Her wit, her intelligence, her easy articulateness, her openness and her preternatural calm all appeal, and seem to me to be the attributes of an astute politician and a proper grown-up. I think a lot of the angst over the manner of her ascension is to do with the histories or personalities of the people freaking out about it, who seem mainly to be either (a) the abovementioned idealisers of the ALP, (b) men, (c) Queenslanders who feel that their boy Kevin has been done over (whereas some of us think that he appeared to be on the edge of a nervous breakdown, and that if he was done over then he was done over just in time), and/or (d) people with a deep and abiding hatred of the NSW Right who persist in citing that entity as the 'faceless men' behind Gillard's successful challenge when it actually seems to have been two Victorians, a South Australian and Mark Arbib. (And if you do a Venn diagram of that (a)-(d) list, you can see huge areas of overlap.) All the simplistic nonsense in the media about 'backflips' on a proposed possible centre in Timor Leste can be disregarded once you've read the text of her original speech, which says exactly what she says it says.

All the same, her attack (in the musical sense) on and subsequent handling of the asylum seeker question has been her weakest spot so far: an ACME Instant Asylum-seeker Policy. Just add water. Seawater. Lots and lots of seawater. I'm still trying to work out who Wyle E. Coyote is in this scenario, but I gravely fear that it is Gillard herself, and that she will eventually be squashed flat by a giant rock that she made herself and didn't throw away soon enough.


Bruce Haigh calls Gillard 'wooden' (can't see it, myself, perhaps because she is so very much less wooden than the two PMs before her), 'self-involved' (probably, but who ever got to the Lodge without that?) and 'unimaginative', which I would concede only beyond the point where it starts to mean 'not visionary'. Elsewhere, on and offline, Gillard is being accused by some elements of the Left of pandering to 'middle Australia', 'bogans', 'rednecks', 'sheeple' and 'window-licking hordes', and is being reviled for having acknowledged the existence of these alleged groups without actually damning them to hell in the process. It's my understanding that by these epithets the commenters are referring to the majority of the population. That is, those most loudly proclaiming their own virtuous leftitude are doing so by expressing their hatred for the masses and their contempt for the democratic principle.

As well as being accused of 'dog-whistling', a term that people are throwing around with gay abandon but apparently no understanding of what it actually means, Gillard is also being abused for -- wait for it, are you ready for this? -- being clever, and for wanting to win the election.

Oh, quite right. Obviously, what we really need is a stupid Labor leader who will lose.

And you know who'll be in charge then, don't you.


tigtog said...

Great post, Dr Cat. There does seem to be a great dissonance in several directions between what various players including Gillard have actually claimed to be and what people have projected onto both them and the systems within which they operate.

I wanted/hoped for some different things from Gillard, but those were my wishful projections, not anything she's ever actually claimed herself. I still find much about her admirable, and I'm glad she's in the top job right now. I just know that I'm not going to like some of the decisions she will find necessary to make - and I will criticise them as they deserve - but that doesn't mean that I'm about pronounce her as some sort of arch betrayer.

Peter said...

Thank you *so* much for saying everything I have been trying to express for the last week or so. I still hope to be pleasantly surprised by where we end up - if that makes any sense.

j-ster said...

Great post indeed. I give up on SA and Federal Labor. I have have decided (in many areas of my life and now, finally, this area) to choose what I actually want, rather than what I hope will help me avoid what don't want. I dont care if I have to number every box below the line, as hard as it is to fill in those next to Family First and the like.

Link said...

I heard some Jewish bloke on radio other day saying it was people smugglers who saved he and many of his family from fates worse than death. People smugglers exist in various guises and the idea that they aren't all all evil bastards seems lately to have gathered a bit of traction. This more rational balanced idea is good. So was Bob Brown (and John Clarke/Brian Dawe) on telly other day pointing out that this problem isn't really much of a problem anyway-- as far as problems go.

Julia doesn't seem to have the same kind of steely grip on the meedja that her predecessor had (albeit his grip increasingly sweaty) and this seems to be the only glaringly obvious difference between the two, oh and of course the hair. Good luck to her, but she is very difficult to 'read'.

What I'd like to hear is some brave journo nail her for the real reaon we are in Afghanistan and for her to give an 'ironclad' guarantee, swear on her mother's grave etc, that it has nowt so ever to do with 'resource' security and a certain gas pipeline. A sensible woman who knows her history, one not held hostage to big business (???) would get us out pronto.

Ann ODyne said...

1. I didn't think it was long.
2. as the Chinese had a Cultural Revolution, I have hopes that we can re-program Our PM, after she is confirmed at the ballot box by the xenophobes.
3. Jul E. a'Gillard is at least the same colour as Wyle.
4. and ACME always delivers fast.

Bernice said...

