Just who is un-Australian?

© The Age

June 20, 2005

‘It’s un-Australian,” Dick Smith asserted last week, as he railed against the seven-year detention of Peter Qasim, the Kashmiri asylum seeker recently transferred from the Baxter detention centre to an Adelaide psychiatric ward. “We drove him mad,” Smith said on ABC radio, and then repeated his charge: “It’s un-Australian.”

Sorry, Dick, but it’s actually not un-Australian at all. It might be unjust, unkind, unfair, unreasonable and inhumane but, unhappily, it’s not un-Australian. Yes, seven years is a long time to lock someone up without charge or conviction, reducing them to such a state of despair that they lose their mind. It might not sound like the kind of thing Australians would do, but we do it.

Here’s another thing we’ve been doing: locking up children whose only crime is to be the offspring of asylum seekers. Some of their parents might turn out not to be “genuine” asylum seekers (though still refugees, of course) but we’ve been treating them and their children as if they are criminals of the worst kind rather than people so desperate to leave their homelands that they were prepared to undertake almost unbelievably perilous journeys to start a new life here.

I’m in total sympathy with Dick Smith’s sentiments; I only wish there were grounds for saying we Australians would never tolerate such appalling treatment of refugees being carried out in our name. I wish we didn’t have to own up to a policy deliberately designed to inflict suffering on people who have already been traumatised in the countries from which they’ve fled.

The melancholy truth is that it has, indeed, been Australian to persist with a policy of indefinite and even brutal mandatory detention of asylum seekers. Our Government has been doing it for years with broad community support, so we might as well accept that it is a characteristically Australian act. In fact, it’s so characteristic of us that some other countries, including Britain, are now examining ways of adopting the “Australian” model of mandatory detention.

But this is not a column about asylum seekers; it’s about the implications of this gruesome newcomer to our vocabulary: “un-Australian”.

It’s Australian to drink and drive, get hopelessly into debt, lie to secure an advantage – whether political, commercial or personal – and engage in merciless and slanderous gossip. It’s Australian to give vent to our xenophobia through outbreaks of racism, to reserve our nastiest prejudices for indigenous people, and to worship celebrity.

Sound a bit negative? Not at all. It’s Australian to do such things because, however uncivilised they may seem, it’s human to do them. The Dutch do them; so do South Africans, Turks, Indonesians, British, Italians, Brazilians, etc. Like everyone else on the planet, Australians are a mixture of good and bad, noble and shameful, exemplary and slippery.

So, to balance the ledger, I ought to acknowledge that it’s entirely “Australian” (but also entirely French, Korean, etc) to help neighbours in distress, to bake cakes for fund-raising stalls, to give our children clear moral guidance and to respond to the needs of strangers. It’s Australian to befriend the lonely, comfort the sick, pay the taxes we should pay, charge fair prices for our goods and services, make donations to charity without seeking recognition or acknowledgement, cheerfully obey the rule of law, behave with integrity – at work, on the sporting field, in love – and even to celebrate the joys of honest toil.

We’re human, OK? So let’s not get carried away by hubris: Australians are no better than anyone else when it comes to occupation of the moral high ground. After all, this is the country where many people who opened their hearts and wallets to the tsunami relief appeal then grumbled about the ungrateful Indonesians who dared to convict Schapelle Corby of being a drug courier, as if our charity was part of some implicit trade-off: we’ll help your tsunami victims; you let our drug traffickers off lightly.

Let’s not assume that if it’s praiseworthy or beautiful, it’s Australian, and if it’s blameworthy or ugly, it’s un-Australian. Can you imagine Italians criticising each other for being “un-Italian”? Have you ever heard of un-Scottish or un-Irish activity? What would un-Swedish behaviour look like?

There was a brief period, it’s true, when “un-American” was in vogue. That was during the hysterical early days of the Cold War when the US anti-communist crusade was in full swing. There was even a congressional committee commissioned to investigate un-American activities. The whole thing fell apart when the neurotic and obsessive ringleader, Joe McCarthy, was both discredited and disgraced, though not before the trashing of countless citizens’ reputations.

We should be warned: “un-Australian” is an ugly word and a signpost to an ugly trend.