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Australia's obligation as a developed nation

By K.C. Boey - posted Thursday, 29 October 2009

The fiction of 18 years past has illuminated itself these past weeks: Blanche d'Alpuget's Turtle Beach - a 1991 Australian film set in Terengganu - may not have been as innocent as the more generous of spirit might be prepared to accept.

Footage of Malaysian authorities of the 1970s and 1980s turning back Vietnamese boat people at gunpoint may not have been officially sanctioned in Australia, but it would have served Canberra's purpose - then and now.

It was - and is - an easy political sell to “outsource” Australia’s problems before they reached its shores. Turtle Beach would make for popular viewing in the cinema.


Self-preservation, selfish gain, appeal to base human instinct. Border protection, border security, is ingrained in the Australian psyche.

From the "reds under the bed" parodied paranoia of Robert Menzies' 1950s, successive governments of both mainstream persuasions have pandered to the politics of fear of invasion.

One tongue-in-cheek letter to the editor takes the instinct back into history: "Australia has had an illegal immigrant problem for more than 200 years," it said. "Just ask any Aborigine."

Increasing waves of boat arrivals over this past year have brought the periodic ebb and rise of the phenomenon to shrill hysteria.

A boatload of 255 Sri Lankans originating from Johor Baru and diverted to Indonesia two weeks ago has plunged politicians in government and the opposition to the most vituperative of rhetoric in recent times.

Border security is the base argument of Malcolm Turnbull and his conservative Liberal-National coalition in opposition. Tough, but humane, counter Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and his social democrat Labor, of their policy.


"The key is to have a balanced policy," Rudd told the 7.30 Report of national public broadcaster ABC, "one which is both tough but humane".

On commercial (populist) talkback radio, the message just comes across as "tough ... tough ... and tough".

Scare-mongering is a potent political tool. "We decide who comes into this country, and the circumstances in which they come," was the repeated assertion of John Howard, predecessor to Rudd as prime minister, in the 2001 campaign that returned him to his third of four terms in government.

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First published in the New Sunday Times on October 25, 2009.

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About the Author

K.C. Boey is a former editor of Malaysian Business and The Malay Mail. He now writes for The Malaysian Insider out of Melbourne.

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