Two or Three Things Australians Don’t Seem to Want to Know About ‘Asylum Seekers’ …

by Ian Buchanan

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[N]o, the masses were not innocent dupes; at a certain point, under a certain set of conditions, they wanted fascism, and it is this perversion of the desire of the masses that needs to be accounted for.
– Gilles Deleuze & Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus

The road to war began with an incident at sea, as it has so many times in the past – the sinking of the Lusitania, Pearl Harbour, the Gulf of Tonkin, and so on. History will have to record that Australia’s involvement in the ‘War on Terror’ and the ‘War against Iraq’ began on August 26, 2001 when the MV Tampa rescued 433 asylum seekers from the sinking ferryboat, Palapa 1. It will then have to explain how this essentially humanitarian act could trigger so bellicose a response. To do this, it will not be enough to condemn the cynical actions of John Howard and his inner circle of advisers; for what is really at stake is the shockingly high levels of support those actions were given. Guy Rundle is undoubtedly correct to speak of the response to the Tampa affair as exposing “some very dark corners of the Australian psyche” – the trouble is, it isn’t the backroom machinations that are the most disturbing elements of this whole sorry episode, but what occurred in the open.1

The hysteria – for it is nothing, if not that – that has arisen around the issue of the ‘asylum seekers’2 on the conservative side of politics in Australia (but elsewhere as well) points to both a profound amnesia and a profound false consciousness: firstly, it forgets that the bulk of Australians are in fact immigrants or the descendants of recent immigrants, many of whom were themselves ‘displaced persons’ as they were known in the immediate aftermath of World War II, or ‘boat-people’ as they were known following the Vietnam War and the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia; and, secondly, it ignores the fact that there is no intrinsic reason to suppose we are immune to the historical forces and processes that have left the ‘asylum seekers’ without a place in the world to call their own.3 We like to think we are exempt from history’s stone-hearted logic, but if, as Agamben suggests, sovereignty is defined by the right and power to make an exception of anybody it chooses, then there is no reason at all to suppose it couldn’t choose us.4Our comfort and security in our home is utterly illusory. In other words, we have more to fear than helpless and destitute peoples knocking on our door in search of succour.

Agamben says if there is one thing that’s worse than Auschwitz, it is the way the German people acquiesced to the systematic dismantling of their system of rights and laws such that Auschwitz was not merely possible, but fully legal. Daniel Goldhagen’s highly controversial book Hitler’s Willing Executioners confirms this thesis, giving rise to the ghastly idea that Nazism was born not out of fervour, but dull complacency. He meticulously disproves the ‘police state’ thesis that for more than five decades has had us believe that ordinary Germans failed to stop the excesses of the Nazi regime out of fear for their own lives. He shows, to the contrary of received wisdom, that one could speak against the regime and one could choose not to kill Jews. This freedom was extended to soldiers as well: the German military code of conduct permitted disobedience in extreme situations. For this reason, the ‘following orders’ defence was disallowed at the Nuremberg trials.5 The point is that ordinary Germans – whether civilian or military – did not have to rebel or take a stand against the authorities in order to choose not to participate in the genocide. Without any heroism, they could simply have said – á laBartleby – ‘I prefer not to’; what Goldhagen seeks to explain is why the majority did not take this option.6

It may seem extreme to compare Australia’s attitude to asylum seekers to the attitude of the perpetrators of the holocaust, but in a very real sense intellectuals in Australia are faced with a similar problem: why, in response to the plight of the ‘asylum seekers’, are Australians not choosing clemency and hospitality? Here, as in Goldhagen’s work, it is the day-to-day actions of ordinary people that is at issue, not the culpability of policy makers.7 For it is their silence, their inattention to the real stakes of what is going on, their thoughtless complicity with the status quo that opportunistic politicians of every stripe feed off. Australians seem not to want to notice that we are dismantling our rights and laws so as to make exceptions of ‘asylum seekers’ in order to legally intern them in places so awful we have to keep them offshore, not merely to keep them out of sight, but also to exempt them from the laws of the land.8 The Border Protection Bill in its first and thankfully rejected form was to have contained a clause protecting public servants dealing with asylum seekers from prosecution for any crimes they committed against asylum seekers, up to and including murder.9 That it was defeated is not the issue we should focus on, but rather the alarming thought it was considered feasible to propose it in the first place. It is this point that I think intellectuals should emphasise because even if it is too late to change (white) Australian attitudes towards ‘the other’, as abhorrent as they are, there might still be time to arouse their self-interest by sounding a wake-up call that we are in real danger of, as it were, ‘accidentally’ creating a police state. Perhaps this, given Australia’s supposed love of freedom, might give people reason to pause and consider where xenophobic policy-making is leading us. For it now seems certain that appeals to compassion alone will not.

