A debate focused exclusively on the refugee issue assists both the anti-refugee isolationists and the pro-refugee elites, as refugees are only one aspect of our future immigration, population, land management and security planning. We have a small, wealthy population occupying a vast continent near lands which are overpopulated and relatively impoverished. History suggests this glaring disparity is unlikely to continue into the indefinite future. Our choice is to narrow the gap ourselves, or to let the matter be eventually taken out of our hands, for example, if the refugee trickle turns into a torrent.
The world is getting better in terms of feeding its population, but in many places differentials between countries are increasing, as the world refugee crisis demonstrates. When I was at school, Indonesia had 80 million people; today it has 230 million. After the Asian financial collapse of the later 1980s, 40 per cent of Indonesians lived on or below the poverty line, whereas in the same period we have become noticeably more prosperous. In our sphere the disparities are greater than elsewhere. Europe has two magnets—prosperity and freedom. But here there are many more disparities. As well as prosperity and freedom, we have an enormous land space, vast mineral resources, and under-used fertile land in a region lacking these. We have a unique set of desirable resources, and so in the long run we are under much greater pressure.
When he visited Australia some decades ago the American strategist Herman Kahn warned that we had to believe in ourselves and our belonging here if we wanted to defend our country. The Japanese downward thrust in 1941–43 was the greatest shock Australia ever had, because our very existence was threatened. Never mind the argument among military historians about whether the Japanese really intended to invade us. Our primal worry is that as a small, undefended European population holding a large and valuable land near Asia, we are vulnerable and could one day be swallowed up. This is still our great existential fear, barely expressed because it is too close to the bone. And we still feel just as exposed today; the polls reveal the enormous subterranean anxiety raised by the coming of the boat people, which triggers these larger worries. If we were to look like being overwhelmed by military assault or large population movements, the world would today be unlikely to come to our rescue as the Americans did in the 1940s.
The debate on refugees is not taking place in a vacuum. Over the last two decades, certain events have been used to corrode our confidence that we belong here. One spin-off of the Native Title legislation was that, whatever its validity, it led some opinion-formers to claim that our occupation of the continent was immoral and illegal. But worse, in their report on the “Stolen Generations” the commissioners raised the genocide issue. This was untrue but caused enormous damage. Genocide was the worst charge that could be made against us, with the obvious implication that we don’t deserve to be here. All this comes at the same time as the refugee debate, the subtext for which is that we treat refugees inhumanely as we do the Aborigines, which means we are deemed doubly unworthy. Some Australians pushed these false charges because they already disliked our society, and were happy to welcome evidence which seemed to bear this out. An exponent of the adversary culture, John Pilger, leads the pack in bagging his own country, and he has plenty of fellow travellers.
Self-denigration by Australians soon proved contagious—some Muslim leaders got onto the bandwagon. The Mufti at the time, Sheikh al-Hilali, claimed Muslims belong in Australia more than us, as they paid their plane fares here, whereas we originally got free trips as convicts. The Mufti was recorded in Europe as supporting jihadist terrorists, so he was hardly a neutral observer of Australian ways. The Indonesian terrorist outfit Jemaah Islamiyah believes that, as Muslims got to Java by the sixteenth century, well before the British got to Australia, Australia is to be part of the Muslim territory known as “Mantiqi 4” when the caliphate is restored. The JI mentor Abu Bakar Bashir launches frequent tirades against Australia. Some immigrants have abused our easy-going tolerance by setting up terrorist cells on our soil, with the aim of destabilising the country which welcomed them and linking up with outside forces.
The combined effect of these campaigns is to inhibit our capacity to act in sensible ways. Our legitimacy is a precious piece of cultural capital built up painstakingly over generations, which can be shattered in a very short time. No institution can be built on self-doubt. These are delicate matters—merely to raise the question of legitimacy can be the first step on the road to losing it. Once our credibility is questioned by our own, it gives others ideas and ammunition. Now any group that wants to work up a grievance against us will shout the “You don’t belong here” mantra as a weapon of first resort. These statements are not made in a benign vacuum, but in a region where those whose imagined world includes sharia law and the caliphate have designs on us.
