There is a brilliant scene in Evelyn Waugh’s paean to Fleet Street, Scoop, in which the reader is acquainted with the fictitious, yet all-too-familiar, African Commonwealth of ‘Ishmaelia’.
It is the kind of place where the mosquitos grow plump, clean water is scarce, and the missionaries are eaten; a land frequented by misguided humanitarians and cynical foreign correspondents. More to the point, ‘Ishmaelia’ is a nation in which, to quote Waugh, ‘It had been found expedient to merge the functions of national defence and inland revenue’ so that ‘towards the end of each financial year the General’s flying columns would lumber out into the surrounding country on the heels of the fugitive population and return in time for budget day laden with the spoils of the less nimble’.
Setting to one side the obvious question (How on earth did that make it past the Human Rights Commission?) the second observation to make is that Waugh was able to predict with near-clairvoyant acuity the emergence of that distinctively ‘post-colonial’ phenomenon in modern statecraft: the African kleptocracy. Which brings us to the plight of the white South African farmer, and the ‘debate’, if it can be so described, over Australia’s response.
Without wishing to appear unduly opportunistic, it strikes me that this far-flung tragedy of dispossession presents the Turnbull government with at least two significant political opportunities.
The first to shine some much-needed light on the Left’s breathtaking detachment from common sense and community sentiment on the issue of immigration. Listening to the Greens’ hysterical response to Peter Dutton’s suggestion that persecuted Afrikaaner farmers be given ‘special attention’ by Canberra, one could be forgiven for thinking the Home Affairs Minister had just offered a hearty ‘Willkommen!’ to Dr Mengele and the boys from Brazil.
According to this worldview, any possibility that these white pastoralists might have fallen upon hard times is basically a form of cosmic justice, a dose of bad karma, all thoroughly deserved, for having counted themselves among the beneficiaries of apartheid. To be sure, the charge of complicity is probably true. But using this logic, does it not follow that we should be similarly hard-nosed and uncaring towards the Syrian Yazidis, who, after all, did mightily well under Assad & Sons? Ditto the Sunnis of Iraq, who were spared so much of the cruelty inflicted on their Shi’a countrymen by the Ba’ath party? Alas, one suspects that this wasn’t quite the vibe that Richard di Natale was going for – nor would showing compassion for the beleaguered Boers compute with the widespread, but curiously under-examined (and decidedly post-Waughian) theory which holds that whatever comes after colonialism will always be an ethical improvement.
Labor, meanwhile, has played predictably ‘small target’ on the issue: happy to let Dutton et al. battle it out with the Guardianistas and the Greens, glad for the distraction from their own woeful record on immigration in government, and forever wary of taking any position that could leave too bitter a tasting note in the mouths of its chardonnay-sipping left flank. Perhaps forcible land reclamation without compensation polls just as well in Batman as it does in Soweto?
Pressed for comment, the Opposition’s immigration spokesman, Queensland MP Shayne Neumann, offered the mother of motherhood statements, telling the AAP that ‘if people are facing persecution, regardless of where they are from or the colour of their skin, they are able to apply to Australia’s humanitarian visa program which will be assessed on its merits’. Well, quite. Ignoring the matters of grammatical deficiency with this statement (Neumann almost makes it sound as though it’s the visa program which will be assessed on its merits) the attentive reader will note that the evasiveness, and therein the cleverness, of Labor’s position here is that it leaves to the imagination of the beholder the critical question: exactly what is meant by ‘merit’ in this context?
The Greens, at least, have a clear answer. Were it up to them, Australia’s migration intake would be treated like a casting audition for a World Vision commercial. (And how easily one can imagine Sarah Hanson-Young in the director’s chair, explaining to Mr van Kleef that, ‘sorry, but your family just doesn’t quite have the Je ne sais quoi that we’re looking for…’).
But where is Labor? Their immigration spokesman can be as ‘colour-blind’ as he likes. Nobody outside of One Nation is suggesting that Australia should make a return to race-based migration. But does he really mean to contend that the wine-maker from Stellenbosch facing race-fuelled persecution really brings the same quantum of ‘merit’ to the table as the subsistence farmer from the Congo, or the Rohingya villager, facing the same? To what extent, in their calculation of ‘merit’, do Mr Neumann and Labor consider competing applicants’ levels of education, their sympathy for the institutions of liberal democracy or their respective views on the rights of women?
So much of the modern malaise afflicting the democracies of the West seems to stem from their elites’ unwillingness to even ask these kinds of questions, to say nothing of their willingness to answer them. And it would no doubt shock the Greens, and many members of Labor, at just how many Australians would consider these metrics to be something of a no-brainer, the same way it shocked them when Peter Dutton referred to the white farmers’ calls for help from ‘a civilised country like ours’ – as though, in our post-modern moral universe, one could even suggest so preposterous a thing as the existence of an uncivilised one.
And herein lies the second political opportunity, for a government struggling to define its purpose and a prime minister often accused of mistaking managerialism for leadership. For if it is serious about maintaining the public’s faith in Australia’s generous refugee programme, not to mention its adherence to the principles of liberal internationalism on which it is predicated, what better way than to blow the dust off these age-worn ideals and make the case for exactly the kind of ‘special treatment’ that the post-modern Left so vehemently deplores? What task could be more noble than to recommit Australia to the open society and to meaningful liberal values in equal measure, on terms acceptable to a vast majority of Australians, and in an age in which both concepts have fallen upon hard times? Nothing could be more liberal.
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