Strangers and fiction: Canberra's double face

As Canberra lauds a hero who breached political expediency to save thousands of refugees, it’s still unwilling to put morals and people first in its own policy.

Sometimes something happens that is relatively small beer in terms of news coverage, but it needs to be examined. It can be awkward, especially at a time like this, in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon outrage.

It can also be awkward at a time when Gillard’s education reforms are at the centre of the national political debate. The Gillard government will be out of office after the September 14 election. Indeed, Labor may be devastated in that poll, left with a rump in the federal parliament and with some of its most talented MPs having lost their seats.

It will be a long recovery for Labor, marked by recriminations and debates about what the party stands for and even whether it has a future as a social democratic party.

So what happens to these education reforms, which no-one should doubt are the culmination of Julia Gillard’s long-term commitment to Australian school education, will define Gillard’s political legacy.

If the Gillard government manages to get the states on board, the legislation, with the support of the independents, will be passed by parliament.  If passed and implemented, it will mean that the Howard government policies on education will have been overturned.

John Howard often said that he considered one of his greatest achievements the fact that his government made private school education more affordable for the so-called Howard battlers. The Gillard reforms at the very least, are not concerned with the affordability of private schools.

Whether you support these reforms or not, they won’t be implemented anytime soon after September 14. Much is at stake in this education debate.

All of this makes it awkward to write about Raoul Wallenberg, the World War 11 Swedish diplomat who was based in Budapest in 1944 when the Nazis were frantically transporting tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews to their death at Auschwitz.

Wallenberg, who disappeared into a Soviet Gulag in 1945, rescued thousands of Jews in 1944 during his Budapest posting by issuing them with Swedish papers, including in some cases, passports.

He was not acting on Swedish Government orders. Sweden was neutral during the war and the Swedish Government would not have allowed Wallenberg to save Jews, had he asked permission.

This week, Julia Gillard announced that Raoul Wallenberg will be made an honorary Australian citizen on May 6. Governor General Quentin Bryce will formally recognise Wallenberg’s citizenship at a ceremony on Wallenberg’s 100th birthday anniversary.

Tony Abbott supported Gillard’s decision to make Wallenberg an honorary citizen and supported Gillard when she said that Australia was “honored to have survivors he rescued living in Australia today.”

There is much that could be said – and has been said – about Raoul Wallenberg and others like him who were prepared to risk their lives to save Jews. It is important that it be said and repeated often.  There can be no more awe-inspiring and humbling act, an act that is so deeply affirming of a shared humanity, than the acts of those who are referred to by Jews as ‘Righteous Gentiles’.

But it is not this that concerned me when I heard that Wallenberg was to be made an honorary Australian citizen. It struck me that while we Australians should humbly welcome Wallenberg into our midst, there was nothing particularly difficult or politically sensitive for Gillard and for Abbott in supporting this decision.

In part what is so striking about Wallenberg’s humanity is that he was able, he was compelled perhaps, to risk his life to save ‘the stranger’, people with whom he had next to nothing in common, indeed people towards whom he may not have felt any great warmth.

The fact is that while there were – and are – people like Wallenberg, in the main, governments acted appallingly when it came to rescuing Jews before and during World War 11, their actions basically dictated by the political calculation that there is only a downside in rescuing ‘strangers’. 

In the lead-up to the war, Britain, the United States and Australia among other western countries, closed their borders to Jewish refugees. The Australian government’s attitude was that an influx of these strange people into Australia could cause racial disharmony.

There is some irony in the fact that Julia Gillard – with Tony Abbott endorsing her sentiments – can talk about Australia being honored to have as its citizens Jews who were rescued by Wallenberg. Australian governments, when it came to rescuing those who Gillard now honors, turned them away.

There is no evidence that either Gillard or Abbott have been affected in any consequential way by the example of Wallenberg or by the heartless, insular – if not racist – responses of Australian governments to refugees in the 1930s.

Whatever the differences between the Gillard government and the coalition on so-called ‘border protection’, they are agreed on this: the ‘strangers’ making those perilous boat journeys to Australia, many of them whole families with young children, cannot be welcomed, let alone honored.

Now of course this issue of boat arrivals is complicated and politically difficult. There are no simple solutions to these boat arrivals – especially if what you are primarily looking for is a way, in Abbott’s words, to “stop the boats”. But no doubt the question of what to do about the German Jews desperate to leave Europe in the 1930s was also ‘complicated’.  The goal of most of the government representatives who met at Evian in France in 1938 to discuss the issue of Jewish refugees was ostensibly save lives.  But while they expressed sympathy for the refugees, they agreed they had to stop them entering their countries.

This has a certain ring of familiarity.

No doubt, things were also ‘complicated’ for Raoul Wallenberg in Budapest in 1944 when he decided to issue Swedish identity papers to those thousands of Hungarian Jews.

This week the Immigration Department informed a Senate committee that the detention facility on Manus Island is sub-standard, that life there is particularly harsh, that the facilities are primitive and that as a consequence, some people will end up self-harming.

It seems Manus Island is working well then, given that the government is sending refugees to detention centres in the South Pacific in order to discourage people from getting on boats and heading for Australia.

This policy of treating people who arrive in boats seeking asylum as if they were criminals in order to deter other potential boat arrivals is morally bankrupt. Saying things are complicated is often a cover for moral failings and political cowardice.

Raoul Wallenberg will become an honorary Australian citizen in a couple of weeks’ time. Nothing about the way this government or the opposition treats asylum seeks suggests that Wallenberg’s legacy has affected Gillard or Abbott in any consequential way.

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