Someone gave me some good advice when I was a single woman: when you’re out on a date with a man, take note of how he treats the waitress. Because one day that’s how he’ll treat you. I couldn’t help but think of this advice, strangely enough, when I tried to digest the disturbing news that Abbott’s government has almost certainly handed Sri Lankan Tamil asylum seekers back to the government they were fleeing from. Because it occurred to me that Australian voters really should heed this same advice when it comes to the way Abbott treats the most desperate and vulnerable amongst us.
No doubt many Australians would read this and think smugly to themselves, ‘no, I’m Australian. My government would never treat me like they treat an asylum seeker. They’re not from here and I am, so that gives me certain privileges that the asylum seekers don’t have rights to’. But this is clearly naïve.
You think Australians have rights. Sure we do. But asylum seekers have rights too. They’re called human rights and Abbott completely disregards them. Australia has signed up to the UNHCR Refugee Convention, but from the behaviour of the Abbott government over the last 9 months, I wonder why the UNHCR still accepts Australia as a signatory to this international agreement. Yes, we think of ourselves as a first world country. But what first world country would violate human rights and demean the weak and defensive amongst us in order to win political points? How callous does the government have to be before Australian citizens start to show a rational level of concern about the people in charge of this country?
Still not convinced that Australian voters should be worried? Still think vulnerable Australians automatically rank higher in the government’s concern than desperate people fleeing from persecution and violence? What if, just like a first date, a political party is on their best behaviour for a short time? It may last the election campaign. But just like in a new relationship, once the honeymoon period is over and you get to know the real government, their true character can’t be ignored.
The cracks started appearing in Abbott’s best behaviour on the first day of his new government. And there was nothing but red flags in the delivery of his budget. Look, for example, at the way Abbott is treating young Australians. If his welfare policy is accepted by the new Senate, people under 30 who don’t have a job will be denied even the most basic level of Newstart assistance. And it’s not like Abbott’s government haven’t considered the ramifications of this policy change. They know that young people who aren’t getting any Newstart allowance for six out of every 12 months will find themselves broke and homeless. They know that thousands of Australians are going to need emergency relief of the most basic kind – they’ve already increased the emergency relief budget for this very reason. And what about the disabled? Abbott wants people with periodic mental illness to be denied a disability pension because their disability isn’t ‘permanent’. Yet they must know it will be impossible for these people to get a job. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see that these Australians will soon be as desperate to survive as Tamil asylum seekers who’ve chosen to risk their life on a leaky boat rather than risk staying where they are.
The handing of Tamil asylum seekers back to the government they were fleeing from should be a lesson for all Australians about a government that wants to put people back in their place. A government that wants to tell us all to go back where we came from. A government who knows that the unemployed young adults from poor families will have the least chance of surviving for six months without Newstart, whilst the rich will be cushioned by their inborn safety net of privilege. But that’s the point of the Abbott government isn’t it? To put us all back in our place. To kick the ladder of social mobility out from under us. To punish the poor and to rub their nose in their misfortune.
I hope Australians are starting to learn this lesson about the Abbott government. I hope they look at the way this government treats asylum seekers and they understand that these poor desperate souls are the canary-in-the-mine-test-of-character that provides all the insight they need into the true values of the Abbott government. And I hope that when they think of the asylum seekers being turned away from Australia, they don’t feel satisfied that Abbott is succeeding in turning back the boats. That they don’t think he’s doing something good for the country and good for them. Even if Australians can’t, on the whole, feel empathy for asylum seekers, I hope they can at least have the emotional intelligence to be worried about themselves. Especially those who know what it is like to be poor and who want to make, or have made, a better life for themselves and their children. I hope they look at the Abbott government and wonder what their futures would be like if they were forced to go back to where they came from. Abbott is trying to exclude whole sections of the community, to define them as less than citizens and to send them back to the misery they came from – just like the asylum seekers. Through his ideological budget, and every decision he has made since becoming Prime Minister of Australia, Abbott is already proving that he will decide who belongs to our community and the manner in which they belong. My question is, are people worried about how he treats the waitress?