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.