There is political significance in Behrouz Boochani’s New York Times exposé of Australia’s conflicted immigration policy. His article is noteworthy in that he gives trenchant expression to how his own situation has been shaped, after the Tampa crisis, by policies implemented by successive Prime Ministers; he explicitly names leaders of the Labor Party.

Paul Keating was PM some time before Tampa. He is not mentioned but he too had a part to play. His stated vision for Australia is related very much to the conflict many citizens feel about immigration policies and support for people seeking asylum. In his book Engagement: Australia faces the Asia Pacific (2000) he made this pertinent point:

Just as I wanted to defend a multi-cultural society in Australia, so I thought that the way we dealt with our own indigenous inhabitants, members of the oldest continuous civilisation on earth, was central to any hope we had of taking our place in the Asia-Pacific. We could hardly go around to our neighbours saying that we wanted to forge our future in this region while at the same time treating some of our own people as second-class citizens.

Keating’s political talent was to give voice to a vision shared by many of his justice-seeking fellow citizens. Many will still hold to this view of how reconciliation relates to our understanding of our location. It may be a central facet of our national task of state-crafting, but such citizens now harbour a sense of deep betrayal.

This Commonwealth may have begun in an era of 19th century competition between colonial powers but, in the 21st century, that time is gone although new neo-colonial strategies are still rampant. In this context Australia needs to discover its own political maturity to be an advocate of regional justice. That time is upon us.

But now a call comes from across the Tasman from a Kurdish-Iranian exile who escaped from Manus Island. From the Ngai Tahu Research Center at the University of Canterbury, Behrouz Boochani writes about us as a polity and we should be grateful for his call to genuine political responsibility.

To read Boochani’s article with Keating’s 2000 comment in mind is to be reminded of our responsibility for genuine regional citizenship. It is also a call to the Australian Labor Party to return to the reconciliation process.

Labor’s egregious commitment to the brutality of offshore detention conflicts, at root, with its 2007 participation in the Federal Parliamentary “Sorry”. Behrouz’s welcome article calls for root and branch renewal of the reconciliation movement. We need to be wise and neighbourly in our region.

Is the Labor Party going to be able to take up the cause of people seeking asylum in this country, of refugee families and communities, and of those imprisoned on Manus Island and Nauru? Can the guilty silence be overcome with a new “sorry”, a genuine “sorry” built into policy platform in an enduring way? Or was that previously stated public sorrow merely a beat-up, a marketing strategy for successive elections, something like a soufflé?

BCW 2.10.2020

Disclaimer: Views expressed by individual contributors to this site are not necessarily the views of Queenscliff Rural Australians for Refugees.