Commenting to the assembled media on this week’s fatal Manus Island detention centre riot, Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young started to say “all Australians would be horrified by what happened”. The she corrected herself to say “most Australians”.
That’s because some Australians would not particularly care; their insecurity and xenophobia has been twisted into something so hateful and ugly by successive governments and oppositions that they now want asylum seekers to be treated more harshly.
Those who ARE horrified – at the events as well as the callousness of their fellow Australians – struggle to understand how everyday pressures brought on by strained government services and infrastructure such as roads, schools and hospitals can manifest as such bigotry.
Both the Government and Opposition understand – the former having mostly crafted the prejudice during the Howard government and Abbott opposition years, and the latter with Gillard and Rudd having capitulated to it in order to woo back marginal seat votes.
So while the harsh treatment of asylum seekers continues to secure votes from mainstream Australia – yes, even when riots and gunshot injuries and violent deaths are involved – it appears neither of the major parties will shift from the horror that is of their own making.
Yet a circuit-breaker is within their reach.
The most superficially attractive solution to stopping the boats is to essentially open the borders by scrapping the limit on the number of refugees Australia accepts each year.
In a practical sense this would lead to crowding in the already strained major population centres. Half the people who migrated to Australia between 2006 and 2011 settled in either Sydney or Melbourne. This is a long-term trend that has placed pressure on the local housing markets as well as access to ageing, insufficient or deficient roads, schools and hospitals.
But lo, we now have a political leader who wants to do big things on the infrastructure front. Tony Abbott pledged to be an ‘Infrastructure Prime Minister’ if elected, offering a grocery list of federally-funded road-works to assuage the frazzled urban denizens facing gridlock on a daily basis.
And during one of the Labor leadership debates, contender Anthony Albanese also admitted to a similar ambition. Surely that makes infrastructure spending a bipartisan issue, particularly now that Albanese is opposition spokesperson for the portfolio.
Good roads are vitally important to this vast nation, but so are affordable housing and well-equipped and -staffed schools and hospitals.
It’s been reported that $2 billion will be spent on offshore processing over the next four years. Millions more have beenallocated to the Australian Crime Commission, ASIO, ASIS and the AFP to spy on and disrupt people smugglers; to Defence and Customs to ‘protect’ our borders; and to Health and Human Services to reintroduce Temporary Protection Visas.
An open border policy would allow much of that revenue to be repurposed and added to the $17 billion already earmarked for infrastructure projects.
Dedication of those funds not only to roads but also to the other infrastructure and services needed by a growing population would go some way to alleviating the animosity urban dwellers feel about new Australians, whether they be asylum seekers or not.
That’s not to say job insecurity is an unimportant driver of antipathy. The unemployment bogeyman stitched together and brought to life by Labor and the Coalition now follows them both everywhere, leaving no place to hide as each accuses the other of being job wreckers.
But if managed properly by government, population growth from increased immigration can drive economic growth and create jobs. More roads, homes, schools and hospitals mean more construction jobs, more teachers, doctors and nurses, and a larger services sector to support them. Targeted schemes could encourage additional job seekers to settle where they are needed instead of congregating in high-density regions or other places with stretched resources and/or high unemployment.
Since Labor Prime Minister Ben Chifley created the Department of Immigration and launched a large-scale immigration program in 1945, 7 million people have migrated to Australia. According to the 2011 census a quarter of all Australians were born overseas. This makes us one of the most multicultural nations in the world, accruing not only cultural benefits from such diversity but economic advantages too.
The major parties are jointly complicit in using terror tactics to dissuade asylum seekers from trying to reach Australia by boat. By simultaneously enflaming and kow-towing to voter expectations that the boats will be stopped, by whatever means necessary, the Coalition and Labor have drawn supportive voters into a web of complicity from which it is almost impossible to escape.
Instead of vowing to be even more resolute in response to anguished asylum seekers, the government and opposition could treat the fatal riot on Manus Island as a turning point. They could say enough is enough, concede that the asylum seeker menace is a chimera created purely for political gain, and that the physical and psychological price since extracted from asylum seekers has negated any moral claim to an electoral advantage.
The only thing stopping us from a humane solution to the asylum seeker ‘problem’ is political courage.
Open the borders. Build the infrastructure. Let them all come.
This post first appeared at The King’s Tribune.