Are we really creating a police state? Or is this just so much hyperbole? Prime Minister John Howard’s so-called ‘Pacific Solution’ is exemplary in this regard. This is the execrable, hastily executed plan to ‘process’ asylum seekers on either Nauru or Papua New Guinea (PNG) – rather than on Australian soil – that the Howard government came up with in response to the fateful attempt by 433 mostly Afghan ‘boat-people’ to land in Australia in late August 2001.10 Unfortunately for these people, not only was their boat so unseaworthy they required rescuing by Norwegian merchant vessel Tampa, its timing was terrible too: it went down in the open sea betwixt and between Indonesia and Australia in the lead-up to an Australian Federal election. Although the port of Merak in Indonesia was the nearest landfall, the desperate souls rescued by the Tampa (in accordance with international sea law) had no desire to go to there and insisted they be taken to Australia instead. Concerned about the safety of his ship, the freighter’s captain Arnne Rinnan turned the ship about and headed for the Australian held territory of Christmas Island. But with a Federal election looming, the Howard government decided to plumb the depths of the xenophobic vote by making an exception of this particular batch of asylum seekers. Howard knew that to win the election he had to regain a substantial portion of the one million or so votes captured by Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party in the previous election.11 Politically it felt like the move of a desperate man, which given that at State level Labor had a lock on Australian politics it probably was; but, as it turned out, it was absolutely the correct card to play because a fortnight later – in a spectacular display of the efficacy of what Zizek calls the ‘answer of the real’12 – terrorists supposedly based in Afghanistan were blamed for the for the attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Centre. All of a sudden, a Federal election that had been poised on the knife-edge of an ailing economy became a ‘khaki’ election. Sabre-rattling rhetoric took the place of policy debate and the government made sure that there was always something on the front page to ignite the passions of the redneck in all of us.13

Hence the ‘Pacific Solution’.14 Determined not to allow the beleaguered asylum seekers rescued by the Tampa any access to the Australian legal system – and having already taken the extraordinary step of mobilising the SAS to board the Tampa to prevent it from releasing its ‘human cargo’ (to use Conrad’s apt phrase) onto Australian territory – Howard suddenly hit upon the idea of diverting them to Nauru, a barren virtually bankrupt island devastated by years of phosphate mining.15 Not only that, according to the CIA, the banks of Nauru are a favourite haven of terrorists, including the Al Qaeda network. A fortunate 132 escaped detention there as they were accepted by New Zealand, and a further 50 were sent to Ireland, but the remainder were stranded indefinitely. Nauru agreed to take the asylum seekers because Australia not only offered to meet the entire cost of transporting, housing, maintaining and processing them, but also to pick up the tab on a number of the island state’s more pressing bad debts, such as the $US1.5 million it owed Pacific Petroleum. In total, Australia provided Nauru with an additional $20 million dollars worth of aid. PNG, meanwhile, recouped an aid ‘re-prioritisation’ package worth $34 million.16 Two points need to be made about this: the first is that in doing so, Australia disregarded its own policy on aid-giving, which in IMF fashion usually extorts fiscal discipline in exchange for financial assistance; but even more problematically, it used this money to induce both PNG and Nauru to ignore their own constitutions and detain people who had not and could not have broken any of their own laws.17

