Tragedy at Christmas Island

This morning a boat from Indonesia, carrying perhaps 70 or 80 asylum seekers reportedly from Iraq and Iran, crashed into the cliffs near Flying Fish Cove on Christmas Island. At the time of writing, it’s not known how many have survived. Acting Prime Minister Wayne Swan confirmed ‘some rescues’ this afternoon, but the full extent of the tragedy is still unfolding.

Footage and pictures from the are shows how the boat broke up in the heavy seas until only debris was left. Christmas Island residents, standing helplessly on the cliffs above, described how they tried to throw lifejackets to the people in the water, only to have them flung back by the high winds. One woman broke down as she told Sky News how she heard screaming, and saw babies children falling into the water. A man who went out on the rocks to try to pull people to safety said he could see people being flung against the rocks by the waves.

The pictures don’t begin to encompass the horror that took place today – and it’s not over yet. Some critically injured people were airlifted to hospitals – but how many of those who survived lost loved ones?

I can’t help but think of the SIEV X disaster, back in 2001. Around 146 children, 142 women and 65 men lost their lives when a dreadfully overcrowded boat sank in international waters. These people, like those in the current situation, were heading for Australia to seek asylum.

Unlike today’s events, though, those deaths happened far away from any cameras. In fact, it was three days before Australia learned of a ‘certain maritime incident’.

Their deaths became the subject of a Senate Select Committee enquiry. They also became political capital in a Federal election that delivered John Howard’s Coalition a decisive victory. The question inevitably arises: just how will this terrible incident be exploited?

Swan stonewalled most media questions that dealt with the wider issue of asylum seeker policy. ‘The rescue is ongoing,’ he said, over and over. ‘The priority … is the rescue.’ Gillard, who was on leave, has cut short her holiday to return to Canberra.

The Coalition’s current spokesperson on Immigration, Scott Morrison, was remarkably circumspect in his comments. He confined himself to saying only that ‘worst fears’ had been realised, in his media conference this afternoon. He also stressed repeatedly that now wasn’t the time to discuss policy. Deputy Opposition Leader Julie Bishop was likewise very careful to avoid making political comments.

A generous interpretation of their behaviour would say that they are showing respect for the situation. A cynical one would point to how dangerous it is to politicise a tragedy before a decent interval has elapsed. For whatever reason, our politicians are currently keeping the focus firmly on the incident.

Much of the media are likewise treading carefully. Comment on asylum seeker policy has been largely restricted to fairly neutral recaps of the history of asylum seeker landings in Australia.

Would that columnists like Andrew Bolt could show a similar level of respect. This afternoon’s blog, entitled ‘Blood on their hands’ is a real piece of work. In Bolt’s mind, apparently, he was a voice crying in the wilderness for at least a year. ‘I told Julia people would die!’ is his refrain. He points his journalistic finger, trembling with indignation, at the Labor government and commands Gillard to resign. After all, these people were ‘lured to their doom by her laws’.

He also finds it necessary to point out that Gillard previously interrupted her holiday to appear with Oprah Winfrey in Melbourne. The implication is clear: she has time to deal with trivia, but it’s doubtful whether she’ll front up and take her lumps for this.

Of course, he prefaces all these remarks with a handy-dandy little graph to show everyone just how terrible Labor’s asylum seeker policy really is – helpfully adorned with a big yellow dot to mark the point when former Prime Minister John Howard instituted the Pacific Solution. Just in case his readers didn’t realise that this was all about denouncing the Labor government.

It’s disgusting. Actually, well beyond disgusting. This isn’t just politicising a tragedy – this is wallowing with morbid glee in death and trauma. Bolt’s one concession to the human beings at the centre of all this is to use the words ‘ghastly tragedy’. Everything else is schadenfreude and exploitation.

Of course, Bolt isn’t the only one quick to shove their heads in front of a camera or a computer in order to join in the political fray. Jonathan Green at The Drum chronicled some of the rush to judgment by both bloggers and commenters.

For once, our politicians are behaving better than those they represent.

Sadly, it’s pretty much guaranteed that this won’t last. All too soon we’ll see the pollies going head to head. The Opposition will probably give us a softer version of Bolt’s rhetoric – and it’s perhaps a blessing that Parliament won’t sit again until February, so we won’t get the full-blown hyperbolic rantings that usually characterise this debate. The government will defend its policies, perhaps conceding to a Senate enquiry that is likely to conclude – as with SIEV X – that there was little Australia could have done to save this latest boat. Of course, if the polls show the Opposition gaining traction, we might see new, ‘tougher’ policy – which would undoubtedly bring the Greens and the Independents into the arena.

All of that is inevitable. As much as we’d like to wish otherwise – that the debate can be sane, rational and above all compassionate – there’s little chance we’ll get more than each party’s message. If we’re very lucky, we might hear Andrew Wilkie deliver a stinging rebuke to both major parties – not that they’ll be listening.

We can shrug and say that’s the nature of politics. And in a way, it is. But it’s my hope – and, I believe, the hope of many Australians – that politicians would keep at the forefront of their minds the fact that many, many people died today in terrifying circumstances. That they listen to the stories of the survivors, and those who risked their own lives to save them. That they know the names of the dead and never forget them.

And above all, that they realise that they have no right – none – to exploit their deaths to make a political point.

Are you listening, Andrew Bolt?

I didn’t think so.

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4 Responses to Tragedy at Christmas Island

  1. […] February 15, funerals were held for victims of the Christmas Island shipwreck on December 15 last year. The media were right there to show us the terrible grief of the […]

  2. herbertbadgery says:

    In response to David’s question…

    Australia is a nasty little redneck backwater.

    We cannot change the views of the xenophobes, not now. Their prejudice has been cemented by Pauline and that pissant machiavellian, Howard.

    In response to this impasse I have decided to, calmly, point out their heartlessness to them whenever the opportunity arises. Other than that the only thing to do is wait for all of them to die, along with their fear of a brown Australia.

    The rednecks may use terms such as ‘towel-head’ but their children will need to use new terms, like ‘boss’.

  3. Perhaps Australian attitudes might change if there was less pandering from the politicians to unquestioning xenophobia, and less willingness to exploit people’s trauma – whether that trauma is the situation that caused them to risk the journey in the first place, or something terrible like the Christmas Island disaster.

    I grant you that this is by no means a popular idea – but many of our politicians are too busy chasing what is popular to start asking questions about whether that populism serves the greater good. It’s funny (in an entirely unfunny way) – when populism enters the banking sector it gets denounced, but it’s taken for granted when it comes to refugees.

  4. A great many more Australians do not support asylum-seekers who arrive by boat, in fact, a majority want harsher laws against them. See the Mapping Social Cohesion report from Monash University for evidence.

    Denouncing Andrew Bolt, vile as he is, does nothing to change that.

    So instead, we need to ask what might change Australian attitudes towards asylum-seekers.

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