Entries in Australia (89)
The current government won in a landslide by playing to the worst of the Australian character. After nearly a year in office, some people are starting to wake up to just how horrible Tony Abbott is, although it mystifies me as to how they were unaware of this to start with.
The measure of the true character of this government can be seen on how they treat refugees - unable to vote and out of the eye of voters, it is how they would treat all of us given half a chance. So what has the Abbott government done about refugee policy in its near-year in office?
First, they cut the refugees off from public scrutiny, moving the refugee camps to PNG. They hired 66 media staff to manage the public image, but prevented independent journalists from visiting. Next they removed the legal protections and legal assistance of refugees, and banned human rights lawyers from visiting the camps. Even when they put refugees at risk by releasing the personal details of many thousands, they evaded fair judicial oversight - deporting those who tried to sue the day before the court case started. They ignored the UN when they condemned the human rights violations of children occurring in Australian refugee camps.
Once imprisoned in camps in PNG, the Abbott government has no concern for the safety of refugees. They have repeatedly ignored requests by security personnel for better lighting and cameras, and threatened staff who spoke out. They ignored occasions when the children of refugees were assaulted by security guards. All these ignored warnings place the responsibility on the government for when a local mob was let into the camp by security guards and proceeded to kill one refugee and severely beat many refugees and slit the throats of others with machetes. Further contempt for the refugees was shown by the lack of adequate medical care given to them after the attack, and initial attempts to blame the attack on refugees themselves.
Next, they gutted the health care for a group of people often in critical need, in particular removing critical mental health care. They replaced nurses trained to Australian standards with partially trained staff, and lied about the presence of a psychiatrist. The health care has been so poor that pregnant women have had unnecessary miscarriages; other women have had abortions rather than give birth in the camp, and a woman who did give birth was separated from her sick child for several days. Why so many pregnancies? Perhaps because the Abbott government is enforcing their Catholic sexual taboos in the refugee camps and banning the distribution of condoms. While we are on the topic of forcing their religion on everyone, the Abbott government has also banned homosexuality in the camps and threatened to report gay men to the PNG police (where it leads to 14 years jail). Remember, they'd do this to the rest of us if they could. To be politically viable, they limit their homophobia in Australia to unwinding same-sex marriage rights, but when given half a chance they criminalise being openly gay.
The Abbott government has only seen one "refugee" that they would actually like to see enter Australia. For the rest, they treat with the contempt that they barely conceal for the rest of the Australian public.
We just had a wonderful week on Heron Island, on the Great Barrier Reef. I was there for ThymOz, the best scientific meeting on my conference circuit. Top-level science, a very critical and collegiate environment and an atmosphere that is more like a friendship reunion than a conference. This time, as well as the company of my scientific colleagues I had the pleasure of bringing Lydia along, for our first trip without Hayden. The scientific sessions were interspersed with snorkels, dives and long walks around the island. My favourite animal encounter on the island must have been the five tiny squidlings that Lydia and I surprised while snorkeling - they squirted us with simultaneous ink sprays and then swam off a metre. We also had an interesting encounter with a remora (suckerfish) while going on our first scuba dive for five years. The remora attaches to a host (usually a shark, turtle or whale) and filter feeds while it hitches a free ride. This one was solo, and swum around me and Lydia speculatively, considering us as its next host. Another highlight was the turtle hatchlings, of which we saw maybe a hundred over the week were were there, scuttling down to the water while seagulls swooped down and made a meal. A surprise for us was the frenzied shark feeding that happened just a metre off shore, with large sharks swooping in for a turtle dinner. Normally few if any would make it out to deep water, but on our last morning there we saw over a thousand tiny turtle tracks on our morning walk, a quantity that must have overwhelmed the appetites of even sharks and seagulls.
Now one day in Canberra, then we are off back home to Belgium.
So the ultra-conservatives won the election with ease. If taken at their word (not that I see any reason to trust Tony Abbott), Australia will now be prepared to use military force to stop refugee boats coming in from Indonesia, they'll strip away the carbon tax and simultaneously cut aid to Pacific nation neighbours trying to deal with rising ocean levels, they get rid of safety regulations on day-care for infants, block marriage equality, reinstate welfare bonuses to the richest and cut wages for the rest.
