Blind to the suffering
June 26, 2011 Sun Herald
NOT too many years ago as you emerged from the English Channel on the Eurostar at the French town of Calais you would see them - hordes of men, and a few women, milling close to the giant security fences beside the railway tracks.
They were would-be asylum seekers - people who had come to live in squalid camps all around Calais from all over the globe, and who were willing to risk anything for a chance to get across the channel, somehow, to Britain.
A few days ago, while en route to the European Western Front of the First World War, I looked out the window as the train screeched out of the darkness. But I couldn't see any of the desperate people who had previously been such a familiar sight.
Had they stopped coming?
No. They are still living, in increasing numbers and desperate circumstances, in Calais and the surrounding countryside. But increasingly intense security (even more so after discussions this month between French and British ministers) means that none get anywhere near the tunnel these days.
Well that's the theory, anyway.
Last year 6535 asylum seekers arrived in Australia by boat compared with just 1553 this year. More than 34,000 unauthorised entrants sought asylum in Britain last year. Last year French and British authorities thwarted 10,000 illegal attempts to cross the Channel. So far this year 3500 such attempts have been thwarted.
Many more are arriving, having escaped brutal regimes in Libya, Tunisia and Syria. Now that is a genuine, large-scale asylum seeker problem.
Australia has a refugee issue. But the only crisis that exists is the inability of Australian politics to deal with it honestly, maturely and compassionately. But hey, it's not all the politicians' fault. Maybe they're just giving us what we deserve. Others are, thankfully, less willing to let public and media sentiment shape political response.
The member for Chisholm, Anna Burke, said recently: ''I've received thousands of emails about cows and sheep and their terrible treatment … I haven't received thousands of emails concerned about people getting into leaking boats and drowning. So I just find it a funny debate where people don't get things into I suppose the perspective I have on them.'' Well said.
Like so many who watched ABC's Four Corners program that exposed the terrible treatment of our livestock in Indonesian slaughterhouses, I felt sick and angry.
The program sparked a viscerally emotive reaction of the type rarely seen in Australia. Our politicians had to react meaningfully. It's worth pondering here precisely what would have happened had the Gillard government not done so, albeit somewhat tardily. My bet is we'd have seen protests in the street.
The government acted because it correctly read the mood and sidestepped the public emotion that it knew would quickly transmogrify into political destruction.
Good governments do that. Not that the Gillard government deserves, by any measure, to be termed good. But its response on this occasion was, initially at least, appropriate.
By the same token, good governments should steadfastly refuse to be moved by public sentiment when the principle behind that mood is ill-founded or morally abhorrent.
Which brings me back to Burke and her comments that, I believe, held a mirror up to a not altogether palatable truth about Australians.
For many years there has been a compassionless and caustic edge to the most vocal proponents of the toughest punitive measures for asylum seekers. I'm no longer sure if they are just a vocal minority. I can't tell you the number of conversations I've had with politicians and opinion-makers who have said that the penny dropped for them when the Four Corners show went to air.
Why? Because it coincided with the latest episode in our unedifying tough on law and order-style political auction on asylum seekers.
''I really started to wonder if we actually care more about animals than we do about asylum seekers. I realised when I saw that show that we as a country have really lost our way,'' a senior Liberal told me.
Many Australians were deeply upset by the tragedy at Christmas Island last year. Some blamed the government. Some rightly blamed the people smugglers. But a number of politicians will confide that they also detected, with great unease, a hard of heart sentiment among some that the asylum seekers themselves were to blame. Serves them right, right?
Desperate, uninvited human beings? Abused animals? For whom do we care more?
Ugly question, that.