On the ABC program Q and A last Monday night, a man called Bobby Whitfield from the African community in Queensland confronted the politicians on the panel. “Despite our best efforts to integrate into our new country,” he said, “politicians choose to use as political pawns. Why do you do it?”

Barnaby Joyce’s response reminded me of my father who was of the opinion that people who voted for the National Party (and the DLP) were half wits or to put it in more politically correct terms: they suffer some kind of intellectual disability. Although he did not reserve for them the understanding and humanity he normally exhibited towards people who suffered from other kinds of disabilities.

Supposedly one of the party’s shining lights, Joyce insisted that people had to follow the proper process and if they choose to come here by boat and ‘bring in foot and mouth disease’… He did not get to finish what he was about to say as he was interrupted by the Greens candidate Larrisa Waters who reminded him that it was not illegal to seek asylum.

The inference of what he was saying was that if they did not follow the proper process then they somehow deserved the wrath of politicians and law abiding Australian citizens like the half wits who vote for him. He continued by saying that African migrants had to be prepared to serve in the Defence Force, join Rotary and pick up papers on the street and not just walk past to be fully accepted and integrate.

Well, I have news for Barnaby Joyce. I have not served in the Defence Force, joined Rotary and if I am in a hurry I have been known to walk past rubbish in the street without stopping to pick it up. While Joyce actually avoided the question and reverted to the Coalition’s worn out dog whistle on asylum seekers and race – most of the African migrants in Australia have come here legally through a refugee settlement program and arrive by plane – the Labor Party in this election are not much better.

While I was heartened to hear Craig Emerson say on the program that the African community’s settlement in Logan City in his electorate is a great achievement and a ‘model for the rest of the Australia,” Labor’s announcements on immigration and asylum seeker policy are reminiscent of the Coalition. In fact the ALP is talking to all of us as if we are all battlers from Western Sydney who took glee in the bashing of Mediterranean looking people in Cronulla.

At times like this, it’s hard not to feel nostalgic for the past – for the progressive vision displayed by Whitlam, Hawke, Keating and even Malcolm Fraser who ignored the racism of Australians by accepting record numbers of boat people during his term as Prime Minister and not allowing the issue to become a ‘political football.’

It’s hard to believe that the Labor Party has shifted so dramatically on these issues. In contrast to the Conservatives, modern Labor once stood for an open Australia that did not retreat behind a white picket fence. It was a party that encouraged an understanding of the benefits of immigration in order to dispel the fears that were sometimes generated by the discussion on immigration and multiculturalism. In short, it showed political leadership.

Keating was not afraid to take on racists like Alan Jones, Bruce Ruxton and Graeme Campbell (a Labor MP) with courage and conviction – even to the point of expelling Campbell from his own party. In 1996, in a speech at the University of New South Wales, he argued that any debate about migration is really about the sort of country we want rather than arguments about unemployment, economic benefits or the environmental effects of more people living here. “The way to address the issue is not to slam down the shutters and put up a ‘full house’ sign at our borders,” he said, adding that the Coalitions yearning for some white heterogeneous past was not the solution.
“In any case it is difficult to imagine the monocultural alternative in the late 20th century.

How could there be one model of Australianness with which we could all identify? Who would decide it? “Would it ever change? How? Would it be an urban, suburban or rural Australianness? Male or female?” Barnaby Joyce, it seems, knows full well what the model is and all the rest of us should do what? Pack up and go to East Timor where our credentials can be assessed? Don an apron and cook scones from the CWA cookbook? Or be sent to re education camps and learn how to be Australian?

Oh Paul, you must despair that no one is prepared to stand up to the forces of darkness. Believe me, you are not alone.