Film Review: “Border Politics” a Rymer Childs Documentary


Border Politics” a Rymer Childs Documentary, now showing nationally. 94 mins.


Refugee advocate Julian Burnside QC is the presenter of this Australian film, whose tagline is “I wonder where our democracy is going” and takes us on a tour of Europe, US, and the Middle East. From the RymerChilds documentary company, “Border Politics” is uncomfortable, but not harrowing. Its frontman can take some credit: Burnside is engaging and unaffected, not hectoring or emotional. He is also blunt: “politicians know that if they can make the public fearful of something, then tell the public they can protect them from that fear, they will gain votes.”

Our international good name as receivers of Vietnamese and Kosavar refugees is now tarnished; nasty xenophobes and race-baiters comprise our cheer squad. The recent diversion by Italy of the MS Aquarius with its 629 drowning survivors to Spain is a new threshold for Europe, but we did it first back in 2001, with the MV Tampa. Howard later quietly brought many of them to Australia from Nauru, which ought to be a precedent for addressing the offshore issue now. Recent official figures from Parliamentary Estimates are that the US has taken 292 of its agreed 1250 refugees, so after subtracting the balance, the residual number for resettlement from the island detention centres is about 600 people, and New Zealand’s repeated offer to take 150 per year is still on the table. The same Estimates hearing confirmed that all boats have been stopped. So far, official extremism excludes consideration bringing them here despite such a small political risk and minor concession.

For some of the European leaders Burnside meets, the memory of the Holocaust, Europe in ruins and the Berlin wall explain the empathy towards refugees, and he reports on local initiatives in Scotland, Germany, and Greece where good people make them welcome. Yet the movement of rejection is strong and growing – “the problem of politics” as one leader expresses it. International law proponents are dogged and critical, as in Australia, but much of the population pays no attention. Incidentally, the spruikers for “Western civilisation” should note that Europe, Australia and the US have been more inclined to accept brutalism by government and society towards refugees than Jordan (740,000 refugees in a population of 9.5 million) and Lebanon (1.2 million refugees, population 6 million).

Well-known advocate David Marr is interviewed and seems to be despairing, saying he doesn’t know how we can emerge from this. Burnside’s response to the original “where are we going?” question is more accountability: democracy requires transparency but our leaders have lied to us, so we should ask them what they’re going to do, and if they don’t give an adequate answer then kick them out. The logic of him saying that politicians have let us down is that we have to increase our grassroots presence, since large numbers of Australian leaders in academia, medicine, and public life have called for change, and been ignored.

So what can be done to neutralise or accommodate the primal fears of those who have become refugee blockers?

Obviously this requires understanding and engagement, and history may help in this regard. The recent biography of Alfred Deakin by historian Judith Brett {“The Enigmatic Mr Deakin”) discusses why White Australia was universally accepted 100 years ago. Many today would write off the population as racist, but she reminds us that “we need to exercise our historical imagination” to understand why they saw it as “an expression of high ideals”: because “boundaries keep outsiders out, but they also enable those inside to co-operate to achieve common goals.” In the Australian context, at play was “a mix of nationalism, Social Darwinism, strategic fears, racial loathing, industrial protection and social-liberal aspirations for an active citizenry…Nationalism was a modernising project, building identities and moral communities which transcended local and parochial identifications.”
With post-1945 immigration, the immigration historian Gwenda Tavan (see her chapter in “The Honest History Book”) tells us that Menzies and Calwell promised that the economic benefits would not change the nation’s identity, or White Australia. The outcome of reduced isolationism, racism and xenophobia was the product of a myth, the policy only generally accepted due to leadership and bipartisanship. That was then not now, so what are the fears of today’s “conservative rump” which moves them to fear refugees or immigrants and should be addressed? These would include the failures of globalisation (increased inequality within our society), precarious employment and a diminished Newstart allowance, terrorism fears, anti-multiculturalism “culture wars”, the loss of a benevolent, interventionist state and, after Europe, the management of refugee arrivals.

Amongst migrant Australians, there is some evidence of a “pull up the drawbridge” view as family reunion places are reduced and offset by refugee visas.


We get nowhere if the migrant/refugee nexus is a taboo discussion. The nation-building and citizenship basis for immigration policy has become more instrumental, globalised and neo-liberal in its economic objectives. There are policy choices and we are allowed to ask Cui bono? Our focus should be helping refugees fleeing desperate situations, not becoming immigration boosters as if it is in lockstep with more refugees. Because we have had a successful immigration history, it does not follow that a high level is still a progressive goal, and our social and environmental objectives also need consideration. The Permanent Migration intake has doubled from the beginning of the Howard government in 1996, and elite perspectives have come to equate higher immigration with higher GDP and a trickle-down effect. Little concern for increased housing and labour competition at the lower end is demonstrated by the egregious use of 457 visas, and pervasive wage theft from holidaymakers and students.

The world refugee crisis needs Australia as a major re-settlement country to ramp up its Humanitarian quota.


The opportunities for manual worker refugees in labour-intensive sectors, and their successful placement in many rural areas, suggest a reduction in temporary migration in favour of refugees.This century, when the boats have stopped, the political temperature cools, the salience of the issue subsides, and higher aspirations emerge. Perhaps as a sign of the latter, a recent Newspoll suggests Turnbull tone-deafness to the cruelty issue may be damaging him, while Shorten’s balancing act of “me tooism” on policy and criticism of indefinite detention is attracting voter support. Shorten is very unlikely to call off the boat turnbacks, in government it will be the time to get support for taking more people directly from refugee camps overseas, without significant political blowback.

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