The real nub of the matter, though, and this is the point that I particularly want to emphasise, is that the ‘Pacific Solution’ came about precisely to avoid having to abide Australia’s own laws. If there is anything worse than dismantling one’s own legal system so as to lawfully act inhumanely towards others, it is absolving oneself of the need to even heed one’s own legal system so as to lawfully act inhumanely towards others. And that is, at bottom, what the ‘pacific solution’ amounts to. The implication here that we can hardly fail to draw is that on-shore detention centres like the now defunct Woomera were deemed inadequate to the specific exception-making needs of the government, even though they, too, strictly speaking, were already outside the law. In contrast to our prisons, the detention centres for nonlawful entrants into Australia are outside the law because the Immigration Act places them under administrative control not adjudicative authority.18 The difference is that whereas the latter is subject to review by the courts, the former is not. Indeed, there is specific legislation in place to prevent the courts from reviewing, much less overturning decisions made by the department.19 Only the High Court retains any jurisdiction. So although the rights of asylum seekers on Australian soil are minimal at best, in opting for the ‘Pacific Solution’ the government showed itself to be reluctant to continue to concede even that much. My point, though, is that since the ‘Pacific Solution’ was enacted in the lead-up to a Federal election one must assume it was mandated, which begs the question: why are Australians so hostile to asylum seekers that they re-elect a government for promising to brutalise them?

What is noteworthy, then, about the present situation is just how modest a crisis of legitimation the ‘Pacific Solution’ actually poses. The sad truth is the moment to oppose it, the moment to literally try to de-legitimise it passed with the 2001 election. In what may well turn out to have been the Australian Labor Party’s last opportunity to win not only a national election, but legitimacy itself in the eyes of its traditional support base, Kim Beazley fatally chose not to oppose the Howard government’s position on either the so-called ‘Tampa affair’ or the ‘children overboard affair’ (or a ‘certain maritime incident’ as the select senate inquiry later described it) and consequently offered no real alternative to an electorate that at State level had clearly shown it was ready for a change. As a result, Labor succeeded in doing what everyone thought impossible: it seized defeat from the jaws of victory and lost an election no-one gave the Liberals a hope of winning. At first glance, it might seem that the problem was simply a strategic error on Beazley’s part. He propelled Labor into the deadly middle-ground in an era, or rather a moment, when political vision and leadership was desperately wanted; or, to put it even more starkly, at a time when following September 11 the middle-ground had ceased to exist – evidence of its disappearance is to be seen in the way in the U.S. and elsewhere the debate around the ‘war on terror’ is thoroughly polarised: one is either a hawk or a dove, there’s no place left for owls or crows or whatever bird it is that represents the middle. But the problem runs deeper than that. The sudden and radical excavation of the middle-ground exposed Labor’s centrist policies for what they really are, a cynical betrayal of its supposedly Leftist values.20

It would have been far better for Beazley to have condemned Howard’s actions as openly and roundly as they clearly deserved, even if knew it would cost him the election (this was clearly another one of those issues worth losing an election for, as Beazely supposedly said about his unpopular stance on the ‘Stolen Generations’ in the lead-up to the 1998 Federal election );21 at least then, the Labor party might have preserved enough dignity to function as a genuine opposition party and so keep alive the notion of a genuinely democratic system of government.22 But even that may not have been enough to keep alive a viable opposition as we learned when it was finally made public that the Navy did not report that the asylum seekers had thrown their children overboard, but rather observed them escaping a sinking ship. Public outcry at this revelation was muted at best; certainly there were no resounding calls for an inquiry, much less any demands that Howard be impeached as would surely have been appropriate had it been shown he was in some way involved in the cover-up. On the contrary, the general feeling was that it might have happened the way it was originally narrated because it would just be like those people to do such a thing. In other words, the logic was patently that of (as Zizek puts it) ‘I know very well it isn’t true, but all the same…’: ‘I know very well the asylum seekers didn’t really throw their children overboard, but all the same that’s still no reason to let them into the country’; or, ‘I know very well the asylum seekers are unlikely to be terrorists, but all the same that’s still no reason to let them into the country’. Must one conclude, with Zizek, that democracy is in fact dead and that the only living politics these days is the Populist Right?23

