Can Australia be a big country again?

Billy Connolly in his World Tour of Scotland made fun of Scotland’s emptiness, particularly in the Highlands where the odd eagle may fly overhead, and some deer may rut. It follows a brief comment about asylum seekers that is seemingly left behind. However, his hilarious impersonation of what it must be like to be a deer with nobody to talk to ends with him exclaiming that “there’s nobody there, there’s nobody there!” And then as you are rolling in laughter recognising the emptiness of Scotland, you realise that if there’s nobody there, why not just let them in?

Billy Connolly also did a World Tour of Australia having lived here and whilst the Scottish highlands can be rather desolate, Australia could proclaim itself to be the Land of Empty. It is vast in size and small in population. Large enough for the whole of India to fit in it nearly three times over, but fewer in people than the city of Delhi.

Despite this space, Australia has a controversial policy regarding people trying to enter without an existing visa. They’ve recently agreed with Cambodia to transfer some asylum seekers/immigrants there whilst applications are processed meaning  the Cambodian government is responsible for shelter, health care, education and opportunities for employment.

Melbourne is split up into numerous local council areas, only one of which is called Melbourne. I was cycling passed Yarra Council one night and saw their support for asylum seekers

Melbourne is split up into numerous local council areas, only one of which is called Melbourne. I was cycling passed Yarra Council one night and saw their banner on the left which welcomes refugees and asylum seekers

Until recently, I lived in Cambodia and the Cambodian government is barely able to provide these things in a most basic form for the people already there, and that is with huge financial support from donating countries and NGOs.

The only reason that Cambodia is willing to accept these people is because of the money that the Australian government is giving them. The Australian government is paying Cambodia to look after these people for them.

A government paying somebody to do something for them is not strange, many governments pay people to run trains, provide electricity, or build roads. However, the Cambodian government is outside the jurisdiction of the Australian government’s authority. If the Cambodian government, known for being corrupt, does not use the money to assist the asylum seekers/immigrants, what will the Australian government be able to do?

I’ve met a few Australians who are angry about the policy and I read an article that felt it contradicted traditional Australian qualities of generosity and willingness to help. However, there must be many people who agree with the policy and although Australia is scarce of people, it is also scarce of water. People need water to live and if there isn’t a lot of water, the land might not be able to take a lot of people.

St Paul's Cathedral is right in the centre of Melbourne opposite Flinders Street Station

St Paul’s Cathedral is right in the centre of Melbourne opposite Flinders Street Station

If Australia can’t have an open door to all, then it has to decide how many it can let in. That’s not an easy decision and the Government has to consider how many it can support in terms of health, education and social services. Thankfully, they decided to let me and Claire in; two of the 190,000 places set aside in 2014/15 for skilled migrants or people arriving for family reasons. But for humanitarian migrants, people fleeing war or starvation for example, only 13,750 will be allowed to enter, in addition to the 48,00 already living here.

From the war in Syria alone, there are approximately 2.5m refugees. Jordan has taken about 750,00 of them, in addition to about 60,000 Iraqis. Obviously Jordan is much closer and you would expect more to be there. In Europe, Germany has been one of the few to open its doors to asylum seekers/refugees and has about 335,000 living in that already densely populated country. The UK for instance, has less than half of that. Asian countries have generally not opened their doors with welcoming arms: South Korea only has a total of 3000 refugees/asylum seekers; Japan has 10,000 and Viet Nam has 11,000.

The recent murders of people at the Lindt cafe in Sydney will doubtless influence thoughts about asylum seekers and refugees, especially as the murderer had been accepted here as a refugee. However, the huge supportive Twitter response to the fears of some Muslim Australians about riding public busses in the aftermath for fear of abuse or violence indicates continued acceptance of muslims in Australian society.

The Twitter response was an attempt to ensure that Australia would still be known as a safe and tolerant place for people of many cultures, and this same desire also affects whether you think accepting 13,750 refugees a year is enough or not.

A former Australian Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, recently died and people repeatedly spoke about how “big” he was in terms of generosity, ambition, vision and spirit and how Australia had become imbued with these qualities too. A big man for a big country. When he died, it seemed that some people were not only mourning the loss of him, but that they felt their country had lost his qualities too. Despite the difficulties,  some people are wishing that Australia would act like a big country again.


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