In 2011, in the days leading up to January 26, with Australian flags fluttering off cars and used as capes, accompanied by cartons of beer, sporting excellence as the pinnacle of Australian achievement and politicians lecturing the country on what it means to be a “proud Australian”, I left Perth.
Along with 30 other refugee activists, I travelled out to Leonora detention centre, two days drive into the Western Australian desert. Many things happened during those days, from seeing children behind barbed wire to smuggling out letters. The convergence has been well documented in films and articles.
One little known event that is more pertinent that even seven years later is how we were welcomed by Aboriginal elder Richard Evans, whose property backed onto the detention centre.
Evans has a long history of campaigning against uranium mining, which was proposed in the area. Sitting under the shadow of the Leonora detention centre fences, he said: “These people shouldn’t be in detention like this, not like this.”
Catching the bus back to Perth, as the fireworks took over the city sky, I was sharply reminded that the only people who can lay any moral claim over who should be allowed into this country are its first peoples.
I grew up during the John Howard years — when the rhetoric of Australian national identity and stopping the boats went hand in hand.
Every year in the mainstream media, at school and at barbecues by the beach I heard how great this country was and how lucky we were to have “our way of life”; that “our” country is not, in the words of US president Donald Trump, a “shithole country”.
Instead, I would hear that it is a country that needs to be protected from people coming from “shithole countries” — while skipping over the fact that several of the “shithole” parts of those countries, such as the lack of hospitals, an effective sanitation system and clean water, are a result of US and Australian bombs.
At the same time they would be singing: “For those who’ve come across the seas / We’ve boundless plains to share”.
Over the past two decades as millions of people have become displaced worldwide from war and climate change, this rhetoric of protecting Australia’s “way of life” has accelerated.
Behind the Kmart flags and renditions of Advance Australia Fair are a raft of laws, powers and military expenditure designed to make Australia one of the most iron-gated countries in the world. A country where a few people will be allowed in from “shithole” countries as second-class citizens to work shit jobs for shit conditions and who can be expelled at any time.
The chief architect of this agenda in recent years is immigration minister Peter Dutton, who has put himself in a position where he can “play God” according to Liberty Victoria’s Rights Advocacy Project. Dutton has the power to determine visa applications, order boat turnbacks, revoke permanent residency and move people between detention centres in the dead of night — all without any judicial oversight or ability to appeal.
He has threatened people who have lived, worked and studied in Australia with deportation if they do not get legally complex documents submitted within months. He has also attacked migrant communities by saying they are not literate enough to find work and threatening to take away their unemployment benefits, while in the next breath saying they will take away “Australian” jobs.
Dutton has also proposed changes to the citizenship law. These included forcing people to pass a university-level English test after living in the country for at least four years on a permanent residency visa to become a citizen — while living under threat of deportation and with fewer rights than citizens. This bill was defeated, but will probably rear its head again in the future in another form.
Dutton has combined the police, border protection and intelligence agency into one super department. Immigration and asylum seekers have become a question of border protection in the most militaristic way possible.
The Australian identity formed around protecting the “lucky country” from asylum seeker boats is part of the machine that is further entrenching a society of “haves” and “have nots”, where migrants, under threat of deportation, will be submissive at work and fear joining union struggles against attacks on workers.
The mass marches on Invasion Day are a step towards combating this dangerous national identity profiled on January 26.
We have already seen collaboration between refugee and Aboriginal activists. After the Don Dale human rights abuses were exposed, the men in Manus Island detention centre held up Aboriginal flags in solidarity. Behrouz Boochani, an Iranian journalist in detention in Manus Island told me: “The government is treating refugees the same as Aboriginal people and has put both in a systematic discrimination.”