Howard’s response to the ‘Tampa Affair’, both in his rhetoric and in his policy choices, was populist in the way it played on a powerful combination of two ideologically potent fantasies, that of ‘the common enemy’, and that of ‘the state of emergency’. In spite of the fact that it was patently not the case that Australia was in immediate danger of either invasion by a hostile band of terrorists or inundation by vast numbers of asylum seekers, Howard nevertheless managed to act as though both of those eventualities were imminent. Without so much as a murmur of disapproval from the opposition, Howard was able to put in place a range of repressive policies designed to make the life of would be, but also existing, asylum seekers greatly more uncomfortable than it already was. Opinion polls backed him every step of the way. The unity the polls appeared to articulate took the paradoxically divisive form of one group of Australians pulling together so as to decide who can and who cannot consider themselves covered by the term Australian.24 Now, either Beazley knew he couldn’t fight this fantasy, or he was as seduced by it as everybody else; either way his fate was sealed when he chose not to denounce it. Of course, his hands were tied, to a certain extent, by the fact that the policy of mandatory detention for unlawful entrants into Australia was introduced by Labor.

But we must ask, just what type of unity it is? Is it the dawning of some new form of collectivity long dreamt of by utopians everywhere? Or, is it something else, something more sinister? The fateful outcome of the 2001 election suggest that as the spectre of the Jew did for Nazi ideology, so the figure of the asylum seeker enabled the ruling party to conceal the gaping cracks and fissures of real social antagonism beneath the glossy patina of what Benedict Anderson calls the ‘imaginary community’. The asylum seekers appeared at just the right time to allow us, by power of their very exceptionality, to perceive the social totality of Australia as an organic whole.25 I tempted to say, therefore, that the treatment of the asylum seekers was deeply and passionately desired for precisely this reason: they created the opportunity for a sense of unity and belonging that was perceived missing. For the real social antagonism did not go away: wages were still low, job prospects poor, and so on, and large sections of the community felt dejected. Thus what this moment made possible was the re-interpellation of a disenchanted and disenfranchised populace: to put it in Lacan’s terms, it gave them their own ‘ex-timate’ figure with which to conjure their own re-incorporation into the organic whole of Australia.

But as I have already suggested at the outset, Agamben has shown that this opposition between those who are included and those who are excluded by a society is false. His thesis is rather that we are all excluded, all reduced to ‘bare life’ by the democratic system. The point is not that they – the asylum seekers – are human like us, which is the position taken by humanitarians, but rather that we are as disenfranchised as they, only we can’t see it.26 In this sense, we are all like the father in Freud’s dream who does not know he is dead – democracy continues only because no-one has noticed its death.27 The question we have to ask is how far are we prepared to go to prevent the news of this particular death reaching anyone’s attention? The crux of Agamben’s recent work, a series of books written under the general rubric of “Homo Sacer”, which is also the title of the first volume, is the delineation of a “‘vertical’ distinction” – as Zizek puts it – “between the two (superimposed) ways of how the same people can be treated”, which is to be contrasted to the more customary ‘horizontal’ distinction between the included and the excluded.28 This distinction has its origins in a curious and in its own way emblematic lexicological lacuna detected by Agamben. “The Greeks had no single term to express what we mean by the word ‘life’. They used two terms that, although traceable to a common etymological root, are semantically and morphologically distinct: zoe, which expressed the simple fact of living common to all living beings (animals, men, or gods), and bios, which indicated the form or way of living proper to an individual or a group.”29 For the Greeks, it was unthinkable to even discuss zoe, or ‘bare life’, in relation to bios, so far apart were they in the political imaginary; indeed, zoe was precisely what had to be excluded so as to produce bios. The political is, in other words, the product of an exclusion; bare life is excluded for the sake of bios.

