No Non-Violent Political Action Please. We’re Australian

Civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights… it’s all wrong. Call in the cavalry to disrupt this perception of freedom gone wild. God damn it! First one wants freedom, then the whole damn world wants freedom.

Lyrics from “B Movie” by Gil Scott-Heron.

Over the long weekend just past, there were several breakouts from the Christmas Island detention centre. Also, a 300 strong protest that officials said was a riot and quelled with beanbag rounds. Labor’s Immigration Minister Chris Bowen accused some of the asylum seekers of waging an “orchestrated campaign.”

Christmas Island Shire President Gordon Thompson, speaking on ABC radio, agreed. He said the detainees on Christmas Island had set out “to make a peaceful protest,” going “into the community to be seen and to be heard”. Their purpose? To “draw media attention to their plight.” A plight that, according to refugee advocates, includes severe overcrowding at the facility (built for 500 people, it now houses more than 2,500) and extended delays in visas, including those already deemed refugees.

The Shire President went on to say that having met with the asylum seekers, his impression was that “a fairly strategic approach was taken to protests.” He continued. “These people have come here with the purpose of getting a visa… They’re forging a path for their families to follow… The primary motivation of the protests is to get attention to their plight and to have their situation resolved one way or another.”

Like many Australians, I have been following the national debate about asylum-seekers arriving by boat since it became a partisan issue during the Howard years. I remember well the dead-fish tones of then Immigration Minister Phillip Ruddock insinuating that all attempts by refugees to achieve a “desired migration outcome” were – and should rightly be viewed by the community – as manipulative of our emotions, Australian law, or both.

We saw this back in 2000 when senior government ministers including Ruddock and Prime Minister John Howard said that asylum seekers had thrown their children overboard, claims that would later be shown to be false – and to have been known to be false by those making them.

The intent of the charges seemed be to undermine the character of boat people. What sort of human beings would throw their own children overboard at all, little less for the purpose of manipulating the good nature of Australians, and our soft-hearted laws, to achieve a migration outcome? Ruddock called it “one of the most disturbing incidents he’d heard of in his public life” while Howard said, “I certainly don’t want people of that type in Australia, I really don’t.”

For both men, and the audiences to which they were playing, the attempt by asylum seekers to incite our sympathy invalidated their claim to it. To the contrary, we were entitled to feel aggrieved by their overtures and to draw negative inferences about the characters of those who would “try it on” in such a way. Peter Mares traces this attitude back to the late 19th century when the growth of China’s population led some Australians to argue we were at risk of being overrun by more “calculating and ruthless Asians.”

All this is confusing to those who are across the theory of non-violent action, which includes passive resistance, peaceful demonstrations, petitions and boycotts. All non-aggressive physical methods aimed at awakening moral conscience in observers and – to paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr – persuading the opponent of the justice of your case.

Odder still is our enthusiasm for such methods when used by those on foreign soil. From Gandhi to the students in Tiananmen Square to organizers of recent uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, Australians have supported disciplined concerted non-violent political action to draw the eyes of the world to those with a political cause, and spark an impulse to help.

So why when the orchestrated campaign is in our own backyard do we baulk? Is it simply resistance to the terrible truth that sometimes we are not the freedom-seekers but the oppressors? Is it as Gil Scott-Heron suggests, that we talk a good game about freedom and democracy but are in fact anxious about the rapid flowering of a world in which everyone wants freedom and knows how to get it.

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No Non-Violent Political Action Please. We're Australian  ABC The Drum Unleashed