Ten years ago, almost to the day, I broke up with my Year 12 boyfriend after an argument about Australia’s asylum seeker policy.
Like any other weeknight, we were wasting time on the phone (time that would have been better spent studying, in hindsight) talking about how much we loved each other. (Gross, I know.) After about forty-five minutes, though, we’d grown tired of that, and out of nowhere, I decided to strike up a conversation about the Tampa crisis.
Even then, I knew I was a leftist. I’d done a victory dance in the lounge room when Paul Keating won the 1993 election. I was the only person in my Year 10 social studies class to argue in favour of the concept of industrial action. And during this particular time in 2001, I was seventeen and almost socialist, revelling in the height of my shameless idealism.
As a result, I wasn’t exactly prepared for what my boyfriend said when I began waxing poetic on the unjust plight of the refugee. “Well, I don’t think they should be allowed to come here,” he said suddenly. I was speechless, so he took advantage of my silence to add, “They’re jumping the queue, and they don’t do anything good when they get here anyway.”
Shocked, I ended the conversation quickly. I felt sick. I kept thinking, ‘My boyfriend’s a racist.’ It was repellant. I didn’t want to share my heart or my body with him.
The next morning, buttoned into my private school uniform (complete with straw hat), I asked my father a question that I’m certain isn’t covered in any of the parenting books. “Dad…” I said hesitantly, “…is it normal to break up with someone… over politics?”
I’d ended the relationship by the end of the week. Before long, I was sauntering into adulthood, utterly convinced that I was right, the racists were wrong, and that sooner or later, Australia would come to its senses.
* * *
I never dreamed that ten years and two more Prime Ministers later, I’d be staring open-mouthed at nearly the exact same spectacle, as loud, harsh voices gleefully rake over the decade-old muck.
Around midday today, I sat at my desk, quickly eating some lunch and catching up on some reading. Over at The Punch, Tory Shepherd posted about the most recent tragedy involving Australia-bound asylum seekers. Until I read her article, I hadn’t even known this terrible event had occurred. I’d glanced at the headlines earlier in the morning, but all I’d seen were images of Kim Kardashian and ugly fascinators. The death of half a dozen people trying to reach my homeland’s shore didn’t rate a mention next to these more important news items.
A few minutes later, today’s First Dog On Moon cartoon went live. If you haven’t read it yet, I really think you should. It captures (so eloquently) the plea I’ve been trying to voice these last ten years when confronted with bigotry, racism and fear. Let them all come… let them. We’ll be right.
* * *
Ms Gillard, we need to talk.
In my early adulthood, I sat through election after election, Labor defeat after Labor defeat. Every time, I felt like a part of me had died. I drank my way through those long horrible nights, and the next morning, squinted from behind dark sunglasses at people carrying on as usual. How could everything look so normal when the country had gone so terribly wrong, again?
Occasionally, a feature article would pop up about you, anointing you as the great left hope. To the twenty-something me, you seemed like salvation – a strong, powerful woman who knew her own mind, who was capable of true leadership, who could fix things.
Your presence in the ALP helped me keep my own faith. Throughout the twists and turns of the Party leadership throughout that trying decade, I’d tell myself that one day you’d be in control, and the disempowered would be accorded their rights. Even when you came to power in the most destabilising of fashions, I held my breath and muttered that it was all for the best. You would do the right thing. You were good enough. You could do it.
Ms Gillard, what the fuck happened?
* * *
Let them. We’ll be right.
We will be. We will be right. What anyone loves about Australia won’t be obscured by new arrivals to this country (unless what they love is the White Australia Policy, in which case, tough luck, and welcome to the last thirty years). We’re such a self-concerned lot at the best of times, we probably won’t even notice – how hard can it be to just keep on keeping on?
Let’s lose the vitriol, and the lies. Don’t stop the boats – stop the myth that asylum seekers are presented with ten times the benefits of Australia’s pensioners or jobseekers. Hold these so-called journalists to account and stop the spread of untruths. It’ll be okay. We’ll be right.
Sure, some might not like it – just as some don’t like peas, or hipsters, or shopping malls, or baristas who say expresso. But they’ll live. And so will the men, women and children who seek refuge in our country.
Our current policies and attitudes are killing them. They’re dying in those horrible boats. They’re dying in those horrible camps. We’re systematically stripping asylum seekers of their dignity and security, and the death toll is growing.
* * *
I miss the rose-coloured glasses of my seventeen-year-old self. I always trusted that a government of good people would right the grave and terrible wrongs of the years past. I trusted that a better Australia – a more tolerant, welcoming Australia – would emerge. I clung to that tattered, frayed trust for over ten years.
Now, that trust has deserted me. My country would sentence frightened, desperate people to death rather than welcome them into our bounteous land, and for that, I am ashamed.