This structure of exception is, according to Agamben, the defining feature of contemporary politics, or what he prefers to call ‘biopolitics’, and he suggests it is this, the binary between bios and zoe, that is a more useful matrix for thinking through the complex relations of today’s many political conundrums than the standard friend versus enemy model. In day to day politics, the determining relation between ourselves as ordinary citizens and the government as the seat of sovereignty cannot adequately be thought in these terms. The fact is, the government is neither of a friend nor enemy to us, nor are we in any meaningful way either a friend or enemy to the government. Our more pressing concerns have to do with the issue of franchise, are we a part of the citizenry or not, are we amongst those whom the government is supposed to protect and serve, or are we outsiders in some way? We are confronted with questions of this type on an almost daily basis – when tax thresholds are raised or lowered, or when means-tests are adjusted, we are arbitrarily shunted into this or that strata which arbitrarily determines whether our kids can go to university or not, whether we can afford a single room in a hospital, and so on. It doesn’t matter whether you are a metropolitan middle-class white male or an indigenous woman on a remote outback station, these being the clichéd extremes of social inclusion and social exclusion (to use third way rhetoric), the arbitrariness of these policies confronts us all with an abysmal truth: insofar as sovereignty is defined by a structure of exception, none of us can feel fully secure. Certainly it is true that this feeling of insecurity is unevenly distributed, but that shouldn’t distract us from the abstract point being made here, namely that none of us can ever feel completely secure. So, when we look at the faces of the asylum seekers we cannot help but wonder why them and not us? The more we look at them, the more we want reassurance that it will always be them and not us.

Political scientists cite the irrational fear of inundation as the driving force behind Australia’s xenophobia.30 This, it seems to me, is a rather too simplistic reading of the situation. What it leaves out is the question of the relation between existing Australian citizens and the government of the day. The fact that a government is a populist one and is confidently acting out what it perceives to be the will of the people doesn’t disclose the whole story because it doesn’t explain why by and large the populace seems to will that particular action. More to the point, it falsely represents government policy as an instrument of the people’s will, which could scarcely be further from the truth. It would be nearer to the truth to say that policy is the means of buying the will of the people. Xenophobia, in this regard, should be treated as a symptom, not an explanation – it describes a structure of feeling, but doesn’t explain how it came into being, nor why it came to be so strongly felt. If xenophobia has any explanatory power at all, then it is as a ‘libidinal apparatus’: it soaks up inchoate fears and frustrations and gives them a name and a purpose, but it doesn’t create them.31 It substitutes a clearly defined and well structured feeling, for an unclear and confusing one; or, to put it another way, one might say it swaps fear for anxiety. We are programmed to be anxious about a great many things – are we too fat or too thin, are our clothes hip or not, will property values rise in our area, will our superannuation fund maintain its rate of growth?32 But having said that, the anxiety supposedly generated by the asylum seekers can scarcely be actual, at least not in the strategic sense of posing a ‘clear and present danger’. In effect, we have to be seduced into fearing them: politics preys on our anxieties and banks on the fact that we’d sooner be fearful than anxious.

What possible threat can a few hundred bedraggled refugees pose to the average Australian citizen? They are hardly going to form a posse and march on Canberra (however much we might want them to), so what is it we imagine they are going to do that is so threatening to national security we have to keep them detained? The standard, knee-jerk response is that there might be terrorists mixed in amongst the genuine asylum seekers, no matter how tactically illogical the idea is. If terrorists wanted to get into the country unnoticed they would simply fly in posing as rich tourists, or students; once here they might do something unobtrusive like flying lessons, or perhaps a short course in inorganic chemistry. What they wouldn’t do is chance an extremely hazardous voyage on a leaky boat across the Indian Ocean, which not only risks sinking, but also faces interception either by pirates or the coast guard (Indonesian or Australian), and therefore offers what one would think to a military mind is an unacceptably low possibility of success.33 This myth of the ‘sleeper’ terrorist got an unexpected boost when these poor souls grew tired of the terrible living conditions they are forced to endure and decided to do something about it by protesting in the only way they knew might force the government to act, namely by setting fire to the detention centres. The government’s response, predictably enough, was to label the protesters as ‘organised’ and ‘militant’, or, in other words, a terrorist cell in the making, even though, as it was later revealed they were probably not responsible in any case. In yet another shameless exploitation of the ‘answer of the real’, it turned a protest against its actions into a justification for those very actions.34

