Human Rights, Human Security, IDPs and Refugees, Politics and Governance

Adjutant Australia: Controlling Boat People

The ongoing brouhaha around the boat people ‘storming’ Australian maritime waters displays two tendencies in Australian politics and its cultural underpinnings. The first tendency, A, is the insidious influence of a long-standing hostility to potentially subversive foreign elements. The second dimension, B, is a more recent phenomenon that I shall label “bureaucratititis”.

The force of factor A is of lesser import than factor B in raising the present storm. It is also not easy to demonstrate. So, I merely suggest. I mark the concerns about the “Yellow Peril” of Chinese migrants that prevailed in Australia from the late 19th century and the manner in which it contributed to a White Australia policy. That programme is no more.

But one ‘relative’ remains embedded within government policy. Customs officials rigorously police all persons and cargo to make sure that dangerous plants, vermin and viruses do not contaminate healthy Australian soil and air. Even home-cooked milk toffee is confiscated. This is a form of paranoia furthering protective controls. Indeed, this tendency makes me wonder if one reason for the hostility to boat people arises from their reliance on leaky wooden boats. The litmus test would be that occasion when illegal migrants arrive on an elegant white yacht.

However, the predominant influence behind government policy towards illegal migrants has been the desire for an “orderly process” (Rudd’s words) of migrant intake. This desire has been ingrained in a whole range of government practices for decades irrespective of the party in power.

In recent years, for instance, it has resulted in the accounting and auditing of expenditure to the nth degree within government departments. Thus, we have seen the emergence of a state that can be metaphorically depicted as a combination of Adjutant Major and Fearsome Matron (metaphors appropriate to the marriage of both genders in sustaining this proclivity) exercising a regime of control. I shall sum this up as a Fetish for Order, the FO principle.

The FO principle is bolstered by Australian egalitarianism. Illegal migrants (whether asylum seekers or those seeking economic betterment under the guise of political danger) are called “queue jumpers.” This hostile image is deployed by a wide variety of people writing to the newspapers, so it is a facet of popular culture.

I understand the distaste for those who jump ahead of anyone in a queue. But, nourished as I have been in Asia, I tend to tolerate some measure of disorder. Asians are used to chaos, whether at bus stands or government offices and most prominently in the turbulent traffic of their cities. So, it is cultural imprint that encourages me to see the exaggerated proclivity for Order as a fetish.

When this fetish props up an Adjutant Major policing of the borders, it becomes a tad silly. This criticism is directed by my reading of Australia’s economic needs in demographic terms rather than the compassionate human rights claims of those who criticise all recent governments. The latter arguments are not irrelevant, but their force, alas, is weakened by the manner in which advocates transgress the ethics of representation and fail to decipher the complex contexts of outmigration from source countries.[i]

In brief, the contention here is that more immigration is useful and necessary for Australia. I am guided by a talk presented at the University of Adelaide last year by Professor Graeme Hugo. His graph revealed that the working population in this country would begin to nose-dive at a 45 degree angle from 2010. The recent surge in birth rate would not alter this trend greatly. More migrants, especially young people, are one counterweight.

True, there has been a record increase in migration in the last two years. But Australia can afford to take more people and will benefit from the process. Ah, but it has to be a “systematic process” has it not? Rudd’s words will surely buy into the bourgeois rational penchant for order.

My challenge goes against this grain. I argue that there is no harm in just a little bit of chaos. A few boats depositing another 10,000 people will only add some 5-8 per cent more to last year’s intake. My position will generate an immediate retort: “won’t it encourage a flood of more boats?” I admit the possibility though entering the caveat that no one seems to have deciphered the complex currents causing an ebb and flow in migrant tides.

If I had the power I would have resolved the bureaucratic conundrum of processing illegal migrants on the shoreline by adopting the lottery principle applied by the Australian government in conscripting young males for the Vietnam war. Make it known that every boatload of “refugees” will be processed quickly with either one-in-4 or one in-5 (decided on the spot each time by a lottery) in a queue of migrant units (families counting as one) being granted temporary resident visas; and  that the rest would be sent back by plane within a fortnight.

This sort of process adds up to rapid bureaucratic ‘screening.’ It is as fair as any lottery. The point is simple: would any family in search of economic advancement spend 15,000 dollars if their chances of eviction are 75-80 percent? Not likely, ergo the procedure will be as effective as quick. Genuine asylum seekers would then turn to the cumbersome and slow legal pathways.

However, I have been informed that reigning international conventions frown on any such procedure. So, we see here the bureaucratic slide-rule in its universal form standing in the way of pragmatic, handyman-type solutions. This means that if and when there is bumper surge of illegal migrants in any one year, the Australian state will simply have to scale down the legal intakes in the year that follows. The only casualty of such flexibility will be the  disciplinarian mind-set, the Fetish for Order.

Given that the 9,507 persons admitted under the “humanitarian program” in the financial year 2007-08 were only 8.3 percent of the total number of migrants (113,445), and set against 65,404 skilled migrants (57.6%) and 38,404 (33.8%) migrants admitted under “family reunion,” there is surely leeway within Australia for another 10,000 people who have braved the seas.

[i] Constrained by the rigidity of word limits adhered to by magazines and newspapers I cannot elaborate on this point and will handle it in a separate article.