Yes,great post. I keep wandering about incredulous that the last Prime Minister seemingly able to drag the great Auusie public anywhere sensible on refugees and asylum seekers was Fraser (though Peter Brown has an interesting piece at Inside Story that I truly hope someone in Gillard's office reads)

Brown makes the point there that the 1 million or so One Nation voters of the early 90s in fact largely voted for Labor in 07 - strenously rejecting Workchoices. Most of them are in marginal seats where ALP polling has been shite. Gillard is then playing to the peanut gallery on the issue; but is she revisiting Fraser's strategies of offshore processing which did see the issue defused?

This is where the pragmatic of course point out that if the ALP doesn't win, they can't do anything and worse yet, Sideshow Tony will be overenthusiastically gripping GG Bryce's hand in a a couple of months time. Leaving refugees to their fate and public discourse here still ringing with hyperbole, prejudice and paranoia.

Anthony said...

PC, I honestly think that a lot of the people who are publicly critical of the current asylum seeker policy aren't expressing "outraged surprise" but are simply continuing the campaign they've been fighting in good faith for a decade or more. The fact that the latest iteration of the policy is propounded by Julia Gillard doesn't strike me as a reason to call off the hounds.

Similarly, most people of my acquaintance and generation have been aware for 25 years that the ALP aren't in lockstep with most of our views. Is it "kind of mad" to expect them to? I don't know, but I don't see why we should, after 25 years, arbitrarily give up our agitation on these issues at this point - although, I admit, I find it easier to vote Greens nowadays than Nuclear Disarmament Party.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

'a lot of the people who are publicly critical of the current asylum seeker policy aren't expressing "outraged surprise"'

No, of course not. But a lot of them are, too. I was talking about hostility and abuse in excess of the occasion. Of which I have seen a lot.

Ms O'Dyne, your comment (1) made me LOL.

Anthony said...

Thanks for replying PC. It occurred to me that there may be some "outraged surprise" for precisely the reasons you fingered: a lot of people share your admiration of Julia Gillard: "Her wit, her intelligence, her easy articulateness, her openness and her preternatural calm". So perhaps some do have higher expectations of her leadership, which only leads to what Albee would call dashed hopes and good intentions.

Armagny said...

The article's great. I'm glad it's causing you disquiet, with respect.

I'm not sure why lack of education or yoof might play into people's perspectives- I see it as pretty much the opposite. Perhaps your previous respose to me: 'if it aint you it aint...' is something I can take heart in. Alternately, you could make that easier by acknowledging an additional option for people who suffer no educational shortcomings in this area, and who have enough years of active political experience to not be written off as young or in denial, who simply form a different conclusion to yourself.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Nah, nah, read that sentence again: it's very specifically about people who genuinely do not know (or have determinedly forgotten) the ALP's history in these matters, which is surely undeniable. I maintain and I maintain strongly, as the old man says on Bookends, that that's an education/yoof/denial issue.

Armagny said...

"Those expressing outraged surprise..." are the ones apparently lacking those qualities. As you maintain strongly, so I respectfully do not agree. And, yes, aspects of what she said- HOW she said it- still managed to surprise me a little.

In any event I think most of it is outrage, rather than surprise.

Legal Eagle said...

Very good post, PC. I really wish that either of the parties would focus on the basic problem, which is why people come here on a leaky boat in the first place. What deficiencies does our overseas visa application process have which produces such desperation?

I find the proposal to pack asylum seekers off to Timor L'Este deeply troubling - why should a poor country which has had its fair share of trouble over the past 30 years have to bear the burden instead of Australia?

I prefer Gillard to either Rudd or Abbott, but that isn't saying much. As I said over at LP, I'm afraid I lost my idealism a long time ago.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

I think most of it is outrage, rather than surprise.

Well there you go then. 'Outraged' in my sentence is an adjective qualifying the noun 'surprise'. Therefore, it's not a sentence about the non-surprised. What the sentence says it that it's logically impossible to know Labor's history on immigration and yet still to be surprised by the current version, unless one is the kind of person who has been surprised 50 times already that the train was late and then is surprised all over again on the morning of the 51st day as s/he stands forlornly on the platform gazing down the empty track. Like I said, if it's not about you then it's not about you.

Armagny said...

That's comforting then, as it will be to most of her angry critics on this issue on the left.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

Armagny, it's precisely her "angry critics on the left", as distinct from her relatively calm and rational critics on the left, whose response I am questioning. I am very suspicious about what lies behind anger, any anger, and it's just not reasonable to expect respect for it. The point of this post was to pick apart the spear-waving us-and-them tribal elements of response, not to reinforce them.

Anonymous said...

Watching Blanche D'Alpuget this evening, I was reminded that it was Hawke who coined the phrase "queue jumpers" in regard to Cambodian refugees. Labor seems to have invented both the detention policy and the public construction of refugees as ingrates.