If fear is, at bottom, what effectively legitimates the government’s inhospitable treatment of the refugees, then it is a fear that is more imagined than real; but that doesn’t mean there aren’t underlying anxieties that are genuine. The real concern is not that the asylum seekers might be terrorists in disguise, but on the contrary, that they won’t be. For if they are not terrorists then on what earthly grounds can the government’s continued lack of hospitality actually be justified, let alone legitimated? If they really are exiles from their homelands with nowhere else to go, then how heartless and brutal are we to turn them away? And bear in mind, the asylum seekers aboard the Tampa were fleeing the Taliban, a regime so bad in the eyes of the Australian government we sent troops to Afghanistan and Iraq to do our bit for the ‘War on Terror’. So it would be much better for the government, politically, if the asylum seekers were terrorists; one can safely assume then that whatever can be done to distract attention away from the just humanitarian position will doubtless be done in order to keep people properly focused on the threat of terror scenario. It must also be said there is good reason to suppose that the majority of the Australian population want the asylum seekers to be terrorists in disguise too; that way, they can continue to turn their backs on their cries for help with a clear conscience.

There is a strong perception that every new batch of asylum seekers is that little trickle you get to warn you the dam wall is about to burst. What we have been taught to fear above all is inundation, hundreds of thousands of immigrants flooding in, crowding out the cities, soaking up all the welfare and stealing all the jobs. In reality this fear is not all that well-founded. Historically, most migrants to Australia received some kind of an incentive, usually an almost fully subsidised passage – in other words, most migrants have had to be paid to come here.35 In the first years of the colony, the majority of the migrants were condemned to come here! Yet, since Federation, the immigrant as job-theft cry has been a very potent call to arms for politicians looking to shift the blame for a stagnant economy onto a likely scapegoat.36 This is despite the fact that all the economic evidence we have to hand suggests that migrants increase the wealth of the nation and lead to the creation of more jobs.37 Inasmuch as this attitude is typified by hostility toward the needy, it is of a piece with the anti-welfare rhetoric which similarly blames the unemployed, mentally ill and so forth for placing an insupportable drain on the economy. Helping the poor is said to be counter-productive because it impoverishes the rich, which in turn deprives society of its entrepreneurs, who in this scenario are its principal employers.38 Some even say that cutting back on welfare is good for its erstwhile recipients because it will foster self-reliance and help them kick their shameful dependency habit.39

The reality is of course somewhat different. These days, very few employers are actual entrepreneurs, that is, investors risking their own capital; they tend rather to be managers working for shareholders and for their most part their interests appear to be best served by reducing the number of employed. The direct consequence of this, as Tom Frank has pointed out, is chronic rent-seeking behaviour at the senior executive level, the ultimate example of which is of course Enron. Wall Street stockbrokers reputedly regard December 2, 2001, the day Enron filed for bankruptcy as a blacker day than September 11, 2001. And though the pundits of the financial pages like to speak of ‘Enronitis’ and the need to increase the powers of the corporate watchdogs to prevent it from happening again – which, of course, it did when WorldCom melted down a few months later – there are no plans in the pipeline to change the structure that induced this behaviour in the first place.40

The attitude towards asylum seekers is undoubtedly influenced by the state of global markets and the generalised perception that things aren’t quite as good as they were. The Australian government has certainly always keyed the intake of migrants to the relative health of the economy; in good times, the numbers have crept up, but in stagnant times the numbers are rapidly scaled back. This scaling back has both an absolute and a relative dimension to it: the total numbers are reduced by excluding or minimising migrants in selected categories. Because there are always more applicants for entry into Australia than there are available visas, the process of selection itself has come to be thought of as a waiting line. Accordingly, anyone not going through proper channels, especially (but not restricted to) those who make use of the services of ‘people smugglers’, is labelled a ‘queue jumper’. Mandatory detention for all unlawful entrants into the country, which began under the Hawke Labor government in 1989, was justified in precisely these terms – the government said it would not permit anyone to evade its regulations and instituted a zero tolerance policy for those who did. That this legislative ‘intolerance’ is directed precisely at people risking life and limb to escape intolerance is not even deserving of the label ‘irony’. By appealing to the supposedly Australian ethos of the ‘fair go’, what is essentially a control issue is stealthily transformed into a moral issue and effectively depoliticised. The image of the ‘queue jumper’ not only serves to cloak an inhuman policy with an aura of respectability, it also helps to restore the ailing myth that Australia is ‘the lucky country’ by fostering the idea (which times being what they were many people had come to doubt) that Australia is really worth living in.41

