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A letter to a future Australian
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Pass it on
I'm reading
A letter to a future Australian
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
A letter to a future Australian
Pass it on
Pass it on
Articles
21 June 2017

A letter to a future Australian

“I hope you live in an Australia which recognises that kindness and consideration can be their own reward, that helping someone in need can lift your soul, that sharing your good fortune does not diminish it, but increases it.”

Written by Julian Burnside

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people. Dumbo Feather is a magazine about these people.

This post is sponsored by our friends at Kooks Wine

What does this mean?

Image: The AUSSIE poster series by artist Peter Drew features photographs that were taken between 1916 to 1930, for exemption applications to the White Australia Policy. Thousands of similar photographs can be found within the Australian National Archive.

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What does this mean?

Dear Reader,

Many years before you were born, I put this letter in a bottle and sent it across the sea of time, for you to find. And now you have found it. We have not met. We will never have the chance to meet. I know that when you get this letter you will be living in Australia, but I am not sure what kind of country your Australia is.

When I was growing up, my Australia was a place which truly believed in the idea of a fair go for everyone. A place which welcomed people from other countries because, after all, it’s a pretty big place, and we were all crouching around the coastal fringe. But the middle of the country was unbelievably huge, and almost completely empty.

Apparently it had started after the Second World War. I wasn’t born until 1949, so I have to go by what my parents told me. Back then the government reckoned we had to “populate or perish.” A lot of people came to Australia: people escaping the wreckage of war-torn Europe; people with strange, foreign names; people who settled in and just became… part of the place. Still, for quite a while they were called “wogs.” It was not meant kindly, at first.

Then we brought in a lot of people to construct the Snowy Mountains’ hydro-electric scheme and, like the foreigners who had come after the War, they settled in and became part of the place.

When I was little, Sunday lunch was roast lamb and three veg. You could only buy olive oil at the pharmacy. Then we discovered that all those people who had come were not only able to fit in, they had more to contribute than their hard work. They showed us it was possible to eat other sorts of food we had never thought of: spaghetti that didn’t come out of a tin, salads that included more than just lettuce, coffee that had froth on the top! And they showed us that garlic was OK, and even that it was possible to eat squid. (They called it calamari, which made it less frightening to most of us).

Later we went to Vietnam and fought alongside the Americans (we lost). After the end of that war, a lot of Vietnamese people were trying to escape what had happened to their country. The Prime Minister at the time, Mr Fraser, said that we had been part of the problem, so we should be part of the solution. We accepted about 100,000 Vietnamese refugees during the second half of the 1970s and pretty soon we found we were getting along with them pretty well.

Until the 1980s, people from other countries were often called “wogs” by some Australians: typically, Australians whose families had lived here for longer than the wogs had, but for less time than the Aborigines. Then a group of comedians with Greek and Italian names wrote a play called Wogs out of Work. It was really successful. A bit later, it became a TV series and we all recognised that “wog” was no longer a term of abuse: it had (finally) become a term of affection. And it was hard to say what a “real Aussie” was, but basically it was anyone who wanted to call the place home, and who was willing to give other people a fair go.

This story originally ran in issue #51 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #51 of Dumbo Feather

Then in 2001 things shifted. The 9/11 terrorist attack on America shocked everyone in a way that had not happened during the century before, even though the 20th century had been marked by terrorism: the IRA in Ireland and England, the Baader-Meinhof Red Army Faction in Germany, ETA in Spain, the Red Brigade in Italy, Timothy McVeigh in the USA, who carried out the Oklahoma bombing.

For the first time, politics in Australia shifted sharply to the right. I remember a time when Labor was a party of the left, and its policies were predictably different from the policies of the Liberals. Even though I grew up in a Liberal family, I knew pretty much what a Labor person would think about particular issues.

But after 9/11, Labor and Liberal were hard to tell apart.

After 9/11, Australia began treating outsiders differently.

After 9/11, Australia began mistreating people who had fled persecution and terror and had turned up here looking for safety. We didn’t call them “wogs,” we simply pushed them away.

After 9/11, Australian politicians started calling boat people “illegal,” even though they had not broken any law.

After 9/11, we began locking boat people up for years on end, in terrible conditions, to break their spirit.

After 9/11, Australian politicians started to think they could win political support by mistreating boat people.

After 9/11, Australian politicians started calling detention of boat people a “deterrent.” They said that anyone who tried to get here by boat would never be allowed to come into Australia.

After 9/11, Australia forgot what it was.

In 2013 there was a Federal election. The two major political parties were Labor and the Liberal–National Party Coalition: I wonder if they still exist when you read this letter. I hope not.

During the 2013 Federal election, both major parties tried to win support by promising cruel treatment of boat people. The Coalition won, and they certainly kept their promise of cruelty.

The new Immigration Minister kept calling boat people “illegal” and started calling the mistreatment of them “border protection.” I guess he wanted the public to think we were being protected from criminals.

And the public swallowed it. Not surprising really, given they had been misled for so long by dishonest politicians. I think the public were misled. I hope that explains why they went along with the politicians and their deliberately cruel treatment of innocent men, women and (yes) children.

So, what’s your Australia like? Do you mistreat innocent people? Do you try to turn away people who turn up, desperate for a safe place to live? Or have you recognised that we were misled by politicians who just wanted power? Have you recognised that the politicians knew that if they convinced us that we were under attack, and said they were protecting us, that we would support them?

I hope you see that our politicians deceived us, and persuaded us that cruelty was a good idea. I don’t think my Australia is really like that. Well, I hope not.

Our politicians set out to make one group (boat people) unpopular and then win support by mistreating that group. I hope you see that any government which is willing to behave like that will eventually turn its malice on other groups—and then we had all better wish we aren’t in one of those other groups.

I hope you live in an Australia which genuinely believes that everyone deserves a fair go; that no-one should be treated badly because of their race or religion or miserable bad luck.

I hope you live in an Australia which recognises that kindness and consideration can be their own reward, that helping someone in need can lift your soul, that sharing your good fortune does not diminish it, but increases it.

In short, I hope your Australia is as good as the one I remember, but better than the one it became. Or maybe you can make it better than it ever was.

Please try.

This letter is an extract from Letters of Love: Words from the heart penned by prominent Australians, published by Affirm Press in partnership with the Alannah & Madeline Foundation. All profits from book sales go directly to the Alannah & Madeline Foundation.

Julian Burnside

Julian Burnside is a Melbourne barrister and an outspoken opponent of the mistreatment of asylum seekers in Australia.

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