The Decency of Understanding

The Forgotten Children report – recently compiled by the Australian Human Rights Commission – describes the regular incidences of mental illness, self-harm, assault and arrested development suffered by children in immigration detention.

The Forgotten Children report – recently compiled by the Australian Human Rights Commission – describes the regular incidences of mental illness, self-harm, assault and arrested development suffered by children in immigration detention. There are currently 330 children in detention, on mainland Australia and in Nauru, suffering irreversible deterioration to their health and wellbeing. The report, authored by Gillian Triggs, was immediately politicised. Albert Camus once remarked that there is always progress when a political problem becomes a human problem. No doubt Camus would view the regularity with which we turn human problems into political problems as inherently regressive. As our politicians are able to reverse this regressive attitude to people who come to Australia to seek asylum, this is both a human problem and a political problem. An issue ceases to be bipartisan when there is political advantage to be taken, and the opportunity to wedge one’s opponent is taken. In Australia, one party has maintained a consistent and clearly articulated position. And they are willing to exploit their opponent’s dilemma. The correct position on asylum seekers is a question that brings great tension within the Australian Labor Party. The humanist, internationalist instinct of most social democrats is to “wipe a tear from every eye”, to borrow from Nehru. The emancipation of the oppressed should recognise no borders but transcend domestic politics and international relations. An intellectually and morally consistent application of these values to a real political context is, however, highly problematic. In an essay entitled ‘What is Living and What Is Dead in Social Democracy’, the late English historian Tony Judt asserted that it is no coincidence that the most successful, enduring models of social democracy were found in smaller, homogenous countries, where issues of mistrust and suspicion are limited. The social democracies of Scandinavia are obvious examples. Judt argued that social democracies are built on the willingness to pay for other people’s services and benefits – in areas such as health, education and retirement – on the understanding that others will do the same for you or your children. I would adjoin that the sharing of the fruits of economic growth and prosperity through redistribution is similarly based on mutual trust. It is important to trust the people with whom you are sharing. Judt explained that in countries where minorities are visible, there is typically an increased suspicion of others. If there is suspicion and mistrust, it is difficult to sustain arguments for an increased contribution to resources and services that can be accessed by all citizens in need of them. Judt was contemplating an American context, but his words could be equally applied to Australia’s culturally diverse country. Recent events will likely to further erode the trust that is essential to a harmonious, functioning society. The suspicion of certain communities will increase during the predictable but sustained political campaign to address domestic threats to national security. It is important that issues of ‘national security’ and efforts to ‘fight global terrorism’ are balanced with an equally aggressive campaign focussed on developing greater intercultural understanding. Without understanding, there is no trust and little prospect for the equal distribution of both responsibilities and rewards for a harmonious and prosperous society. It is time to refl ect on the current state of our multicultural project. Multiculturalism in Australia was originally designed to allow different groups to preserve their cultural identity, rather than to share it. As was clear in the Governor’s recent address to open the second session of the 53rd parliament, multiculturalism has encouraged greater acceptance. We now need greater understanding. The Muslim community is perhaps the most visible minority in Australia today. Most Australians accept the right of Muslim Australians to preserve their culture and customs, but do we possess the understanding necessary to overcome mistrust that often grows from ignorance? What do we really know of the Islamic mind? What do Muslim Australians know of the values of the majority? Greater understanding must flow in both directions. A commitment to intercultural exchange also infers responsibility on the minority groups to develop a greater understanding of the majority. If we are to overcome the suspicion and develop greater trust within our diverse community, it is imperative that we recalibrate our approach to achieve a deeper intercultural understanding. If we do not, the existing vacuum will be filled by suspicion and fear. Such fear will continue to construe human problems as political problems, and make it more difficult to develop mutual trust as a foundation for a strong society, and further inhibit efforts to make Australia a decent, active citizen of the world.

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