I guess on a superficial level it may even strike some people as perfectly obvious that letting more people – read either job-thieves or welfare-sponges – into the country when the economy is in such a parlous state is a bad idea, a soft-hearted gesture which in these hard times we can no longer afford (not everyone reads economic history); but while that might explain a certain nervousness about accepting more people into the country, it doesn’t explain the enthusiasm expressed for the harsh way the asylum seekers are treated. There is a big gap between worrying about whether one can afford to be hospitable and outright hostility and it is precisely that gap that is in urgent need of interrogation. My general claim has been that ‘xenophobia’ is not adequate to the task, we need new concepts. In spite of the fact that asylum seekers are extremely unlikely to be ‘sleeper’ terrorists, the notion that illegal entry into Australia by whatever means is a pipeline for terrorists has widespread currency; although we are unlikely to be inundated by immigrants if we give shelter to a hapless few, the fear of invasion persists; the simple fact that migrants do not burden the economy but boost it seems incapable of being understood. The mortgage these three ‘myths’ appear to have on common sense requires more explanation than the standard response that Australians have an inborn fear of the other. It is not enough to expose the irrationality of these myths – as I have done above, and as others have done before me – to dispel them, since in a sense that is their normal condition: they do not have to be logical to be meaningful to the people who believe them. The question is thus not why do people fear the other as such, but why do they want to?

Ian Buchanan is a Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Comparative Literature & Cultural Studies, Monash University. He is the author of Deleuze: A Metacommentary (2000) andMichel de Certeau: Cultural Theorist (2000).


