Watching a report on asylum seekers on 7.30 tonight, one of our daughters spoke up unexpectedly: ‘I don’t understand. Shouldn’t we help them? Why do they keep talking about how they should stop the boats?’
‘Yes, we should help them,’ I said.
‘Then why do they want to stop the boats? What’s wrong with the boat people?’
We tried to explain that there was nothing wrong with asylum seekers, that they were scared people who couldn’t live in their home countries any longer because of war or not being allowed to practise their religion. That sometimes they needed to leave so urgently that they made a risky trip in a boat halfway across the world to look for a country that would let them live there.
‘So we should help them, but why don’t people want them to come here?’
‘Is it too expensive? Aren’t there enough houses? I could share my room with my sister again and someone could live here,’ she offered.
‘No, it’s just … well, some people worry that if too many refugees come there won’t be enough jobs. And some people worry that refugees might make Australia too different.’
‘That’s silly,’ she declared confidently.
‘And, some people are just, well, afraid.’
‘Why are they afraid of boat people?’
How do you explain xenophobia to a ten-year old? We did our best, but to our daughter – who’s played and learned alongside kids from countries all around the world since she was a toddler – it didn’t make sense.
Then she thought she had the answer. ‘Well, someone should tell them that they shouldn’t be scared. The Prime Minister or the government should tell people. Then they wouldn’t be trying to stop the boats all the time and we could help those people. Why don’t the government do that?’
There was, simply, nothing we could say to that except, ‘Sorry but we don’t know.’
I felt ashamed to have to say that. Not because I didn’t know, but because I had to admit to my daughter that her Prime Minister didn’t have the simple humanity to stand up and say, ‘No one has anything to fear from asylum-seekers.’
I couldn’t bring myself to tell her that the government – that she trusts has everyone’s best interests at heart – cares more about polls than people in need.
I couldn’t tell her that the government lacked the courage to smack down the nay-sayers and the fear-mongers. I couldn’t tell her that the number of voices actually speaking out to say, ‘You have your facts completely wrong, and you should have the decency to help people’, is vanishingly small.
And I couldn’t tell her that – with a government frantically pandering to xenophobes, and an Opposition engaging in the worst sort of behaviour and claiming it does so in the name of ‘compassion’ – the chances of this situation changing were practically nil.
I want my daughter to be proud of her country. I want her to be able to say she is hopeful for the future, and that she trusts her elected representatives to do what is right – not what is expedient and will win elections.
I want to be able to look my daughter in the eye and say, ‘We have a great government that is helping people in terrible situations, and teaching our citizens how to be compassionate, that is leading by example and speaking out against those would capitalise on fear and lies’.
As it is, I could only say to her, ‘You’re right. Our government should be doing these things. And I don’t know why it isn’t, but we can do what we can to change things, and try to make things better’.
She went off to get ready for bed puzzled, and disappointed.
I’m ashamed of my government. I’m ashamed of the Opposition. I’m ashamed that those who should set an example in compassion and human decency dress up their venal, petty vote-chasing as some kind of ‘principled stand’.
And I’m angry – because my daughter lost a little more of her innocence tonight.