This is a guest blog post (her second) from my good friend and Wollongong area resident Vicky Chapman – @yowie9644 – about the omnipresent asylum seeker issue. The PNG Solution, however, moved Vicky so much she did something a lot of us don’t do – she wrote to her local member.
There is a meme going around on Facebook condemning a welfare receiving person for using foodstamps whilst being in possession of signs of “wealth”. There is plenty of them, here’s one:
Such a statement may well attract a large number of ‘likes’, because at first glance, it does some rather outrageous that someone who can’t even afford to purchase food for themselves (and/or their family) could afford to have what would be most likely considered ‘luxury items’. Even in Australia, where we don’t have foodstamps (yet), the outrage towards the notion of a person receiving welfare yet being in possession of luxury items is still present. We feel a certain kind of compassion and generosity towards those who genuinely deserve our help, our tax payer dollars, but will scream blue bloody murder if we think there is some cheating going on.
But we never bother to question where exactly these luxury items have come from. Whilst it is true that there are indeed welfare cheats and/or ‘dole bludgers’ (just look at the way the show ‘Housos’ shines a spotlight on such people) it is certainly not true that all people on the dole are lazy good for nothings who will go to extraordinary effort to avoid actual wage-paying work. There are any number of explanations of how a person now using foodstamps and/or drawing a welfare payment could have come into possession of such items, but having those items means that the owner doesn’t fit our social narrative about how a welfare recipient, or a ‘poor person’ should be.
A poor person, should, surely, should be someone we can pity, someone who, if it weren’t for our generosity and compassion, would be in extreme dire straits. In our comfortable and safely waged lounge chair, we have constructed an image of a hapless and sympathetic victim of poverty who should be damn grateful for the pitiful handout us comfortable middle class salary earners give them via our tax, so how dare they have things that we covet! By demanding that they fit a certain stereotype, by suggesting that they shouldn’t have these things we have denied them the right to self-determination. Our paternalism towards ‘poor people’ has even extended as far as the Northern territory intervention, where Aboriginal People, by being stint of being Aboriginal, clearly don’t know how to spend their money as well as we do (and as if such problems aren’t present in all low socio-economic communities, white fella or black fella).
Perhaps it is also fear driven: the poor person with luxury items reminds us that there but for the grace of God it could be us. There is no longer any such thing as a safe job, that even the highly qualified and well paid can find themselves out of work at any point. If we lost our jobs tomorrow, we may well find ourselves with our iPad, designer jeans and manicured nails waiting outside Centrelink with every other dole bludger welfare recipient. And there’s the other less-voiced fear, that perhaps the person on welfare can handle their money better than we can and that that iphone, manicured nails and expensive-looking handbag were all quite legitimately purchased (the iphone being a one stop home phone and internet portal – necessary to look for work. Manicured nails are pretty easy to do yourself with a bit of patience and skill, and if you’re persistent and canny with your shopping you can score a luxury handbag (or one that looks like a luxury handbag) via ebay or in a clearance sale or even at an opshop). Having poor people with luxury items doesn’t fit our paternalistic narrative of what a poor person should be like and how compassionate and generous we are to help them; a poor person with luxury items threatens us with the idea that perhaps poor people are just like us.
And perhaps this narrative that only those whom we deem deserving of our help should receive it plays into our attitude towards the asylum seekers that arrive by boat as well. Jonathan Green’s excellent article suggests that it’s not just simply racism that drives the hysteria about “illegal boat people” (a grating phrase when you know it’s not illegal to seek asylum). I would have to agree with his conclusion that the boat-arriving asylum seeker issue plays into the fears of the people at the margins of our cities, where the infrastructure is stretched beyond its limit; where people are vying for limited resources.
But I think Jonathan Green has missed one simple point about the asylum seeker debate. It is not asylum seekers as such that seems to stir up the hoopla. Recently I wrote to Stephen Jones, the Member for Throsby – my local member – about this issue, after the PNG solution was put into place. His response was revealing. It showed that how we, as a country that likes to think of ourselves as compassionate and generous, seem to be more than happy to take in – as Jones says – “those who are languish in refugee camps around the world, the orphans, the poor, and the disconnected”, but we cry foul because those who “can afford a ticket to the back door” choose do so.
It is the fact that these people are buying their way here that appears to be the problem. Notwithstanding the people smugglers, who are taking advantage of the desperate and should be rightly condemned, it appears to me that the problem that we as a society appear to have with the “boat people” is that, clearly, the don’t fit with the image we expect of the poor and pathetic refugee, worthy of our compassion and help.
We seem to be outraged that these people, instead of waiting around for our benevolence to descend upon them, have instead used their own money and resources to do something about their situation. That 90% of boat arrival people have consistently been shown to be equally in fear of their lives as those who arrive in the more traditional method does not appear to be relevant, it the fact that they showed resolute self-determination about the situation they found themselves in. These people should be praised for having the wherewithal to organise themselves, seek out the means to get here, and the guts to risk their lives to come here on a boat, rather than being condemned for it.
But wealthy, self-determining asylum seekers don’t fit the paternalistic narrative. The poor and pathetic asylum seeker is worthy of our help, but the wealthy, self-determining asylum seeker reminds us that even those of us in this world with comfortable, wealthy stable life can become an asylum seeker too if Shit Happens. Wealthy, self-determining, asylum seekers shatter our faith in a stable, safe society; they remind us that in many ways we, by using military force in their countries, are responsible for the horror that they find themselves in. We have chosen to condemn those who don’t fit that neat paternalistic narrative because to do otherwise we must recognise that there but for the grace of God go us; and that’s a reality that scares the hell out of us.