The pro-refugee lobby argues that refugee arrivals are only a trickle so there is no problem. But they are only a trickle because the Howard government policy on refugees, which the pro-refugee lobby wishes to demolish, kept them so. Malcolm Fraser and other eminent Australians have issued a statement that we are treating refugees inhumanely and warning us the world is watching. The world is not watching—this was just an attempt to shame us by drawing the world’s attention to us. The world knows that conditions in, for instance, Bangkok prisons are truly inhumane, and that the Villawood and Christmas Island centres are not in the same league. Very few countries have a positive humanitarian record to match ours, so who will throw the first stone? UN human rights agencies obviously, with representatives from countries like Syria, Cuba and Zimbabwe. Refugees striving to get here don’t seem deterred by the horrors of our detention system, as they know life inside them is still preferable to the lives they have been leading.
We can at the moment determine whom we will let into this country, as John Howard said, but we will only retain this ability if we manage the situation adroitly. Playing up to isolationist sentiment by rigidly keeping people out may mean others will vote with their feet and take that decision from us. The Immigration Department has pointed out in briefings that on-shore processing could lead to much larger numbers and internal unrest, like that which has happened in Europe, which demolishes the main claims of the pro-refugee lobby. We need to let in much larger numbers of immigrants and genuine refugees in an orderly way. It is a difficult balancing act to do both things at the same time. We have as a nation a right of possession, but as a human community we also have a responsibility to share what we have with those less well off. If we do let in many more people the disparity between our situation and our neighbours’ will all the time be lessened. If we put up a “keep out” sign, the disparity will get worse and the pressures increase.
Europe is all history and we are all geography, as the saying goes. But geographical awareness is not our strong suit. We were told at school we are the world’s largest island and smallest continent, but we can’t make up our minds whether to adopt a Big or Small Australia posture. Because we inhabit an island continent with no borders with other nations, we don’t naturally think in strategic terms. Though we are an island, we are not a maritime people. The line, “our home is girt by sea”, suggests we hope the warm amniotic fluids which surround us to our north will perform the functions of a navy:
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands.
Our geo-political position is strange: we are the only very large island adjacent to a continent apart from Greenland—not an inviting comparison. We are too big to naturally relate to the tiny Pacific islands. On three sides of our continent there is no land. To the north we are not sure if the Melanesian and Indonesian archipelagoes are a bridge or a barrier to Asia proper. We should be less internally focused, and consciously (because it isn’t innate) develop a geo-political strategic imagination.
On these matters an unholy conjunction of interests exists between suburban isolationists and environmental minimalists. During the last federal election it was argued that western Sydney’s stretched resources and traffic problems were so bad that immigration should be lowered. As a consequence both major parties succumbed to a Small Australia profile, the Labor Party because they believe in it, and the Liberal Party opportunistically. Increasing immigration would have the benefit of providing an employment force for our resources boom, and of creating a Big Australia, with a population moving to 35 million and beyond. We should welcome this, and deride the notion that 15 to 20 million is the maximum we can sustain here for environmental reasons. Greens say our cities are crowded and gridlocked, and our natural resources strained. But in world terms this is laughably untrue. The Green worldview is a narcissistic “Me Generation” stance, insular, selfish and narrow. Only what gives comfort to them is allowed. They can’t recognise how atypical our situation is. We could fit our present population into Victoria or even Tasmania, and still feed and resource ourselves without excessive discomfort in world terms. I’m not saying that we should, just that we could. Look at this comparison between Tasmania and nations of comparable size:
Population Area (sq. km) Persons (sq. km)
Tasmania 500,000 68,000 7
Netherlands 17,000,000 41,500 402
SriLanka 20,200,000 65,600 308
Slovakia 5,400,000 49,000 111
CostaRica 4,600,000 51,000 90
Sri Lanka has about Australia’s population and about Tasmania’s size; its population density is forty-three times that of Tasmania.
We have external problems—the arc of instability to our north, the rise of China, terrorist threats, competition for resources, as well as the disparities mentioned previously. We have been very lucky externally: the communist push south was halted, President Suharto established a stable Indonesia, but will our luck hold? Our main long-term problems are external, not internal, where we have comparatively few non-fixable worries. Only if we have a balanced view of ourselves internally can we face the world with equanimity. But if we are crippled by internal weaknesses such as adversarial self-doubt, we will get into trouble.
Patrick Morgan wrote on “Government by Control Freaks” in the October issue.