Though Australia hasn't done so well so far in the current Ashes, like so many other people, I went to work bleary eyed on a number of days because I stayed up hoping the Australian team could turn things around. It is fair to say that when it comes to Australia, I am a flag-waving, loud-cheering, overly enthusiastic patriot. Some might even say that I am over the top, and not just when it comes to sport. I cheer at any mention of Australia, be it at the UN, on television and especially when I travel abroad and tell everyone about the great country that I come from. But recently, I've started to think that maybe it's time to stop being so patriotic, and not just because Australia is losing its grip on world sport domination.
Like so many people in this country, I am the child of refugees. My parents came to this country sight unseen based on reputation alone. My parents arrived in the 1970s, but their relatives arrived two decades earlier when Australia was one of the first industrialised countries to open its doors after the end of war in Europe. Even today, Australia still has the second highest number of Holocaust survivors per capita anywhere in the world. Australia was a warm, welcoming place, and this was only exacerbated two decades later in the 1970s when my parents decided to leave the Soviet Union for a better life for them and their family. As refugees, they initially went to Italy and then after a few months, their visas were processed and they arrived with youthful optimism at Tullamarine, ready to contribute to Australian society and begin their new lives.
This was a time of hope and opportunity, and I was brought up to embrace the freedoms that I was accustomed to, but to never forget where my family had come from, and where I could have lived had this country not welcomed us in. I think therefore my patriotism began before I even started school, and developed to almost fanatical proportions over the next 30 years.
But increasingly over the last decade or so things have started to change. The euphoria from the Sydney Olympics – where Australia warmly welcomed the citizens of 199 participating nations – didn't last long. A year later, after 9/11 and the political exploitation of the Tampa incident, xenophobia had crept into our happy society, and people started to be racially and offensively profiled. Sure, the reasons behind some of this were justified, but if racism has a zero tolerance policy on the sporting field, why is it accepted more often than not on the social field?
Soon after 9/11, Australia joined the unpopular war in Afghanistan and the even more unpopular and possibly even unlawful war in Iraq, based on a lie and despite the fact that people in their thousands protested their dissent against both wars. Australia is only now leaving these war zones, having spent untold millions, which has affected our domestic economy, and having shed the lives of brave soldiers doing duty for their country, but for what purpose? The despotic leaders were overthrown, but remnants of their regimes are still in place with continued bombings, democracy will likely take decades to truly take hold, and in the meantime, there is a humanitarian crisis that the world will be dealing with for a long time.
Part of that crisis involves hundreds of thousands of displaced people, many of whom have a genuine fear for their lives, and no place to call home. Like almost anyone in that situation, they try to flee and would prefer to come to an industrialised country that's a signatory to the UN Refugee Convention, like Australia, which still has a reputation as a free and stable democracy, where opportunity abounds – the same reputation that my parents knew of before they came here. In my utopian, hypothetical Australia, the fact that people want to come here because of our reputation, would be worn as a badge of honour. Genuine refugees and asylum seekers would be proudly welcomed, whether they come by boat, plane or any other means, knowing that it is legal to seek asylum, and knowing how much refugees have contributed to Australian society over the years. Of course a cap on the numbers would be appropriate, but certainly a cap that is greater than the arbitrary current measly figure of 20,000 per annum. This is set to increase to 27,000 over the next five years, but at its current rate, it places Australia 14th amongst industrialised nations or 49th in the world for refugee intake. This drops to 87th if that figure is compared to our national wealth (GDP) on a per capita basis [based on ASRC research].
At the time my parents and their relatives arrived here, the intake was much greater, whilst the population, infrastructure and economy were much smaller. Not only that, but the hope and opportunities they received made them – and me in turn – proud to be Australians. Today, that hope is lost, replaced by humanitarian concerns that successive governments have ignored because they don't poll as well as harsh policies based on slogans, innuendo and one-upmanship. The recently announced PNG solution is the latest in a long list of half-baked decisions that are supposedly designed to 'stop the boats', but are really about political point scoring. The Coalition's military solution also very much falls into that category. In my utopian, hypothetical Australia, political parties would actually stand for something, like they used to, and the only poll that would matter and that would exist would be the election. Any policy would have to go through a humanitarian test to make sure that it really was in the best interests of the people and not just of the political parties.
Policies would also need to make sense and be realistic. All the government rhetoric about the PNG solution and any other proposed solution to date, has been around stopping the people smuggler's business model. Putting aside that it's not a 'business' and there is no 'model', why is the government targeting the asylum seekers who board the boats and not the so called people smugglers who put them on the boats, if that is who they want to stop? That seems to be the equivalent of jailing the injured victims of a shooting spree rather than hunting down the perpetrator. If the government is genuinely serious about stopping the people smugglers, not just for political gain, they should work with the Indonesian and other authorities and not punish the innocent people who have already suffered enough in their home countries, and are so desperate, they get on boats knowing the potential consequences. The people have and will continue to come because even an indeterminate number of years in a deplorable detention centre is better than the circumstances they are fleeing from for the more than 90% that turn out to be genuine refugees.
Yet even with that resolve, the conditions that our government forces them to live in, whether in detention onshore or offshore, the lack of hope and the months and years without knowing can sometimes take its toll. The recent riots on Nauru were just the latest in a litany of examples of asylum seekers drawing attention to their plight. Some examples, like self-mutilation and hunger strikes are less publicised but are more common, no less extreme and probably more psychologically damaging. This is happening not just under the watch of our elected officials, but seemingly with their blessing and with their funding, which is costing taxpayers billions. If they wanted to, those same elected officials could resolve this by limiting detention times to a month or even six months to allow for the necessary health checks and processing, rather than the protracted periods that these people currently endure. Again I ask, why are the ones escaping persecution subjected to such harsh treatment?
Australia used to be the almost utopian nation that I would hope it could still be. As Kevin Rudd himself wrote in 2006, 'the reason we have a UN convention on the protection of refugees is in large part because of the horror of the Holocaust, when the West (including Australia) turned its back on the Jewish people of Germany who sought asylum.' Immediately after the war years, realising its error, Australia opened its doors as a nation of hope, opportunity, dignity and genuine leadership. But in the last decade or so, even a staunch patriot like me has started to have reservations.
Despite all this, I still have hope and continue to cheer for Australian teams in the cricket and in every other sport because despite the xenophobia, the loss of innocent lives at war, the expensive living standards and the policies of current and previous governments, Australia still is the lucky country. We have the 12th largest economy in the world, and one that has grown 14% in the last three years, when so many others have fallen; we have a 99% literacy rate; we are the world's happiest industrialised nation according to the OECD; we rank second on the UN's Human Development Index, which ranks nations according to health, life expectancy and education; we are third on Mercer's Global Pension Index, which ranks countries based on retirement savings and income; and a number of our cities regularly rank within the top ten on the Economist Intelligence Unit's liveability rankings, with Melbourne often taking the title as the world's most liveable city. We have a lot to be proud of and patriotic about, but equally a lot to be ashamed of. I hope that sometime soon, things change in this country, so that I can continue to be the enthusiastic patriot I have always been, and more importantly, so that the concerns of the people, whether current or potential future citizens, outweigh the politics, so that we can again be the truly lucky country that we can all cheer for.