1 Rundle 2001: 6.
2 On my usage ‘asylum seeker’ refers to entrants into Australia who apply for residency once here on grounds of asylum.
3 “Of the 6 million people who have migrated to Australia since the end of World War II, almost 600 000 have settled here under humanitarian programs” (Mares 2002: 1).
4 Agamben 1998.
5 Agamben 1999: 97.
6 For a useful summary of the book’s arguments see Goldhagen 2002.
7 In this respect, Julian Burnside QC, in his “Foreword” to Heather Tyler’s Asylum, lets too many people of the hook when he draws up his shortlist of people responsible for the mistreatment of the asylum seekers and doesn’t include in it the majority of Australian voters.
8 The US have used their military base at Guantanomo Bay in Cuba for similar purposes.
9 MacCallum 2002: 55.
10 Although hastily executed, the speed with which it was executed gives us reason to suspect that it had existed as a plan in someone’s mind or desk drawer long before August 2001.
11 Jupp 2002: 199. It is worth mentioning, too, that Howard’s gambit of retroactively excising Christmas Island from Australia’s ‘immigration zone’ was in fact first suggested by Pauline Hanson. Not only that, the stance taken against the asylum seekers was precisely the one articulated by Hanson: if I have the right to decide who enters my home, then so do I have the right to determine who enters my country. My thanks to Nina Puren for reminding me of this point. See also MacCallum 2002: 65.
12 Zizek 1991: 28.
13 As Mungo MacCallum put it, if “the Tampa had not existed, John Howard would probably have invented it; and to a large extent that is what happened anyway” (2002: 47).
14 Mungo MacCallum suggests the phrase ‘Pacific Solution’ sounds disarmingly pleasant, conjuring images of “scantily clad natives” and the politics of the “Pacific Way” (2002: 52). Yet, to my mind, it recalls nothing so much as the “Final Solution” – certainly its intent is little different, which history tells us was (in the first instance) to have been the exiling of all Jews to the remote island of Madagascar.
15 Does it need to be said that the worst camps like Auschwitz and Birkenau were in Poland, not Germany?
16 Mares 2002: 127-30.
17 “Article 5 of Nauru’s constitution states that no person ‘shall be deprived of his personal liberty’ unless convicted or charged with an offence, or unless reasonably suspected of ‘having committed, or being about to commit an offence’” (Mares 2002: 131). The PNG constitution makes similar guarantees
18 It is worth noting, too, that the detention centres are privately run, profit-driven entities managed by a wholly-owned subsidiary of U.S. security giant Wackenhut Corrections Corporation, Australasian Correctional Management (ACM). ACM reported 250% growth in revenues and 350% growth in profits between 1998 and 2000, suggesting that Australia’s mandatory detention policy is, if nothing else, good for business. Mares 2002: 77.
19 McMaster 2002: 83.
20 Doubtless the strong showing of the Greens in this election owes a great deal to voter disaffection with both sides – Liberal voters unable to support Howard’s stance, but similarly unable to bring themselves to vote Labor voted Green, as did Labor voters disappointed with Beazley, but loyal enough to Labor not to want to vote Liberal. In this sense, the rise of the Greens should be treated as a symptom of the demise of democracy because it owes more to the loss of choice than the exercising of freedom: if neither Liberal nor Labor are regarded as viable options, then voting Green has the character of what Zizek calls a ‘forced choice’ (1989: 165).
21MacCallum 2002: 55.
22 The sad fact is Labor acted according to its own polling on the issue which gave the clear message: support for the asylum seekers would be political suicide. In this regard, they were trapped in the proverbial ‘lose-lose’ situation. But, as Peter Mares (2002: 262) reminds us, it is a trap of their own-making: mandatory detention was after all a Labor policy initiative.
23 See Zizek 2002: 151.
24 As the founder of the Australian Arabic Council Joseph Wakim has pointed out in an ‘Op Ed’ piece in The Age (1/1/03), the ASIO act stipulates that it is mandated to protect Australia and its people, without exception. Yet, paradoxically, it is this agency that is doing the most to promote and indeed enact the present ‘exceptionalism’ Arab peoples in Australia are being forced to endure. Against this perfectly reasonable view, Agamben’s point is that this situation should not be misconstrued as paradoxical, for in reality it is business as usual – the exception is the rule. In other words, what should concern us is how natural such paradoxes as the one Wakim points to in fact feel to the majority of citizens.
See Zizek 2002: 32.
25 See Zizek 2002: 32.
26 Thus, as well-intentioned as it is, the position adopted by Heather Tyler, namely that the asylum seekers are people just like us (the motto of her passionate and disturbing book, Asylum: Voices Behind the Razor Wire), should be resisted in favour of the starker position outlined by Agamben.
27 Zizek 1991: 44.
28 Zizek 2002: 32.
29 Agamben 1998: 1
30 Cf McMaster 2002 ; Mares 2002 ; Jupp 2002
31 Jameson 1978: 10.
32 For a detailed analysis of the hold anxiety has over everyday life, see Ehrenreich 1989.
33 ASIO was quick to make this point (Mares 2002: 134).
34 Mares 2002: 50.
35 Jupp 2002: 16.
36 It is more than a little disheartening to note that the founders of the Australian Labor Party rallied support to their cause with precisely this argument at the time of Federation (Jupp 2002: 8).
37 McMaster 2002: 148.
38 I would wager that if BHP Billiton’s outgoing CEO, Brian Gilbertson, didn’t get his golden handshake of $30 million (that is $5 million per month of service as the chief executive) and it was instead distributed to the needy citizens of Australia, the world wouldn’t end nor would Mr Gilbertson find himself on a welfare queue.
39 As Stephanie Coontz points out, the fabulous post-war economic boom that made America the superpower it is today was largely state-sponsored. It was cheap housing loans, free college education for G.I.s, the massive spending of the so-called military-industrial complex, the federal highways project, and so on that made middle America prosperous, not self-reliance, rugged-individuality, community spirit nor good old-fashioned values. Coontz 2000: 80. Adherents of Robert Putnam’s disarmingly simple ‘bowling alone’ thesis would do well to recall this before blaming a lack of ‘social capital’ for the ills of the world. Cf Putnam 2000.
40 Interestingly, though, in order to restore investor confidence, Bush proposes to boost the SEC’s budget by 73% (against its 2002 budget) for 2004 – a real dollar amount of $US842 million. Thus an administration whose platform is built on the idea of reducing government and government spending finds it has to increase both in order to keep business in check. Likewise, a business culture that claims it needs to have a free hand if it is to prosper finds it needs regulation to continue to do business.
41 When the inhumanity of this policy began to register in opinion polls, the government changed its tack and started to say it was in fact a protective measure designed to stop people smuggling.


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