All pretty horrific. Yet I found myself shrugging off the loss like I did on hearing the results of the last Canadian election. Yes, it is horrible, but no longer personal. It would have been better for Australia if the percentage of small-minded fools was 45% instead of 55%*, but even if the election had gone the other way, it still means that the majority of Australians today are xenophobic and selfish. That is just not a country I find it easy to emphasize with, and after nearly 10 years living abroad my outrage at the result is only intellectual and no longer also emotional.
* I'm sure it is far higher than 55%. Sure, anyone willing to vote for Abbott needs to be either a bigot, or selfish enough to ignore Abbott's bigotry. But ALP voters are not ubquitiously progressives - the anti-refugee policies advocated by Labor were only slightly less harsh than Abbott's. I expect that only ~10% of Australians would agree with the combination of i) a compassionate and humane refugee policy, ii) marriage equality to same-sex couples and iii) a tax on carbon dioxide production proportionate to the damage it will cause.
For the past 5 years Australia has had a centralist Labor party government. All things considered, they've had a great track record. The major success of the Rudd government was to weather the global financial crisis. Australia was the only country in the developed world not to enter recession, and even the transient deficit used to avert a recession is nearly back to surplus. In any other country this would have been a rousing success, in Australia for some reason the polls pounded Rudd and the Labor party was only returned under Julia Gillard by the narrowest margin (50.1%). Gillard performed extremely well despite having to negotiate every piece of legislation across party lines. She negotiated the first price on carbon and stopped the logging of old growth forests. She started reform of the education and health systems, creating the first national disability scheme. The fact that it was all done by compromise and negotiation with community groups, industry and other parties should have been considered a strength, but the Australian media just shouted "liar" at her until she was gone, with Rudd back to lead Labor to the 2014 election. Labor could have been better, of course, but the only real failure of Labor during their period in office was in their capitulation to anti-immigrant hatred .
So we have an incumbent government that has performed quite well under tough circumstances. What is the alternative? Well the conservative Liberal party ditched leaders three times and came up with the most radical wingnut in Australian politics bar Pauline Hanson - Tony Abbott. An anti-woman, anti-abortion, anti-gay racist who would be more at home in the American Tea Party. How on earth Tony Abbott came to lead a mainstream political party in Australia is beyond me. Actually, even the Liberal Party was surprised, he only won the leadership by a single vote because a key opponent was in hospital at the time. Nevertheless, he got in power and has spent four years pulling Australian politics into the mud. He never accepted his defeat at the last election, calling Gillard illegitimate over and over, refusing to concede that even a 50.1% victory is a victory.
In this election, Abbott has not proposed any viable alternative policies. We have promises to stop accepting refugees, to stop the expansion of broad-band internet and to drop environmental protection laws, but not one detailed policy. Abbott constantly shouts about fiscal responsibility - but it is one day before the election and he has not had a single policy independently costed. It is a complete joke, he is the worst opposition leader in Australian history - vile ideas and no plans longer than four words.
And yet. Tomorrow Australian vote, and it looks like Abbott will win. Sadly, there is only one target to blame - the Australian public. Sad but true, tomorrow around half the country will vote for this horrid man. Of those, half will probably vote for him because they share his hatred of refugees. The other half will probably vote for him because of selfish taxation reasons (people who are angry at the Labor government for reducing welfare to people earning $250,000 a year and above).
This is Australia today. A country with a majority who are racist or selfish. A country where you can win the highest political office by pandering to the instincts of people who instinctively hoard all they own even when life is good, people who spit on the faces of those in needs. Obviously this doesn't describe every Australian, but Australia is a democracy and democracies get the politicians they deserve.
I took Hayden to vote yesterday at the Brussels embassy. I hope that one day he has a country worth returning to, so I voted Greens first. But most importantly, I voted Liberal last. Please do the same tomorrow.