“Border protection” — the very phrase is ominous.

It evokes a country under siege, its frontiers threatened by the rampaging armies of Attila the Hun, the Mongol hordes of Genghis Khan and the invincible horror of Martian androids. No wonder our politicians feel that they have to be tough about it.

The fact that the Australian mainland has never been invaded and is never likely to be is hardly relevant; for well over a century the nation’s defences, and more importantly its politics, have revolved around the idea that an envious world can’t wait to get its claws on our golden soil and the only thing that’s stopping it is our remorseless vigilance.

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Fort Denison in Sydney Harbour and Fort Nepean in Port Phillip Bay are historical testimony to this long-established paranoia. In those days the threat was seen to come from Russia; over the years it migrated to Germany, Japan, Indonesia, Vietnam and China, which became a catch-all reservoir of the Yellow Peril, seeping remorselessly southwards, aided by the irresistible pull of gravity.

Of course, it never happened; it was never going to. Even if the countries to our north had entertained the notion, simple logistics would have relegated the idea of conquering and occupying a continental land mass to the realm of fantasy. The only way it could ever work was the way that it did; a determined program of colonisation spanning several generations of overwhelming technological superiority. And perhaps, just perhaps, it is a residual sense of guilt that makes white Australians fear that what they did to the Aboriginal nations might someday be revisited on them.

Certainly there is absolutely no rational explanation for the hysterical overreaction of politicians, media and, yes, the public at large, every time an unauthorised vessel makes its way into what we have designated as Australian waters. Pauline Hanson was still in her teens when the satirist Barry Humphries defined “xenophobia” as “love of Australia”. But her expressed fear of being swamped by Asians struck such a chord in 1996 that John Howard was able reprise it as a compelling dog whistle for the 2001 election: a boatload of the most wretched and vulnerable people on earth were magically transmogrified into a real and present threat to Australia’s national security.

Of course, it was all bullsh-t and indeed was proved to be so when the vast majority of those involved were later quietly admitted to Australia as genuine refugees and integrated seamlessly into the multicultural society, just as so many of their predecessors did. You would think — hope — that the lesson had been learned.

But it appears that some prejudices are just too deeply engrained for our leaders to ignore. We now have Kevin Rudd, from whom we expected better, playing hard ball with the latest wave of boat people from Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka or wherever. He makes no apology (nor, indeed, any justification) for getting tough with those he describes as illegal immigrants.

In fact, the boat people are not illegal: they are asylum seekers with rights accepted under international covenants to which Australia is a signatory. And the whole point of Rudd’s policy is to prevent them from becoming immigrants — for the time being at least. The real illegal immigrants are the visa-overstayers whom successive governments have studiously ignored.

Confusingly, Rudd also claims that his policies are humane, and it has to be said that they are a lot less brutal than John Howard’s absurdly named “Pacific

Solution”. The hell holes of Nauru and Manus Island have been closed, the pointless mental torture of temporary protection visas abolished, the processing of applicants streamlined and the emphasis switched from detention camps to accommodation within communities.

But the biggest change has been in the rhetoric. Rudd may be mistaken in describing the asylum seekers as illegal immigrants, but during the Howard years they moved from being queue jumpers to disease carriers, drug runners, terrorists and child murderers. Last week when Wilson Tuckey attempted a rerun of the terrorist line, his own leader, Malcolm Turnbull, joined Rudd in jumping on him from a great height.

Rudd reserves his own invective for the people smugglers, the worst people in the world, the scum of the earth who should rot in hell forever. This may be silly hyperbole, but at least it’s a step up from blaming the victims. No one will say of Rudd in 2010, as they did of Howard in 2001, that they’re going to vote for him because he knows how to deal with the towel-heads.

But if Rudd has toned down the denigration, he hasn’t got rid of the hype. After 78 Tamil asylum seekers were rescued in Indonesian waters and delivered by the Oceanic Viking to an Indonesian port, they declined to disembark and the Indonesians refused to make them do so, thus producing an embarrassing stalemate.

But that’s all it is: it is not a national security emergency or a catastrophic breakdown of border protection. It is not even a political crisis; it is a management problem that can and will be resolved without war and bloodshed. Yet a breathless media, claiming to reflect public opinion, insist that it is a shambles, a disaster with consequences for Australia’s long-term immigration program.

This reflects the claim by some commentators that Australians will accept a high rate of immigration if and only if they are assured of tight border protection. As far as I know there is absolutely no evidence for this assertion, and since we have never had tight border control (and certainly not since the advent of air travel) it seems inherently unlikely, or at least illogical.

But who said Australians were logical about borders, immigrants, asylum seekers or boat people anyway? Maybe that’s the problem of being girt by sea.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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