*WARNING: LONG POST*
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.
In which the pond turns to the Caterists and Dame Groan ... - The pond is never sure whether the reptiles are mocking the Donald, or mocking themselves for admitting that they're the Donalds of down under journalism...
12 minutes ago