Wednesday, 7 August 2013

I am a boat person

Wednesday 7 August 2013

My I am a Boat Person petition photo, showing me holding the campaign sign and my Fellowship of First Fleeters certificate of membership.

My ancestors (great great great great great grandparents, I believe), Nathaniel Lucas and Olivia Gascoigne, arrived in this country as convicts in the First Fleet. There's speculation that Nathaniel, a master carpenter, was framed due to the demand for his skills in the nascent colony, while Olivia was a servant who robbed her master at gunpoint. She was to die by hanging until her sentence was commuted to transportation.

Nathaniel's entry (highlighted) in the convict register.

Like me, everyone else born in Australia has predecessors who arrived here from somewhere else, whether a generation ago by plane, or fifty-thousand years ago from South Asia. That's the idea behind the 'I am a Boat Person' campaign, which seeks to re-emphasise the humanity of so-called 'boat people' and demand a more humane response to those seeking asylum by boat.

I have sympathy for those politicians with a genuine desire to address this issue, who are faced not only with the ethically fraught situation itself, but also with an agitated, uninformed, bigoted public as well as unconscionable politicians seeking to capitalise on those sentiments. But even so, the policies of both major parties are thoroughly unacceptable. It's despicable and nonsensical to me that 'stopping the boats' has become such a politicised issue and such a major factor in the election. What's worst is that it's not about stopping the boats by, say, helping to alleviate the dire situations in asylum seekers' origin countries, or by opening overseas facilities run or funded by Australia to an Australian standard where those in danger can seek protection or lodge applications. Rather, it seems to be about stopping them by holding a race to the bottom to see who can be the least humane.

The thing about genuine refugees (which the overwhelming majority of asylum seekers are), is that their lives are in immediate danger. There's no time to sit around waiting to be accepted for immigration. They're real families in desperate situations, doing what they need to do for survival. If people in your community were being killed every day because of their ethnicity, and you felt you could be next, you'd do whatever you had to do to get to a safe place. And the Refugee Convention, to which the Commonwealth of Australia is a signatory, gives you the right to do so without persecution.

Hypothetically, on the other end of things, if a family, battered and bleeding, banged on your door in the middle of the night, begging to be let in because someone was chasing them down the street with a knife, you wouldn't say, 'No, kindly contact the authorities and seek protection via the appropriate channels' or 'No, you can't come in here, but there's another, brown family down the street without any locks on their doors; go and ask them.' You'd just let them in.

And that's the other troubling element of the issue: race. If the asylum seekers were white, there wouldn't be nearly so much public resistance. Don't believe me? Imagine the following scenario:

A number of volcanoes begin to erupt in New Zealand, desolating several towns and cutting off land evacuation routes. Desperate, several hundred survivors turn to boats to escape the destruction and get to safety. At sea they are caught in a storm and lost for some time before reaching Australian shores. Eager to start new lives, they hope for resettlement in Australia, but are denied under Labor's new policy.

It'd be an outrage. No one would argue that (white) people in that situation should be turned away or resettled in Papua New Guinea merely because they arrived by boat. As long as this policy is in effect, how can we ever again intone the words of our national anthem with integrity?: 'For those who've come across the seas we've boundless plains to share.' It's an embarrassment.

Perhaps my position on this issue originates from my defined opinions about action and inaction. As with all things in this world, literature is valuable mirror for these issues. The book I often refer to as my Bible, David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas (and thankfully also its film adaptation), repeatedly demonstrates how turning our backs when others seek our help, remaining in comfortable self-interest, always constitutes an indulgence of the worst, most selfish sides of our nature, rather than the best, and how the right thing to do is always in accordance with saying yes, acting, speaking, taking a risk in the service of the needful Other. [The following discussion contains Cloud Atlas spoilers]

This dilemma is evident in the novel when escaped Moriori slave and stowaway Autua reveals himself to narrator Adam Ewing, asking the lawyer to speak on his behalf to the ship's captain, who is likely to kill Autua or throw him overboard without Ewing to argue his worth as an able seaman. At first Ewing protests, considering himself an 'innocent bystander' and stating, 'The Moriori’s adventure was his own & I desired no part in it' (Mitchell 27). Autua responds by closing Ewing's

     fingers around the hilt of a dagger. Resolute & bleak was his
     demand.‘Then kill I.’ With a terrible calmness & certitude he
     pressed its tip against his throat. I told the Indian he was mad.
     ‘I not mad, you no help I, you kill I, just same. It’s true, you
     know it.' (Mitchell 27)

Ewing reluctantly accedes to this argument, acknowledging its sense. Once involved in a situation, whether intentionally or not, inaction can be as much of an action as action. He is rewarded for intervening on Autua's behalf when the former slave saves his life later in the novel. 

Autua (Dave Gyasi) cares for Ewing (Jim Sturgess) in the film adaptation of Cloud Atlas.

In the book's final passage, which I have quoted before, Ewing argues for acting in the interests of others rather than purely for the self, in a conclusion that is apt in the context of the 'asylum seeker debate':

     You & I, the moneyed, the privileged, the fortunate, shall not
     fare so badly in this world, provided our luck holds. What of
     it if our consciences itch? Why underminde the dominance of
     our race, our gunships, our heritage & our legacy? Why fight
     the 'natural' (oh, weaselly word!) order of things?

     Why? Because of this: – one fine day, a purely predatory world
     shall consume itself. Yes, the devil shall take the hindmost until
     the foremost is the hindmost. In an individual, selfishness
     uglifies the soul; for the human species, selfishness is extinction.
     (Mitchell 527–529)

The same exchange that occurs between Ewing and Autua is echoed again and again throughout the book, when Isaac Sachs must choose between his own safety and exposing a planned nuclear reactor explosion, when Timothy Cavendish appeals to his brother to help him escape some thugs, when Sonmi-451 must become the figurehead of a rebellion even though she is merely a 'server', not 'genomed' to be a revolutionary, and when Zachry must overcome his xenophobic mistrust of the Prescient Meronym in order to help her.

I'm someone who is typically suspicious of nationalism and patriotism, but even I can't help but be moved when I hear an immigrant expressing gratitude or appreciation of their new life in Australia. Nothing makes me more proud to be Australian, and we should be doing everything in our power to allow that to continue. Don't turn your back on the people seeking our help. Demand a more humane solution for asylum seekers.

Thanks for reading


L Phillip Lucas (Facebook page)

@LPhillipLucas (Twitter profile)

David Mitchell's 2003 novel Cloud Atlas, published by Hodder and Stoughton.

Tom Twyker, Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski's 2012 film Cloud Atlas.

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