The problem with demanding a Dutton apology

When Peter Dutton described refugees as illiterate and innumerate, Bill Shorten denounced his words as ‘deeply divisive and offensive’.

Other commentators took a similar tone.

‘Peter Dutton’s comments are deeply insulting to refugees,’ wrote Lenore Taylor in the Guardian. ‘But they are also an insult to the intelligence of Australian voters.’

Karl Stefanvoic described the experiences of his grandparents, detained for a year in an immigration camp in Wollongong.

‘[W]hat Peter Dutton said yesterday was un-Australian,’ he concluded. ‘Given his time again he may have chosen a different way to articulate it, but what’s done is done and I think he needs to apologise.’

It’s certainly cheering to see pro-refugee sentiment expressed on the Today show. Nonetheless, there was still something quite odd about the anti-Dutton pushback.

The highest court in PNG recently ruled that the Manus Island detention centre is illegal – and has always been unlawful. The refugees there are engaged in daily protests against their treatment. The camp in Nauru has been beset by an epidemic of self-harm, of which the self-immolation of Omid Masoumali and Hodan Yasin is merely the most dramatic instance. As a friend of Omid put it, ‘We are in hell. Nauru is like a burning hell – all of us are suffering here.’

Meanwhile, the UN has ruled that Australia’s indefinite detention of refugees on the basis of adverse secret security assessments is arbitrary and illegal, a judgment that the government will almost certainly ignore.

Bill Shorten stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the government on offshore detention. Yet he’s very concerned that refugees might find Dutton’s language offensive.

In some ways, it’s a typical Labor response: accept conservative policy but quibble over matters of process and implementation. Richard Marles, the ALP’s hapless immigration spokesperson, runs a similar line. Yes, he says, we’ll keep asylum seekers in remote camps – but we’ll do so more efficiently.

Yet the emphasis on the offensiveness of Dutton’s words and the demands for an apology also reflect a broader general drift in political priorities.

With the decline of both trade unionism and the social movements of the 1970s, activism has increasingly shifted from an emphasis on material change (winning wage increases, abolishing particular laws, etc.) to a focus on language and symbolism. In the online space, in particular, progressive politics often consists of highlighting and denouncing offensive utterances of one kind or another, with no real strategic orientation other than the elicitation of a mea culpa from the individual perpetrator.

The refugee issue illustrates all the problems with that call-out culture.

Yes, Dutton’s comments were insulting. But more inclusive language won’t change the brutal reality of the detention regime. Refugees don’t need an apology from the immigration minister and they don’t need verbal acknowledgements of their capabilities.

They need release from the camps in which they’re languishing.

A few days ago, Buzzfeed’s Mark Di Stefano also shared a family story, a similar tale of poorly educated postwar migrants making good in a new country. He then compiled the many responses the post engendered: what he called ‘eerily familiar stories’ about ‘about “illiterate” arrivals who went on to have successful lives in Australia’.

They were, he said, ‘empowering to read’.

You can see what he means. Quite clearly, many ordinary people don’t hate refugees. Amnesty International just released a new survey showing that 71 per cent of Australians believed that more should be done to help refugees fleeing war or persecution and that 84 per cent believed in the right to seek asylum. Irrespective of exactly how accurate those figures are, the instant social media reaction to the immigration minister’s remarks undercuts any simple narrative about a universal Australian xenophobia.

Yet the willingness of individuals to empathise with refugees online will only become empowering in a political sense (rather than in a Gwyneth Paltrow sense) when it takes on a collective form and begins to formulate specific demands.

This is, of course, the problem. People want to show opposition to the horrors of the Australian gulag system. There’s no doubt about that: it seems entirely obvious that a campaign that provided a meaningful way to fight immigration policy would be inundated with support.

That’s the challenge for the left: to come up with that strategy.

If you liked this article, please subscribe or donate.

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

More by Jeff Sparrow ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays

Contribute to the conversation

  1. Well said. There are so many “left wing commentators” who endlessly go on about the rebarbative echo chamber that is social media so often is e.g. that journo from the smh, whilst making good points, she refers way too often to social media.
    The turn to identity politics is a big culprit here…

  2. The Left is courting Islam, and its purest modern version, Islamism. To see evidence of this one need look no further than this journal.
    Yesterday (May 26) I posted the following comment on the above article. Today, I find it has been taken down.
    I quote my filed copy in full:
    “From O. Puhleez on 26 May 2016 at 11.30 pm
    Sparrow’s whole article is a lead up to the statement: ‘That’s the challenge for the left: to come up with that strategy.’
    “I disagree.
    “The real challenge (for everyone) is devising a strategy to cope with the fact that the Islamic world is a refugee-generator second to none. The last UNHCR estimate I saw was around 55 million DPs and refugees. And given that whosoever in whatever Islamistan desires refugee status only has to find the nearest mosque or imam and be heard to say ‘down with Islam!’, it’s pretty easy.”
    This ‘Overland’ policy is both brainless and short-sighted, and can at best be only a one-night stand ending at best with mere mutual recriminations.
    Islam has a 1300 year head start on the western Left in perfecting the art of running totalitarian regimes.
    I think the editor of this journal at least owes the readership an explanation of this censorship: and a set of guidelines to enable ignorant commenters like myself to find a way of commenting in line with Overland’s Stalinist outlook.

    1. It’s true: Overland is not a forum for your Islamophobic comments. There are plenty of other places you can go and vent such thoughts on the internet, or you can even start your own blog.

      We do have an ongoing comments policy: no racism, sexism, homophobia or Islamophobia, so if you continue to leave these comments, they will be deleted.

      Jacinda Woodhead
      Editor, Overland

  3. Have a cry, O.P – I’ve had comments rejected – so what – there’s always got to be a line drawn somewhere – whether with comments or immigration.

    I didn’t read this piece as advocating open slather – it’s more Australia’s immigration policy in general that’s being questioned in respect of refugees and humanitarianism. The line comes later.

    At least that’s my take.

  4. a&b:
    You have a ‘take’ on the article. OK. And also a rationale for the censorship: “there’s always got to be a line drawn somewhere.”
    Any censorious bastard can come up with that. But is it true?
    In any truly free discussion, there is no boundary save perhaps word limits, imposed in turn by the limits of the technology involved.
    Beyond that, there is only blunt and bloody-minded information control. And that is well established as a bad, bad habit to get into: particularly for the Left.

  5. I take your argument, but the contradiction remains.

    You want a hard fast line drawn in respect of Islam and Australian immigration, but no line drawn in respect of your noise and the OL comment bank.

    I doubt I can add any more to this public tête-à-tête called online commenting.

    1. I contradict myself to add that no line equals anarchy.

      I stayed inner city with an anarchist couple once who locked and bolted their doors and windows day and night?!

  6. ‘Islamophobia’ is a term concocted with the intention to confuse and conflate the terms ‘Muslims’ and ‘Islam’. That is, someone philosophically opposed to Islam (as I am) is ipso facto hostile to Muslims (which I definitely am not.)
    Overland appears to have fallen right into this trap.
    If we cannot criticise Islam, then we cannot criticise ANY religion. And they all need it.

    1. The fact that you seem so riled by a moderate and uncontroversial comments policy, and by a fairly moderate post is speaking volumes about you that might not prefer others to know.
      You also appear to be equating the governing of a lit journal’s comments thread with criminal, mass-murdering ideology.
      It’s not a great look to be honest and kind of sounding a bit Trumpian and worrying.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *