There are strong echoes from 1983 in the present political situation, and not just of Bob Hawke’s displacement of Bill Hayden as Labor leader on the brink of the 1983 election. There are deeper and darker currents flowing from that coup to Australia’s present state of delusional hysteria, especially regarding refugees.
Australian society was very different in 1983. Australia was a relatively fair, tolerant and egalitarian place, even though not without blind spots. We were said, disparagingly by some, to be very easy going. We were much richer in material things, and in the time to enjoy life, than we had been at the end of World War II, and for most the memory of steady improvement was recent and clear.
When Bob Hawke and Paul Keating took over Labor, and then the government, in 1983, they also took over the free-market fundamentalist agenda of the right wing of the Liberal Party.
Despite all the hoopla about freeing the economy, it has never equalled the performance of the sixties and early seventies, and ultimately market fundamentalism gave us the Global Financial Crisis. Australia escape the worst of the GFC only because the Rudd Government departed from market fundamentalism and actively intervened in the economy.
Since 1983 inequality has increased substantially, and many social problems have remained static or got worse. A fundamental change to most people’s lives was that employment quickly became less secure. As a direct result people worked longer hours under greater stress.
When people feel insecure they become less trusting, more suspicious, more inclined to blame others when things do not work out. This is a fair description of what has happened to Australian society over the past four decades.
The insecurity of a more “competitive” workplace was exacerbated by other influences. Shock jocks appeared on our radios, promoting fear and loathing. The media were soon well populated with the products of right-wing think tanks spouting their baleful messages: there is no such thing as society, life is a rat race, and you’d better learn to look after number one.
Historian Geoffrey Blainey expressed “concern” that we might be over-stressing our social fabric by importing so many Asians. Pauline Hanson blamed her insecurity on the flow of non-British immigrants, particularly those who arrived irregularly as refugees.
Thus as people became more insecure, they blamed scapegoats, refugees prominently among them. Right-wing demagogues then presented themselves as strong leaders who would save us from the invading hordes. John Howard, the most adept demagogue, took over Pauline Hansen’s policies. In 2001 he set about “stopping the boats” and Labor, with the memory of its reason for existence apparently fading, meekly acquiesced.
So began the second phase of Australian politics’ march to the right. Howard stepped to the right and deftly wedged Labor. Labor, all too predictably, followed. The media pulled and pushed to the right, their usual focus on sensation and extremes raising the level of hysteria.
Lost in the hysteria is the fact that we played a direct part in creating some of the life-threatening conditions from which many refugees flee. As well, much of the instability in other countries has been exacerbated by the free-market fundamentalist mania we have helped to promote. It facilitates large corporations exploiting poor people and poor societies, extracting cheap oil from vassal states and cheap clothing from death-trap factories. Anti-western resentment has some rational basis.
The numbers of asylum seekers is no more than the numbers of Vietnamese in the 1970s, and we absorbed them relatively comfortably. Asylum seekers are legal, unthreatening, mostly genuine and commonly very enterprising. They comprise a small fraction of our total immigration intake, and this immigration is widely held to be a good thing. The fluctuations in numbers is much more about the push from their own countries than the alleged strength or weakness of our efforts to deter them.
This simple portrait of reality evidently is invisible to most of the population. In its stead is a vision of a diabolical tide of foreigners, many of them terrorists, or Islamists intent on imposing Sharia law, poised to flood into our country if we leave the slightest chink in our border protection regime.
We are possessed by a delusion that is also a vicious lie. The Labor Party was founded to defend the vulnerable. It has now joined the bullies, attacking some of the world’s most vulnerable people, including of course women and children.
At any time a leader with some integrity and courage could stand up and dispel the illusion. Unless and until that happens we will continue to perpetrate acts of abuse. In another generation our children will be apologising for those acts, just as lately we have been apologising for abuses committed by our forebears.