Hey, there’s a lot to like about Australia — the beaches, the accent, the endless variety of lethal wildlife. Sadly, the country’s government isn’t one of them.
WHAT’S GOING ON?
Last year, Australia elected its most right-wing government in living memory. It was formed by the not-liberal-at-all Liberal Party, led by Prime Minister Tony Abbott, a former trainee Catholic priest who is nicknamed “The Mad Monk” and has fun views that include comparing pregnancy termination to mass murder and climate change being “absolute crap”.
WHY DID AUSTRALIANS VOTE FOR HIM?
There’s a saying in Australian politics: the Liberals don’t win elections, Labor loses them. So it went in 2013, and the fact that the incumbent Labor Party had essentially spent two terms fighting amongst themselves — former PM Kevin Rudd was knifed by his deputy Julia Gillard in 2010, and Rudd returned the favor just before last year’s election — rendered them basically unelectable. More generally, there’s been a marked shift to the right in Australian politics, with only the Greens appealing to anyone left of center. And in a two-party democracy, you always end up with red or blue.
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT?
Australia woke up to the realization that if you vote for a right-wing lunatic, you end up with a country run by a right-wing lunatic. Oops.
And then: all sorts of shitty things. There’s a convenient list of this government’s greatest hits here, but the common theme is virulent conservatism and small-mindedness. There’s a general air of hostility to science, with 600 jobs being cut at the CSIRO and the abolition of the role of Federal Science Minister. Some of the policies would be hilarious if they weren’t so real — asking for childcare workers to give back payrises they were granted by the previous government. In Western Australia, there is a government-sanctioned shark cull, despite the fact that a whole 86 people have died in shark attacks there over the last century. And, of course, there’s the great tradition of Australian politics over the last decade: sinking the boot into refugees for political gain.
WHAT ABOUT THOSE REFUGEES?
They get locked up. The policy of mandatory detention of unauthorized arrivals began in 1992, and has been expanded and made more punitive by various governments since, culminating in the ongoing “Pacific Solution” of processing arrivals offshore as much as possible. (This is, as much as anything else, a violation of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, to which Australia is a signatory — Article 31 of the Convention provides that refugees have the right not to be punished for illegal entry into the territory of a signatory state.) Unsurprisingly, being detained indefinitely, often after having suffered psychological trauma in their home countries, has had terrible effects on refugees’ mental health.
The Curtin centre in Western Australia (Image: Smh.com.au)
“THE PACIFIC SOLUTION”
In 2001, the Howard government came up with the bright idea of removing various islands from Australia’s migration zone. Under international law, if someone arrives in this migration zone, they have the right to claim refugee status. Many refugees arrived by boat via Indonesia at Australian territories like Christmas Island, so the idea of excising these islands from the migration zone allowed the government to circumvent the obligation to provide asylum, instead removing the refugees to offshore detention centers, where some have remained for years. In 2013, Australia went one better: it removed the entire mainland from its migration zone. It’s important to note that these policies had bipartisan support — for all that the present government is awful, this has been going on under both parties since the early 2000s.
Asylum-seekers protesting on a roof at the Immigration Detention Centre on Christmas Island. (Image: The Australian)
ISN’T THAT NAME MORE THAN A LITLLE, Y’KNOW, FASCIST?
Yes. Yes, it is. The offshore detention facilities include those on Christmas Island, Nauru and Manus Island (part of Papua New Guinea). There are also multiple onshore facilities. Conditions are often awful. Like, really awful.
This situation particularly bad under this government. The last couple of years has seen the reopening of the Nauru and Manus Island facilities, and the latter was the scene of a riot in February, where it appears that PNG locals and prison guards attacked detained refugees, resulting in one death and multiple injuries.
WHY IS AUSTRALIA SO AWFUL TO REFUGEES ANYWAY
In a country where wages are generally high and life is generally comfortable, and the major parties are essentially identical on matters of actual significant policy (you get a choice between somewhat neo-liberal and more neo-liberal), the specter of refugees coming to take yer jerbs and reduce prosperity has proven sadly effective in mobilizing Australia’s electorate. Back in 2001, stoking anti-refugee xenophobia was proven an effective way to win an election, and the subject has dominated every election campaign since.
(Image: IBM Times)
ARE PEOPLE PROTESTING ABOUT THIS SHIT?
Yes, although you’d never know it from reading the Australian papers. There were anti-government protests throughout the country on March, attracting some 100,000 people, but they went largely unreported in the Australian press.
THIS ALL HAPPENING IN AUSTRALIA SO WHY SHOULD I CARE?
Some of the Abbott government’s actions have global resonance. The policy on the Great Barrier Reef, threatens to make a mess of one of the world’s great natural wonders, and Tasmania’s forests are World Heritage protected (for now, at least.) There are environmental policies that attempt to roll back years of progress. For instance, Abbott is trying to open up 74,000 hectares of Tasmania’s old growth forests to logging, and has abolished the Climate Commission.
Great Barrier Reef (Image: Wikipedia)
More generally, climate change denial or skepticism from any sort of leading politician is grist to the climate change industry’s mill. And the entire sorry business is symptomatic of a global shift to the right, and a reminder that in allowing the ideology of the far right into politics, you’re dancing with the devil.
Hide under the bed for three years and hope you don’t emerge to a smoking wasteland. Failing that, hope that the ongoing public outcry will rein in the worst excesses of this government, and that Labor get their shit together at some point.