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.
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.