Boundless plains to share – why we need a new narrative on refugees

By Hannah Macauley-Gierhart | 19 Apr 17
Iraqi refugee children at Newroz camp

A sense of entitlement to a land that was never ours has twisted its way through generations of Australians to cement a warped national identity, which celebrates those who arrived on our shores less recently, over those who are arriving now.

Unless we are Indigenous, we are all immigrants. But it seems we are suffering a type of cultural amnesia. We’ve managed to create a strong sense of patriotism around a country that was never ours in the first place, whilst simultaneously excluding those who wish for freedom in a new land. This amnesia has progressed since invasion. Recently, Tony Abbott talked about the “peaceful invasion” of asylum seekers, conveniently forgetting his own migrant past. Clearly, this is a delusion that needs addressing.

This irony pervades every aspect of our culture – it’s even captured in our anthem. We unite in declaring that our young, free, and beautiful land is one that should be available to anyone who needs it:

For those who’ve come across the seas
We’ve boundless plains to share
With courage let us all combine
To Advance Australia Fair

We pay lip service to words of inclusion without living their reality: we sing that Australia has plenty to offer those who wish to come here but in reality we lock down our borders to exclude refugees.

Australia was built on stories. Indigenous peoples use narrative to explain the formation of the world; white settlers used ballad and legend to create their own new persona. What originated as a prison colony of Britain’s “undesirables” sent to the god-forsaken ends of the earth, morphed into stories of the rugged outdoorsman, the resilient farmer, and salt-of-the-earth men and women forging a new nation despite great hardship.

A narrative of exclusion

We’re proud of our history as “underdogs who came good”. We embrace the perception that we are warm and welcoming, happy to give anyone a “fair go”. Yet somewhere along the way this narrative became justification for exclusion.

White Australians have become so entrenched in this self-serving narrative that we believe there is no room for others. Where once we celebrated inclusion and mateship, we now have collectively turned our backs on people seeking asylum by boat. Where white Australians are good-hearted, refugees are devious. Where we are hard working, refugees have come to steal our jobs. Where we are seeking the betterment of the future for our children, refugees have come to destroy it through acts of terror. The caricatures of asylum seekers are shocking in their clichés, yet are deeply entrenched in our culture.

We’ve managed to create a strong sense of patriotism around a country that was never ours in the first place, whilst simultaneously excluding those who wish for freedom in a new land.

The political strategy of manipulating our cultural narrative to “other” asylum seekers has been employed to full effect in recent years, allowing conservative parties to work fear of terror, economic decline and impinging multiculturalism to their advantage. Though it was Paul Keating who first enforced the mandatory detention of refugees in 1992, it was John Howard’s 2001 election campaign where issues of asylum were manipulated to unify the public in fear of invasion and to preserve waning political power. Though the mistrust of refugees has been a key agenda of conservative governments, there has been unchallenged bipartisan support of the mistreatment of refugees ever since.

We need an alternative refugee narrative based on shared humanity

Public opinion appears to be slowly changing to the positive (indeed, the ABC’s 2016 Vote Compass determined that 52 per cent of those polled believed Australia should admit more refugees), but support for offshore detention and boat-turn-backs suggests we have a long way to go to shift public attitude to a posture of welcome rather than rejection.

So how do we do this? The answer is in an alternate narrative, suggests Kon Karapanagiotidis of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre. He believes that debating facts and having endless arguments is fruitless. Although it is untrue that seeking asylum is illegal, this belief is so entrenched that debating its truth can have the opposite effect. His work is thus focusing on “transcending” this stalemate and creating a new dialogue based on values and recognition of the shared humanity of refugees.

When constructing this alternate narrative, we shouldn’t describe a society where refugees are welcome because of the outstanding contributions they can make to society. Though global campaigns have made well-meaning attempts to identify our local neurosurgeon, firefighter, or human rights lawyer’s refugee beginnings, this can result in a counterproductive idea that refugees should be welcomed because they are extraordinary.

If we return to the narrative that Australians are “underdogs-who-overcome”, we can see that normality is what’s celebrated in this country: mateship, shared challenges and humanity. That is precisely what should qualify the inclusion of people seeking asylum: the fact that, like us, they are human. It shouldn’t be a question of what they can do for us. Usefulness does not determine human rights.

We need to end our subscription to a poorly written narrative. There is no substance to this story of the dangerous “other” – the text lacks integrity and there are massive holes in the amnesia-tinged plot. Australian life can be restored to one that celebrates diversity, where its people offer its boundless plains to those in need. That’s a much better narrative indeed.