There were just as many tedious phrases repeated during the recent EU Referendum campaign as feature in a George Osborne budget statement; we may not have heard ‘long-term economic recovery’, but we did get endless repetitive references to ‘the Australian points system’. This was sold as the Brexit solution to immigration, of course; and with immigration being a key issue in the campaign, Australia’s apparently magic formula was evoked with wearisome regularity, though without much in-depth examination of what it actually entails.
Australia being held up as a model for enlightened means of dealing with what is a global crisis might seem odd to anyone familiar with the country’s history. Like America, Australia was built on European immigration to the detriment of the indigenous population; but white Australians who can trace their family trees as far back as two-hundred years usually find they’re descended not from persecuted religious minorities or enterprising merchants and traders, but beggars and thieves. Australia’s role as the nascent British Empire’s most prominent penal colony is something that is always worth remembering when it comes to the way in which the nation has developed its sense of identity.
With Britain’s imperial possessions beginning their lives as trading posts for the world’s pre-eminent maritime power rather than lands conquered by armies, most early British colonials struck deals with natives and entered into mutually beneficent business arrangements. A good example is India when, under the control of the East India Company as opposed to Viceroys trained on the playing fields of Eton, early British settlers embraced the native culture and took Indian wives. Australia was slightly different in that there was nothing resembling recognisable civilisation to European eyes, with a vast landmass viewed as virgin territory once the inconvenient Aborigines were persuaded to relocate. After great numbers of the indigenous peoples were wiped out by the arrival of the diseases colonists brought with them, requisitioning their lands was the approach adopted by the freed convicts once they’d decided to remain in the home they’d been forcibly transported to; and it was then passed onto their descendents for several generations. But it never really left the Australian psyche.
There was a gradual adaptation of European dress, language and religion by Aborigines as white settlers began to establish a distinctly British colonial culture in the country, but natives were made very aware of their second-class status within Australian society. The Eugenics movement classified Aborigines as an inferior form of human, something that appeared to justify their employment as cheap labour as well as the institutionalised practice of the authorities taking Aboriginal children from their families and ironing out their cultural heritage in the process, something that continued well into the 1960s. Aborigines couldn’t even vote until the late 1940s, when the franchise was extended to those who’d served in the armed forces during the Second World War. While migration from Britain to Australia was aggressively promoted in the immediate post-war era (the so-called ‘ten pound poms’), it was evident that the faces the Australian Government wanted to populate the country were white.
Successive legislation from 1967 onwards has sought to give Aborigines the same legal and social rights as white Australians, but an unofficial policy of apartheid in all-but name persisted in permeating Australian society for decades, including the way that descendents of colonists regarded their indigenous neighbours. It might not receive much coverage in the Aussie soaps that have infiltrated British television from the 1980s onwards, but I know from English friends who have spent considerable time down under that there is a strain of blatant racism governing the attitudes of the average Australian that wouldn’t be tolerated here. Therefore, it shouldn’t really come as a great surprise to learn precisely what the lauded Australian points system for dealing with immigration involves.
A ‘Channel 4 News’ report last night lifted the lid on how anybody washed up on Australian shores is quickly dispatched to one of two small, isolated islands several thousand miles from the Australian mainland. Once there, what are essentially concentration camps detain the illegal arrivals indefinitely, despite the fact that they have committed no crimes on Australian soil and are being held in ways that contradict international law. Conditions in these camps make the notorious ‘Jungle’ across the Channel appear more like Butlin’s, so bad that some detainees have sewn up their lips on hunger strike, while others (including children) have tried to hang themselves or have simply set themselves on fire as a protest. When the lucky few are released, Australia dumps them in Papa New Guinea or Cambodia – basically anywhere but a country with plenty of room to spare such as Australia. And this is the system proudly held up by prominent Brexiteers as the one we should emulate?
Nobody would deny that the unprecedented migrations from war-torn Middle Eastern and African countries over the past four or five years have presented Europe in particular with perhaps its greatest post-war problem, outstripping any economic crises; but the UN, the EU or whoever have to devise humane means of resolving the problem, and that doesn’t – or shouldn’t – mean looking to Australia’s frankly appalling methods as a blueprint.
© The Editor