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Cheerleading for an uncompassionate Australia

By David Silkoff - posted Tuesday, 28 April 2009

The commentary pages of the Herald Sun relating to the explosion and deaths on an asylum seekers’ boat last week, and the letters which have been published on this issue, suggests that there is a dangerous stream of thinking which exists in Australia.

In itself, this is nothing new. There always has, and perhaps always will be, strands of self interest and hostility to change in any nation, and the Herald Sun is not alone in the debate. Much ink, real and virtual, has been spilt in Australia defending the rights of these people to seek asylum. This has pointed out that the human tragedy involved in this is highly distressing; that the asylum seekers are desperate people fleeing a war-torn, poverty-stricken country; and that Australia is a society built by immigration, much of it non-Anglo.

The cut and thrust of opinion is important, even if much of the opinion is odious. What is of concern, however, is there is absolutely no divergence of opinion in the Herald Sun itself. In an online poll, 84 per cent of Herald Sun readers believe that the refugees should be sent home. Of concern is that on the letters page of the newspaper on April 17, nine letters were published on the subject of asylum seekers. Every single one of them proclaimed outrage at the actions of the refugees.


“Queue jumpers” was one of the kinder epithets which was applied; one writer suggested, with confidence belying their absolute wrongness, that refugees are given the best houses in the country; and that after receiving their government handouts, they would be on the phone “to their mates back home”, encouraging comrades to join them.

Another suggested sinking their boats, the consequences of which would be death on a scale not so far seen.

Of most concern is that, in both an official editorial and a commentary, Andrew Bolt voiced opinions expressing not concern that parts of the world are in grave and dangerous states of upheaval, pushing people to take terrible risks, but that the government was possibly going soft on refugees.

It is not that these opinions were expressed that is worrying, but rather that these opinions are expressed in isolation, with no dissenting voices.

The lack of compassion is stark compared to the bushfires. Much money was given by the Australian community, and vast energies were expended to raise practical and material aid for the sufferers. The state of Victoria, if not the country, was united in shock and grief.

A cynical response would suggest that it is easy to empathise with people who lost all in a blaze in this fire-prone dry continent. How easy it is to find compassion in our mirror images. We suffer, as a nation, from a narcissism which disallows mourning, love and sadness for people who are unlike us. I refuse to believe in this cynical response. Seeing Australia in this stark and simplistic manner is easy to do. As a response to the views of journalists, editors and correspondents which appear in the Herald Sun, it is tempting. It is, however, as false and unhelpful as any of the articles which harangue asylum seekers.


An attack on vulnerable people by Australians marries with what I read in the Herald Sun. It does not marry with the people whom I see and speak with every day at work, or in the community. In the real Australia, people worry about their loved ones, they care and they are dutiful. Most people whom I meet sense vulnerability and sometimes helplessness, and they grieve and feel sadness for tragedy.

Undoubtedly, there is a market at present for simplistic, easy and unfortunately dangerous responses. Dangerous economic climes, rising unemployment and decreased job security, and fears of a rise of radical Islamism can lead to an extreme political response. Fascism thrives in such climes, and draws its followers from the ranks of those who are insecure or who believe that their futures are under threat.

Some people feel like this at all times; a troubled society can propel many more into their ranks. This general social phenomenon needs to be fed and given a voice, however, and the Herald Sun is doing its best to do just that: to encourage that seed of reactionary and hateful opinion.

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About the Author

David Silkoff is an occasional writer, and a full time mental health clinician in Melbourne. He has worked in the frontline of mental health and social exclusion for nearly 15 years, in London, Melbourne, and for a short period, which was limited due to the difficulties of working with limited language abilities, in Israel. He writes opinion pieces only occasionally, and spends the bulk of his writing time constructive short stories. He describes his politics as an unfashionable Social Democratic kind.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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