Tag Archives: riots

The impotent threats of impotent leaders

11 Aug

They may come from different political perspectives (in theory, anyway) but there are interesting similarities between British PM David Cameron’s authoritarian threats against the rioting mobs, and those used by Julia Gillard on the matter of water-borne asylum seekers.

Whenever there is social unrest of almost any kind, politicians pull up the same violently repressive cliches: stamp out, crack down. I/we will not allow, full force of the law, tough stance against criminals, illegals, queue jumpers. This ritualized language is the backbone of authority’s discourse when faced with challenges it ‘s very likely incapable of controlling. The less likely the possibility of control, the more violently repressive politicians’ language becomes.

While there is a place for dissent and disobedience in a liberal democracy, these acts can only be performed within the strict parameters of acceptable middle class behaviour. It is not acceptable to riot, either in the streets of London or behind the razor wire of a detention centre. Middle class manners do not allow for extreme behaviours of any kind. This is why politicians have absolutely no hope of competently addressing extreme behaviours: they don’t understand them and they’re scared to death of them. All they can think of to do is threaten with imprisonment or expulsion, either of which may at some point become necessary, but neither of which do anything to calm a red-hot situation.

The bottom line is, David Cameron cannot control the rioters. He may bring in water cannon. Australians know from Woomera that doesn’t work. It’s a very bad look, especially for a country aiming to put on the best Olympics ever next year. The effects of water cannon are extremely temporary, unless it inadvertently kills or injures someone, and it’s use will further incite the rioters it blasts all over the streets.

The bottom line is, Julia Gillard cannot control the asylum seekers who are already here awaiting assessment, or those she intends to expel to Christmas island. She cannot stop them trying to poison themselves, going on hunger strikes, sewing up their lips or killing themselves. Her plan to despatch them to Malaysia is now completely out of her control, and in the hands of the High Court. Even if she has them shot again them with bean bag bullets she’s still got no control over them, and that’s a bad look too.

You cannot control human beings who feel they have nothing to lose. You can only attempt to create a society in which human beings are not driven to that extreme. People exhausted by failure frequently resort to savagery. Politicians consistently fail to understand this. There’s no votes in understanding it.

Once, in less sophisticated times, the public might have been reassured by politicians using tough language in a crisis. Not anymore, but politicians haven’t caught up with the change in the public’s credulity. Consequently they look increasingly impotent as it becomes more apparent that their rhetoric is hollow. The objects of their wrath are entirely un-cowed by the blustering, and more often than not, they’re driven to greater extremes by the threats.

So Cameron throws hundreds of youths in jail. Imprisonment then becomes a right of passage and the offenders emerge even more brutal and brutalized than when they went in.

God only knows what’s going to happen to the asylum seekers, but it doesn’t look like the boats are doing any stopping, and there’s still the problem of expelling unaccompanied minors into very uncertain conditions and futures.

So what exactly do the politicians hard line positions achieve?

Votes, of course. Because there’s still enough of us who want to hear the rhetoric, even if we know it doesn’t work. The authoritarian rhetoric reassures. It makes us think somebody’s in charge even though we don’t really believe it. In full authoritarian flight, the politician appears to possess the “truth” about the situations we’re facing, and the right things to do about them. It’s a chicken and egg thing: the use of authoritarian language facilitates authority.

Of course, the fact that these events are taking place at all signifies the degree to which our politicians really have lost control.

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On Christmas Island

21 Mar
Topographic map in French of Christmas Island ...

Christmas Island

Imagine what it’s like living on Christmas Island right now.

In a matter of days, the picturesque tropical island community has gone from a peaceful piece of paradise where nobody bothered much about locking their cars and doors, to a place where police are advising locals to lock their houses and make sure they take the keys out of the ignition.

Some Christmas Island residents are afraid of the 10 – 20 asylum seekers who are unaccounted for after the days of riots at the Detention Centre. Others are disturbed by the situation, but aren’t as concerned for their personal safety.

Locals have been warning the government that trouble was ahead for months, after the crowded Detention Centre continued to accept new boat arrivals. The Centre now houses some three times more asylum seekers than it was designed to contain.

Christmas Island residents called on the government to reduce the numbers before things went pear-shaped. They wrote letters predicting riots. They’ve been trying to get the government to listen to them for nearly two years.

All to no avail.

In a tribute to the Australian spirit of the fair go, many members of the Christmas Island community express on-going support and sympathy for asylum seekers. This was particularly apparent last December with the tragic boat sinking and loss of life on the island’s coast, when locals tied to drag asylum seekers out of the water, and had to watch as many, including children and babies, were lost.

Hatred and antipathy towards asylum seekers really does seem to originate in places where nobody’s ever seen one, bearing out the belief that once we see the human face of the refugee, we are less likely to have sneering rejection as our default position.

Listening to Christmas Island locals, it’s clear many of them blame the government, not the asylum seekers. They understand the stupidity of over crowding young men, giving them nothing to do with their days, and keeping them in indefinite uncertainty about their future.

This is what the Howard government did at Woomera Detention Centre and look what happened. Riots, water cannon, self harm, even by children, and a legacy of post traumatic stress for detainees and many of the staff who worked there.

They did it at Baxter Detention Centre and look what happened. Exactly the same, without the water cannon.

Now at Christmas Island we’re using tear gas and something called “bean bag” bullets. “Bean bag” bullets? Is that a cuddly name designed to make them sound better?

This Labor government has learned nothing from the consequences of the Howard government’s policies. They’ve gone right ahead and done exactly the same things in their management of Detention Centres.

Nobody wins. Not the asylum seekers, not the residents of Christmas Island, not the workers at the centres, nobody. Especially not the government because  everybody gets to see how incapable they are of handling what should not be such a challenging situation if approached with a bit of common sense.

Perhaps those shock jocks like Chris Smith,of the guess how many dead asylum seekers fame get a retributory thrill, and the perhaps the voters who’ve never met a refugee but despise them anyway and want them anywhere but here, even at the bottom of the sea, feel gratified.

And of course the Opposition’s Scott Morrison has more ammunition, because that’s all refugees are to him.

On Christmas Island, locals who helped as best they could when the boat sank and the people drowned, are working hard to keep their lives and their children’s lives as normal as possible in the circumstances. There’ll be some of them who’ll be left traumatised by what they’ve seen on their island home. Their tourism figures are probably going to drop as well.

But do Julia Gillard and Chris Bowen give a stuff about any of this?

It’s an island, Gillard says. There’s nowhere for escaped asylum seekers to go.

Well, hello, PM – there’s actually a community on that island. It isn’t terra nullius.

Local resident Patsy Pine broke down in tears when interviewed. ‘The government doesn’t give a damn about us.” she said.

And who can argue with that sentiment?

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