The gut-wrenching scenes of the nine-year-old boy weeping at the funeral of his father – one of the victims of the Christmas Island asylum boat sinking – will be hard to forget.
His mother and siblings were lost at sea and that little boy waits daily at the gates of Christmas Island detention centre for their return. They will never return.
Thankfully, the Federal Immigration Minister Chris Bowen has agreed to allow that little boy to be united with his cousins in Sydney, rather than be subjected to the indignity of detention on Christmas Island.
Even though it was the pressure of refugee advocates who finally persuaded the minister to soften on allowing the young boy to return to Sydney. There are currently 2000 children in detention – this is an appaling situation!
Yet, in an attempt to harness racist fears of refugees and Muslims, the Coalition Shadow Immigration spokesman, Scott Morrison, questioned the Federal Government paying for the flights of the bereaved from Christmas Island to Sydney to attend the funerals of their families.
Families who died after their boat was smashed on the rocks of Christmas Island last December.
Opposition leader Tony Abbott and Senator Barnaby Joyce also questioned the cost of flying those relatives to the funeral. Morrison quickly understood that Australians, regardless of their political allegiances, are not inhuman so he began a sorry retreat, apologising for his ‘insensitive’ comments.
Abbott, sensing the wave of disapproval, tried to present Morrison as some one with the ‘guts’ to admit he was insensitive.
But there is nothing even remotely gutsy in admitting such an appalling lack of humanity.
Things got even worse for the Federal Opposition when internal leaks revealed that Morrison, in a Shadow Cabinet meeting some months ago, wanted anti-Islamic sentiment to be exploited for electoral gain.
Finally, Andrew Robb, the Coalition’s architect of their Howard year’s wedge politics, stepped in and clumsily tried to qualify Morrison’s alleged anti-Islamic position by saying that the leaks did not reveal the strategic context of the comments.
One Nation, like political scavengers, was quick to leverage from the mess by emphasising that the Coalition has been stealing their policies.
And it is here that the problem lies with the Opposition and, up until last Tuesday’s multicultural policy announcement, with the Labor Government.
The fear of Howard ‘battlers’ has, since 1996, facilitated disastrous dog whistling on race among the Coalition and hand-sitting by the Labor party.
The callousness and racism of Morrison and Abbott were reminiscent of the Howard Government’s wedge politics during the Children Overboard crisis. Peter Reith, the then Defence Minister, lied about asylum seekers throwing their children overboard to be saved by the navy.
By lying he compromised the integrity of the Australian Defence Forces for political gain. But, last week the levy broke on wedge politics when the Immigration
Minister Chris Bowen announced his support for multiculturalism as policy. In doing so, he referenced the bipartisan support for multiculturalism since the Whitlam/Fraser/Hawke/Keating years.
In response, Nicholas Kotsiras, the Victorian Minister for Multicultural Affairs, came out in support of the Federal Minister’s announcement – albeit he cheekily tried to take some credit for it.
For the leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott, the time has come to realise that Australia’s multiculturalism is a positive and unique policy, and one to be sold to the public in the spirit of bipartisanship.
The right wing of the Coalition must concede defeat. The pandering to hard right values is not in concert with the Liberal Party but an advent of a small section of it. The Federal Liberal Party has drifted so far from its ‘liberal’ moorings, no doubt many real liberals will continue to find it increasingly difficult to vote for the federal party.
Abbott, Morrison and Robb must understand that the reason the Federal Coalition did better in the last federal election had more to do with the lacklustre performance of the Federal Labor Government than any dogged adherence to Howard’s ideological views.
Had Prime Minister Julia Gillard not questioned the validity of a larger Australia – a subtle dog-whistle to Western Sydney – had she been more forthright in supporting a multicultural Australia, perhaps not so many of Labor’s constituents would have migrated to the Greens and independents.
We Australians are a compassionate bunch (most of us anyway), and we as tax payers had no problem in assisting these poor people in expressing their grief last week. Seeing those mothers, fathers and children crying broke us.
Many of us still long for bipartisanship on issues such as refugees and immigration, particularly as Greeks who were once equally maligned. No doubt the Federal Coalition would do well to seek advice from their Victorian Liberal counterparts – liberals, who have been able to marry liberal values with success in gaining government.
It seems that Tony Abbott and Morrison either lack human compassion, or are so brazen in wedging they had no moral compunction in playing politics with these poor miserable pained souls grieving for their loved ones. As social researchers cautioned recently, the Coalition should “not [be] overplaying its hand on asylum-seekers or race and religion.”
In The Australian, Rebecca Huntley from IPSOS Mackay “warned politicians against equating public demands for a tough line against asylum-seekers with wanting tough treatment for asylum-seekers who arrive on Australian territory.”
The time has come for the Federal Opposition to end its magnetism to One Nation policies.
Their dependence on the dog whistling which characterised John Howard in the 1980s and assisted his electoral success in 1996 must end. Equally, the time has come for the Labor Government to stand up for cultural diversity and for human rights.
Maybe last Tuesday’s announcement in support of multiculturalism is the beginning.
Malcolm Turnbull lost the Coalition leadership only by one vote to Tony Abbott and Abbott should never forget that.