By Richard Clarke
Tucked away in the lesser-known second verse of our national anthem is the following stanza:
For those who’ve come across the sea
We’ve boundless plains to share
With courage let us all combine
To advance Australia fair.
In the lead-up to the federal election, politicians from both sides would do well to reflect upon the significance of these words of welcome that purport to inform our national identity and ideal. An appropriate day upon which to focus this reflection would be 21 March, the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.
Racial minorities, and foreigners in general, seem destined to feel the uncomfortable attention of politicians in pre-election mode as they jockey for the right-of-middle ground. It is standard fare for politicians to appeal to latent xenophobia at such times, but must it always be so? Shouldn’t we reasonably expect, and demand, better of our leaders?
The issue of the supposed abuse of 457 visas, whereby jobs that allegedly would have gone to Australians are being given to foreigners (on a disturbing scale), came out of nowhere and has the distinct odor of an attempt by the Prime Minister to curry favour with a sector of the electorate that is easily spooked when the words “foreigners” and “Australian jobs” are placed in close proximity. Putting emotive words together, creating an issue and then getting tough to solve that issue has worked for governments of all stripes in the past and is a particularly seductive option for a government staring electoral defeat in the face. It is especially dismaying, however, when this strategy involves the implicit demonizing of foreigners.
An even more disturbing example of an appeal to baser instincts was Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison’s suggestion that all asylum seekers released into the community should be placed on a registry and subject to “behavioral protocols” in the wake of an alleged indecent assault by an asylum seeker at Macquarie university. No one, it seems, can actually say what “behavioral protocols” means exactly, but it sounds tough and the sort of thing suspect groups should be subject to. When one compares the crime rate for asylum seekers with that of the general population, such vilification of a particularly vulnerable (and law-abiding) sector of the population is revealed for the contemptible nonsense that it is.
As well as a salient reminder to all of us of the moral imperative not to discriminate because of race, 21 March is a day to highlight the legal obligation upon governments that have signed the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination to combat racial discrimination and certainly not to stoke it. Australia was an original signatory of the Convention and is bound by its terms. Opportunistic scare mongering that casts asylum-seekers or other foreigners as villains to be clamped down upon does not fulfill our international obligations and does us no credit in the eyes of the international community.
What politicians don’t seem to realize is that communities can be united without recourse to a common enemy, real or imagined. Present us with a better, bolder, more attractive representation of ourselves and we will unite behind you. Even more potent than fear of others is the natural desire to feel good about ourselves. If politicians would inspire us with their vision for society rather than seek to scare us, racial discrimination would have less traction.
But what sort of a society are we and what sort do we want to be? The national anthem can assist us in this reflection, as it captures many of the traits with which we collectively define ourselves, correctly or otherwise. The words rightly exhort us to rejoice in the fact that we are young, free and endowed with nature’s bounty. That’s all well and good, but why should we rejoice in the girding of our home by sea? A benign reading could conclude that it is a reference to the great beaches and sandcastle culture that informs our identity. Another reading could interpret this as giving thanks for a barrier between us and the rest of the world; a natural fortification against the foreign.
The second, less referenced, verse talks of the boundless plains that we have to share with those who arrive from across the sea. While it recognizes that it will take courage for us all to combine, the verse seems to reassure us that we are up to the task. While politicians would seek to create a fearful electorate and capitalize upon a sentiment perhaps reflected in a darker interpretation of the first verse, on 21 March, let us all rejoice in the surfing and sandcastles that await those who cross the sea after first encountering the warm welcome unequivocally referred to in the second verse.
Richard Clarke is a human rights lawyer and former Human Rights Officer with the Anti-Discrimination Section of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.