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Tall ships need taller humanity on boat people

By Joseph Wakim - posted Wednesday, 9 October 2013

The spectacle of the white sails in the sun in Sydney Harbour was majestic. But the only indigenous Australians I saw were busking with their didgeridoo in Circular Quay.

It begged the question: what does this spectacle mean for the original Australians?

Was it an apocalyptic reminder of the First Fleet which offloaded white convicts then declared this their colony? Does the spectacle trigger an inherited phobia of white sails?


As boat after boat arrived on their shores, perhaps their elders saw the disruption, diseases and destruction to their ancient civilisation. Perhaps they dreamt that they could stop these boats and turn them back. Perhaps they contemplated their equivalent to Operation Sovereign Borders. Indeed, a cartoonist could have a field day depicting two tribal elders watching the white sails as one nudges the other declaring: time to activate operation sovereign borders as they dispatch their fleet of canoes.

Perhaps their descendants today shake their heads at our inability to see the irony of the latest wave of boat people phobia: the descendants of the white boat people who trespassed the original sovereign borders are now threatening to tow back any trespassing boats.

But there is another irony with the boat people phobia. Prior to the First Fleet, other boats had trespassed sovereign borders yet they were more welcome. The Makassan boats carried fishermen who sought trepan (sea cucumber) in trade exchanges. Like the current boat people, most came in fishing boats from the Indonesian Archipelago. And many introduced Islam to Australia. There is no evidence that the indigenous people were ever phobic of the spectacle of these Makassan boats.

It is this underlying phobia that is tainting the Coalition government's Operation Sovereign Borders.

In his first briefing, the rationale declared by Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Scott Morrison was that that this "military-led border security operation" was his government's "response to stopping the flow of illegal boat arrivals to Australia". He evoked the relevant numbers that this cost Australia under the previous government: 50,000 people arrived illegally by boat on 800 vessels costing Australian taxpayers more than $9 billion and "sadly led to more than 1100 deaths at sea".

It is the last conservative statistic that receives the least attention in the Minister's ensuing "tougher approach". The policy reeks of aerosol like an insect repellent. The rhetoric reduces the asylum seekers to tax-payer irritants that need a "broad chain of measures …to deter, to disrupt, to prevent".


The problem is they are people, not insects.

Now imagine the same policy with greater emphasis on the last fatal statistic rather than on tax dollars. Imagine Minister Morrison declared a more humane rationale:

"Australians are proud of their warm hearted nature. We are proud of our hospitable rather than hostile nature. We remember that many of our ancestors took long sea voyages to settle into this great nation without regard to the sovereignty of the original people.

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About the Author

Joseph Wakim founded the Australian Arabic Council and is a former multicultural affairs commissioner.

Other articles by this Author

All articles by Joseph Wakim

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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